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.
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.