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."

Houston Methodist is researching the effect of virtual reality on cancer patients. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

Virtual reality goes far beyond playing games with titles like Arizona Sunshine, Moss, Robo Recall, and Tetris Effect. VR also is playing an ever-growing role in health care settings. The global market for VR in health care could reach $3.8 billion in 2020, according to one estimate.

VR is touching all corners of heath, including robotic surgeries, training, pain management, and behavior modification, according to InterbrandHealth, a health care branding agency. And these technologies are happening right here in Houston.

Researchers at Houston Methodist Cancer Center are exploring whether exposure to nature, through either a real garden or VR, can ease pain and distress in cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy. This approach might decrease the need for prescription painkillers.

Houston Methodist and Texas A&M University are leading this test. Renee Stubbins, a clinical dietitian at Houston Methodist Cancer Center, and Ashley Verzwyvelt, an infusion oncology nurse at the cancer center, proposed the research after several years of studying ways that nature can boost the healing process.

"Anything that affects our patients' comfort — including easing pain and anxiety, and possibly reducing the need for pain medications — is important to their recovery," Stubbins says in a release. "People have an innate connection to nature, and we hope the patients will respond positively."

Three dozen cancer patients receiving chemotherapy infusions every two weeks during at least six cycles will be randomly assigned to one of three rooms: a live-garden-view room; a window-less room, and a room where nature can be experienced through a VR headset.

Teaming up with Houston-based Skyline Art Services, local artist Gonzo247 produced a nature-inspired mural on a wall behind the live garden to create an immersive environment. The mural depicts a flowering garden, blue sky and sunset that enhance the live garden of Texas wildflowers in the foreground.

Researchers will measure pain, distress, blood pressure, heart rate, and saliva cortisol at the beginning and end of each infusion visit. Saliva cortisol, a hormone produced when the body is stressed, helps gauge a patient's condition.

"If this study proves that real or virtual elements of nature help the healing process, then it has potential to positively impact our patients," Verzwyvelt says. "Some of them are hesitant to take pain medication due to concerns of addiction and adverse side effects, so I'm excited to see the possibilities this kind of research could bring."

Houston Methodist Cancer Center says the VR experiment could have implications for treatment of an array of patients who are immobile or whose immune systems are compromised.

"We looked at multiple studies that showed exposure to nature can reduce stress levels and actually increase productivity and creativity," says Ann McNamara, associate professor in the Department of Visualization at Texas A&M. "We want to see if we can reproduce those effects in a natural environment in virtual reality."

The study is being financed by the Center for Health & Nature, a joint initiative of Houston Methodist, Texas A&M and Texan by Nature, a nonprofit conservation group founded by former first lady Laura Bush. The Center for Health & Nature, housed at Houston Methodist Hospital, debuted in 2018.

"There's a gap in research regarding what nature factors lead to increased health, what exposure to nature means, and how much exposure is needed," Bush said when the center was announced.