Steve DiFillippo is the author of “It’s All About the Guest: Exceeding Expectations in Business and in Life the Davio’s Way” and owner of 8 popular Davio’s Restaurant locations in Boston and all along the East Coast.
Offering a fine dining experience at its most elegant, each Davio’s — from the first on Boston’s Newbury Street, to the latest coming soon in Los Angeles — is known for its impressive steaks and handmade pastas, paired with an intimate atmosphere and attentive service. In 2008, DiFillippo was inducted into the Massachusetts Restaurant Hall of Fame.
His perspective on restaurant expansion is invaluable if you are thinking 2017 is the year to take that next big step with a second, third, or seventh restaurant. DiFillippo shares some of his thoughts here on branding, staff, and ultimately, the money you need to make these dreams come true.
It’s amazing how many people think, “Well, the original one works, so I’m just going to go open another restaurant down the street.”
Well, the original one works because:
- you’re there all the time,
- you’ve got an incredible chef, and
- your staff is amazing.
But when you go to open that second restaurant, you need to have money and you need to put together the chemistry of another staff. This is really hard, more so than with your original restaurant, because you’re not going to be there every single day. Your time is now split.
Be careful about your branding as expansion takes place.
I’m kind of tired of watching chef after chef open a second and third restaurant with different names and different cuisines. If you’re an Italian guy and you open up a Greek restaurant, you may end up missing out on what made that first restaurant so good.
Remind yourself, “Here, you have this amazing restaurant and this amazing brand.” When you go and change to a new name. I don’t understand it… You want to build on your brand. You want to take your name, and you want to open two or three of what you do best. And then you have something to sell.
And that’s why all my restaurants are Davio’s. I’m building a brand. And people want us all over the country. And I think that’s why we are successful.
Consistent technology plays a big role as well.
I keep track of all the restaurants with an amazing computer system that lets me actually look into each restaurant every second, 24 hours a day. So I see the numbers, and it’s an amazing system, but you know what?
With all that, it’s still about the people. I have a traveling chef who goes around and makes sure that the quality of the meatballs, and the Bolognese, and the salads are exactly what they’re supposed to be. We have to make sure the meat’s the same, that we have the same fish, that we have the same produce. Because when the chefs start with the right ingredients, they always will end up with the right thing at the end of the day. That’s a big challenge.
I also have a director of operations, I have a regional general manager. Because I’m only one person. I can’t be in all of the restaurants every day.
But one of us is always traveling around and making sure that the quality is right. Because if someone goes to Davio’s Philadelphia or Davio’s New York, they expect what they get in Boston or Atlanta.
So, what does it really take to succeed?
I’ve seen a lot of chefs and managers go on to that second restaurant, or that third restaurant, and fail, either because they don’t have the money or they don’t really have the time to put together the chemistry of that staff, sometimes both.
I’ve grown over the years, I started with one restaurant, and very shortly, we’ll have 10. But the process is very similar each time: I go into an area or a section of the country, and I find the best manager. I find the best chef. I don’t bring a chef from another state into there.
Restaurants are local. You can’t go into Atlanta and be from Boston and think that someone from Boston is going to successfully run that restaurant. You have to have an Atlanta person running it, someone familiar with the local flavor and traditions.
The best idea, I think, is simply to find the best people. And pay them well. Make sure they’re part of the profit planning for the entire organization. Davio’s has an amazing plan for how people get paid and that’s what I do. I’m not going to change. I’ve been doing this now for 30 years, and it’s really worked well for us and I think that’s what you have to do.
Make sure you get local people. I’ve seen chains come into Boston and they don’t do as well as the local restaurant because they bring someone from Las Vegas to run a Boston restaurant. And I think that’s a mistake other restaurants make. They think someone from another part of the country can come into another town and be just as or more successful. And that’s not something I think you can do.
What about using existing staff?
I may have this amazing sous chef, amazing manager and assistant managers, but I don’t want to promote them just because a second restaurant needs staff.
Financially, it’s important not to promote anyone until you have that first restaurant making a lot of money, in addition to having money in the bank. That’s when you can expand properly.
The biggest piece of advice?
Never put your house up. I’ve seen sad situations in our business where people put their house up. They’re not ready. Go find quality investors. Talk to your family, friends, get the money first, execute your fist concept well, and then go expand.
The challenges in the restaurant industry really have never changed since I started 30 years ago. The challenge is always money to get going. People who think that they know what it’s going to cost to build a restaurant are never right and everything always costs two, three times what you think it’s going to cost.
That’s always been the barrier to get moving in our business, and I don’t think it’s ever going to change because, you know, small restaurants, big restaurants, people just don’t have enough money. And you’ll ask, “Why did that restaurant go out of business before it even got started?” It’s because they were undercapitalized, and that’s really the problem.
Before you get started on an expansion, you have to make sure that you put enough money together and then go from there. But if you don’t have money, you have no shot to grow in this business.
My 20 years with Rewards Network has been amazing because without them, I don’t think I’d be sitting here. Because they’ve helped me with cash, they’ve helped me with customers, they’ve helped me with marketing tools. It’s amazing how much Rewards Network does for us.
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