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Friday, Jun 9, 2023

Serving Up the Right Restaurant Concept

Serving Up the Right Restaurant Concept By SHELLY GARCIA Senior Reporter Recently a couple that has long been eating at Art’s Deli celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary by having lunch at the Studio City restaurant. Owner Art Ginsburg sent over a brownie with a candle and then he picked up the tab for lunch. It’s something Ginsburg has done throughout the nearly five decades he has owned Art’s, and it strikes at the very heart of what Ginsburg says has kept him in business all these years. “It’s just treating them with respect and understanding and also keeping the quality of the food as consistent as you can,” said Ginsburg, whose restaurant is celebrating its own anniversary, 47 years in business, on June 22. At a time when impersonal, homogenous chains have taken over the restaurant landscape, the independents that have survived and thrived have done so largely by making their business a very personal affair. They greet customers by name and offer up the food they’ve grown comfortable with in surroundings that are familiar. The formula may sound easy, but it isn’t, say these restaurateurs. An astonishing 50 percent of restaurants go out of business within the first three years of operation, according to the California Restaurant Association. Many other of the independents about 70 percent of the restaurants in California are small businesses totter along, barely making ends meet. “It’s one of the toughest industries,” said Selwyn Yosslowitz, a partner at Marmalade Caf & #233; and Catering Co. and the president of the Los Angeles Chapter of CRA. “We’re labor intensive. We’re capital intensive, and we deal with the public. Often very talented people go into the restaurant business and do a great job with the food, but don’t execute the business.” A myriad of things can go wrong for a restaurant operator the initial financing may be insufficient; the location may be too expensive, or inaccessible; the menu may be ill-suited to the clientele or they simply may be outpriced by the chains that now dot every corner. “I had a little black book,” recalled Ginsburg, “that you were supposed to have so much worth of business, rent was so much I never figured in workers’ comp or payroll taxes. I never figured in the air conditioning might go out, so you learn.” Back when Ginsburg started his deli, though, the environment was much more forgiving of the learning curve. He paid only $3,500 to start his restaurant. If an unexpected expense hit, or if business took a nosedive, it was much easier to absorb the additional cost. Added expenses Today, a typical restaurant startup might be paying thousands a month in rent alone. Add to that the cost of equipment and payroll expenses, especially worker’s comp, and its not unusual for an operator to be swimming in debt even before the doors open. Few can afford to carry those costs for the two years many say it takes before there is enough traffic to cover the bills. “If you check other businesses, whether they be tire shops or cleaners, I don’t think it was as competitive,” said Bob Wilson, who opened the first of his three Cisco’s Mexican restaurants in Conejo Valley in 1971. “You didn’t have the big chains. They can come in and wipe you out in terms of they can buy better and sell it cheaper. Even us, with three restaurants, we still can’t buy at the same level that a chain can buy.” What allows these independents to compete is providing what the chains cannot a place where, as the theme from “Cheers” once said, everyone knows your name. “I spend 90 percent of my time on the floor,” said Norman Green, president of Flooky’s, a local eatery in Woodland Hills that was floundering until Green bought it two years ago. “I know every customer by name. I know what they eat. I’ve always got a line here (at lunch time) and as they walk in the door, I’m yelling to my cooks what they want.” Small business restaurant operators estimate that about 80 percent of their business is made up of repeat customers. Those that have survived decades have often marked the milestones in their customers’ lives right along with them. “We have (married couples) here where this was their first date,” said Rafael “Ray” Vega, who first opened his family-owned Mexican restaurant, Casa Vega in Sherman Oaks, in 1958. “I get people who come back and say, ‘I started coming here when I was six years old. So it’s tradition, and people like to see that.” Sticking with tradition Keeping that tradition alive while keeping up with the times can sometimes be tricky, as Ginsburg learned after the Northridge Earthquake when Art’s burned down. “My biggest fear when we went to the architect was they were going to change the look,” he said. “We wanted to upgrade but keep the same look.” The Jewish delicatessens on which Art’s is modeled, were originally designed to be meeting places, and they came with a rigid set of guidelines covering everything from kitchens that opened to the dining area to layouts that would allow a visitor to see who else was in the deli at a single glance. “A deli is supposed to be very comfortable, very plain formica table tops, vinyl floors, no high back booths, so that when you stand in the deli you can see the whole deli,” Ginsburg said. “You can have the best food and the best service, but if the customer is not comfortable when he walks in, he won’t come back.” It isn’t just deli customers that demand a certain look and ambiance where their favorite restaurant is concerned. Vega remembers once when he decided to put more lights in the restaurant. “The regular, old customers complained,” he said. “You don’t want to change too much because they’re used to it. People feel when they come here it’s their restaurant, and they’re the ones that bring you the most business.” Old timers particularly have had to adjust their menus to changing times. Art’s Deli now has vegetarian dishes. You can have a low-carb margarita at Casa Vega. At Cisco’s, dieting diners can order their fajitas with lettuce wraps instead of tortillas. But the food, operators say, has to meet the tastes of the customer, not the cook. “If you go into the restaurant business designing a business based on what you think the customer should be eating, your chances of succeeding are pretty low,” said Yosslowitz. “If you go in understanding who your customer is and what they want, you’re way ahead of the game.” Case in point: Marmalade took over a Malibu location where two restaurants had previously failed. It was off the Pacific Coast Highway in a small, unattractive strip mall. But where the other operators tried to appeal to the glitzy, tourist-y image of Malibu, Marmalade catered to the families that actually live in the community. “It’s become an institution in Malibu,” said Yosslowitz. “It’s been there for 10 years.” Even when they modify offerings and add new things, restaurateurs say they are acutely aware of who their customers are and what they expect when they walk through the door. They say it’s their job to meet those expectations each time, every time. “Most guys, when they get in they’ll use the best of everything and be pleasant with everybody, and once they get to where they think they want to be things start changing,” said Green at Flooky’s. “They start cutting corners and people realize it and they stop coming.”

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