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Secrets to successful Petaluma restaurants

Spoiler alert: There is no one “secret to success” in the restaurant business, although there are some fundamental principles that will certainly help a restaurant’s chances of success. These tried and true practices tend to hold fast regardless of locality or cuisine, but there are unique cities and towns that require a bit more. Petaluma is one such place.

Having spent my adult life traveling and eating, I have visited few places that require from its restaurants what Petalumans do from ours. Although there are exceptions, and not everyone will agree with my assessment, having committed as much time to writing about and tracking local restaurant changes as I have, there are certain behaviors that seem to be almost prophetic regarding a restaurant’s chance of success.

However, unlike the illusive “secret to success,” it is a bit easier to figure out what does not work, especially with a bit of local experience. Because running restaurants is hard work, I hope this insight help restaurants avoid what most locals may think are obvious pitfalls, but may not be so conspicuous, especially for those that are new to Petaluma.

Service, food, ambiance, price

In general, there are four main factors which, when balanced with and against each other, help guide each of our individual opinions about a particular restaurant. There are clear truths to the adage, “location, location, location,” but many a restaurant has succeeded even when their location is not prime.

Most important is the level of service, followed closely by food quality, ambiance and, last but not least, price. We will return to a restaurant with mediocre food, if the service is great, but rarely will do the inverse.

For most, so long as the combination of service, food and ambiance rate well, price tends to be less of an issue, because in recent years dining out has become more of an adventure, and just like with travel, we are willing to pay a bit more if it means a better experience.

Owner oversight

When it comes to service and quality, the most glaring pitfall for unsuccessful Petaluma restaurants is the lack of an owner presence. This is not to say they need to be there every day, or that a manager with a vested financial interest will not suffice, but nobody will run the shop quite like someone whose livelihood is on the line. Above and beyond that, an owner takes a sense of pride in their product that a mere employee rarely does.

An excellent example of this is Sugo Trattoria. Although co-owner Annette White is a travel writer and both her and her husband Peter are often abroad, they never spend too much time away from Sugo, and the quality and consistency of their menu reflects this. If there is one restaurant in town that I know will always be great, and is always reasonably priced, it is Sugo Trattoria.

I have seen first-hand what happens when an owner is on-site to handle customer service complaints. While dining at the Shuckery, I witnessed owner Jaz respond quickly to a late order by comping that meal. After she left the table, I overhead the guest comment on how well their server had been training, not knowing they were actually dealing with the owner, in part because of Jaz’s youthful appearance.

The moral of the story is that due to an owner being on site, those guests are going to tell others what a great experience they had.

Along with a lack of menu consistency, restaurants with absentee owners have a hard time keeping their finger on the pulse of our town. Petalumans are an opinionated bunch, so being in a position to change menu items, personnel, hours, etc., at a moment’s notice, is important.

Although still in its infancy, Crocodile does a great job of changing up its menu based on the whims of its guests, something it could not do without both the owners present on a regular bases.

However, an owner needs to know where to draw the line. When Round Table Pizza’s Petaluma Boulevard North location dropped the franchise to become Terra Vino, they mistakenly allowed their very limited customer base to drive their decision to not fully close down during their remodel.

I was informed that instead of closing down and then having a grand opening, their customers wanted them to remain open during the transition, so they did. What that meant was that there was no proper introduction for Petaluma to learn that they had in fact changed their menu and were moving away from the franchise model, and towards sourcing locally.

They had a great menu, but nobody really knew who they were or what they were doing. I even contacted them to help promote their new business by writing a feature article, but they informed me they were not ready for press, and I never heard from them again.

Practice makes perfect

In a unique environment like Petaluma, it certainly does not hurt to work at a local restaurant or bar prior to opening your own. Brian Tatko, co-owner of Jamison’s Roaring Donkey, worked at several area bars, most notably McNear’s Saloon, before venturing out on his own.

A Petaluma restaurant and bar veteran, McNear’s co-owner Ken O’Donnell gave Tatko simple yet valuable advice: “Listen to Petaluma, because we’ll let you know what we want.” This certainly helps explain McNear’s success, as well as sister restaurant Seared’s growing popularity, evidenced by its numerous awards each year for everything from their drinks to their menu.

Prior to opening The Shuckery with her sister Aluxa, Jazmine Lalicker gained invaluable experience working the front of house at Central Market. Others, like Audrey Haglund and JoAnne Hansen of Old Chicago Pizza, eventually purchased the restaurant they worked in, giving them direct insight into what it takes to run that specific Petaluma icon.

Before you Yelp

On-site owners also shorten the time it takes to address customer service issues. From time to time, I hear from readers about a bad dining experience and my first question is always, “Did you talk to the owner?” That is how we do it here in Petaluma. Restaurant owners want you to be happy, and also know that word of mouth is the most powerful marketing tool here in Petaluma, so before submitting a scathing Yelp review, give the owner a chance to fix the problem.

Locals rule

Another pitfall is opening up a restaurant in Petaluma simply to capitalize on the Petaluma name. With a growing culinary reputation, we are seeing more out-of-towners opening up shops here. However, this is not Healdsburg or Napa, where a restaurant can survive on tourist dollars alone.

Without the support of locals, a restaurant will not survive in Petaluma. Crocodile actually chose Petaluma over Healdsburg because of the small town vibe, and has been doing a great job of catering to us locals ever since. So, although they do not have to be local to succeed in Petaluma, they certainly need to recognize that Petalumans want them to become locals sooner or later.

Worth the wait?

A further indication that a restaurant owner does not quite get how Petaluma works is when they take too long to open their restaurant. Once construction starts, Petalumas want to see some action. The longer a restaurant takes to open, the less interested Petalumans tend to be.

I have heard from many that it is as if the restaurant feels it is so important that we will all wait around with baited breath, as if we do not have dozens of other places to dine at. Of course, sometimes there are issues outside the owner’s control, such as a lot of the issues that the Drawing Board faced during construction, but when they did finally open, they did it right, with a few nights of invite-only soft openings, the owners are on site, and they have a real connection to the community.

Grand and soft openings

Petaluma is a word-of-mouth kind of town, so restaurants should open with a bang. When Juan Gutierrez contact me prior to opening his Quinua Cocina Peruana, I encouraged him to offer a free soft opening, and even helped him with a guest list that included key Petalumans who would help spread the word. And although a soft opening does not need to be free, it should at least be discounted.

A grand or soft opening is their chance to try things out, and if the bill is discounted or free, diners are more likely to give them a second chance, writing off mistakes to first night jitters. I recently attended what was dubbed a “soft opening” and it was a disaster, in large part because the restaurant offered no discount. The food was mediocre at best, and the service was terrible, so also having to pay meant it was a very disappointing experience. Had the meal been free, or even discounted, I would still have some coin in my pocket to afford to give them a second chance, but with so many other restaurants in Petaluma, we likely will not return anytime in the near future.

Banquet service

Another major oversight can be a restaurant’s banquet space. In Petaluma, banquet halls are often hard to come by, especially when looking to rent for holiday parties, or for small to medium size groups. I hate to pick on now defunct Social Club, but they treated events in their banquet room as an inconvenience. This was catastrophic because the very folks who were renting the room, like local Rotary clubs and other service organizations, are made up of members that others turn to in order to find out about the best new restaurants.

Marketing

When it comes to marketing, regardless of where a restaurant is located, it needs to have a website, it needs to update that website regularly, and for the love of all that is sacred, the restaurant needs to have an email address that is something other than @aol.com. Purchasing domain names is so simple and inexpensive these days that there is really no reason to use a Yahoo or Gmail email address, although at least those are more relevant than AOL.

Most prospective diners are going to search for a website first. We want to see hours and menus. A restaurant without even a simple website is basically at the mercy of Yelp. And as most local restaurateurs will tell you, due to their questionable, yet legal business practices, Yelp is less than ideal as their first point of contact with potential customers.

Most local restaurants do a decent job of keeping their website up to date, although very few list their hours and menus for special dates. While researching Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s articles, I found few that listed their hours and special menus. Kudos to Palm’s Grill for always making my research easy.

Fundraisers

Lastly, a major boost to a restaurant’s chances of success in Petaluma is their participation in local food fundraisers. Petaluman’s want to spend their hard-earned money at places that give back to the community, so before wasting money on mailers, restaurants should get themselves booked into events like Taste of Petaluma, the Art & Garden Festival, Petaluma Host Lions Club Food Festival and the Petaluma Animal Shelter’s Mac n’ Cheese Challenge. These not only give restaurants a great way to showcase their food, but also show the community that they too are part of the neighborhood and care what happens in our town.

Speakeasy vs. Social Club

One of the best of examples of the difference between doing it right and doing it wrong in Petaluma is the contrast of Speakeasy and Social Club. Both opened at roughly the same time. Social Club came in with a bang, investing a lot of capital into recreating their space, all the while telling Petaluma that they were going to show us country bumpkins what cool was.

They failed to hire locally, were funded by investors with no owner on site, and although their food was good, their managers were atrocious. Conversely, Speakeasy started on a shoe-string budget, but the co-owners understood Petaluma. They too were hoping to fill the late-night restaurant void, just as Social Club had planned to do, but they seemed to have gotten it right. They hired locally, turned out a great menu, and were on-site to make sure everything went well.

The X factor

We never really know what goes on behind closed doors, so sometimes restaurants mysteriously fail, while others succeed even though they are always empty. This is often because of things hidden from public view, like the fact that a lousy restaurant may own their building, therefore they have no rent, while a great restaurant might fail because their lease requires them to remain open for lunch, even if it is not profitable.

This all being said, I do not intend to convey that the only way to succeed in the Petaluma restaurant business is to have lived here for decades. Being “local” is more about assimilation than bloodline. Many of our most engaged community leaders are transplants.

Wanting to see everyone succeed, I am more than happy to discuss these ideas further with any new restaurateur in town, although, of course, there are no guarantees in the restaurant business. However, my end goal is to help Petaluma remain the unique village that it is, and our restaurants, both new and old, play a key role in our evolution.

(Contact Houston Porter at houston@avant-larde.com.)