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."

Camppedia, a Houston-based startup, can help match kids to summer camps all around town. Educational First Steps/Facebook

Tudor Palaghita and his sister Ana are both parents and both busy professionals. And both used the same word when it came to finding camps to help their kids pass the long, steamy summer: painful.

"We're working parents, we're strapped on time, but we want to make sure we give our kids enriching experiences," explains Ana. "One spring, we were going through the [camp search] process, and we talked about how difficult it was. And the next spring, we said, there's something here. We feel this pain, our friends feel this pain, and no one is helping us. Why don't we solve our problem ourselves?"

And that's exactly what they did. The duo used their business and technology backgrounds — Ana has an MBA from Northwestern University and built a successful career in a major financial institution, and Tudor has his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech — to launch Camppedia.com. The site is intended to be a one-stop shop for parents looking for camps for their children.

The tool launched in March of 2019, coinciding with spring break. Currently, it offers options throughout central Houston. Parents can select camps for their children based on interests, their ZIP codes, cost or even those that offer extended hours for moms and dads with full-time jobs.

"We believe the most important aspect to building anything is to understand your users," says Tudor, who left his research and development job at a major oil and gas services company to work full-time on Camppedia. "Before we launched, we did a lot of interviews and talked to a lot of parents, and then hand sketched prototypes to better convey our idea."

The pair went one step further after that, speaking with camp providers, seeking input about not only their products, but also the issue they faced in terms of marketing or registration. Following that fact-finding mission, they built Camppedia to show as many options as possible for families who want to book activities, as well as giving users the option to build their own calendars, save favorite options and see what camps actually have spots available. When parents select a camp, they are then driven to the individual camp's website to book.

Development on Camppedia, which is a member company at Station Houston, began last September, when the duo began looking at what to include on the site and finding partners who could assist them in building it.

"We looked at a bunch of different paths from a technology perspective," says Ana, who works on the site from her home in Virginia. "Because you can build the sort of the fancy, what I'd call destination-technology architecture, or you could build something scrappier, and I think we landed on something scrappy because we are still learning. Chances are [going forward] we'll change quite a bit."

Camppedia is built on WordPress, and currently features more than 275 camps from large to small. Tudor and Ana have been making improvements ever since, but the response has been enthusiastic. Parents, the pair say, have loved having so much information in one place. And camps have actually come to them, seeking information about how to be listed. That led to the creation of a camp partnership category, where camps can pay to use certain features on Camppedia's site, such as the ability to reach out to interested parents.

Going forward, the duo look forward to further building Camppedia as a resource. They're looking at adding reviews and experiences from parents, as well as finding ways to take the concept nationwide. But they're really happy with how the site has grown and the response they've had. The business, they insist, is designed to be a service that will support parents as they try to make the best decisions they can for their children.

"While the road ahead is daunting," says Tudor. "We are super excited about the possibility of building something truly useful for working parents who nowadays are struggling with so many competing priorities and whose needs seem to be somewhat overlooked by the digital reinvention coming out of Silicon Valley."


Photos courtesy of Camppedia