Restaurant Boot Camp

Houston restaurateurs share business lessons learned

A panel of restaurateurs discussed business lessons learned at a panel event hosted by Briggs & Veselka. Eric Sandler/CultureMap

Storied Houston restaurateurs and business and media professionals gathered last week for Restaurant Boot Camp, an event that highlighted Houston's vibrant restaurant landscape. The corporate conference center of Briggs & Veselka was aptly decorated with checkerboard tablecloths and "menus" of the event agenda. Panelists addressed such diverse and timely topics as restaurant concepts and marketing, operations, fundraising and employee retention. Briggs & Veselka, one of the few accounting firms with a group dedicated to the restaurant and hospitality industry, sponsored the event, alongside partners ADP, Culturemap and NextSeed.

A panel discussion entitled "Lessons Learned" featured insights from some of Houston's top restaurateurs, including Tony Vallone (Tony's), Ben Berg (B&B Butcher), Lonnie Shiller (Shiller Del Grande Restaurant Group and Paul Miller (GR8 Plate Hospitality). Moderated by CultureMap and InnovationMap's parent company, Gow Media, CEO David Gow, the panel highlighted the rise of online marketing and social media. Berg pointed out that guests at his restaurant consistently take pictures of their food to post on social media, providing natural promotion of the restaurant. All cited how, in the past, they would have to wait weeks for a letter, but now get feedback from guests immediately by reading online reviews.

Vallone, whose iconic restaurant celebrated its fiftieth anniversary this month, cited the need to innovate.

"We must continue to evolve. We can't rest on our laurels," he says.

All businesses need to be well-funded. In a presentation called "Show Me the Money," Tae Mi Lee of NextSeed shares how restaurants can raise capital through crowdfunding. NextSeed provides the legal and fundraising infrastructure to raise either debt or equity in small increments from a large number of participants.

As a previous CultureMap article mentions, several Houston restaurants have raised funds through NextSeed, and two new Houston restaurant concepts currently have campaigns live on the site. Even in this discussion, marketing emerged as a key topic: the fundraising effort provides visibility for the restaurant, and investors inevitably become committed to its success, developing a potentially large and loyal following.

Another hot topic: finding, motivating and retaining good people. Thomas Nguyen, chief marketing officer and partner at Peli Peli, cited how his group invests more time up front in the hiring process.

"We try to ask deeper questions to learn more about whether the person will be a good fit."

Sam Herskovitz of ADP noted in his presentation, "Attracting and Retaining People," that good team leaders are those who engage and acknowledge all members of the team. There was universal acknowledgment that the quality of the team is a key driver to providing a consistently great experience for guests.

Another interesting discussion focused on new technologies. New tools such as point-of-sale and reporting technologies have been helpful to many, but several cited their concerns over food delivery apps such as DoorDash and Uber Eats. Though a great convenience to those who wish to eat at home, the consensus of the restaurateurs was negative. The issue: the restaurant loses some control over the dining experience.

Between serving delicious food with excellent service and using innovative marketing and technology strategies, Houston restaurateurs have a lot on their plates. Schiller summed it up best.

"Around the country, people talk about Houston food. Houston has no ocean or mountains," Schiller says. "We have to do something… we go out to eat."

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Building Houston

 
 

Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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