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."

Within the next five years, Frankel believes that the technology they are using will evolve even more, perhaps to include holographic 3D models of homes they hope to build for their clients. Getty Images

For Frankel Building Group, the evolution of technology in the real estate and construction world was the next logical step in creating a sustainable and viable company. By incorporating technology into its client-based custom design and build firm through the use of a personal app and 3D renderings, co-president and principal Scott Frankel said Frankel Building Group is years ahead of the rest of the competition.

Frankel, who runs the company alongside his brother Kevin, described it as "a responsibility to do better and to show more."

"Our company, when I got here, was politely a little bit in the stone ages," Scott Frankel tells InnovationMap. "In order to be a customer facing business, and in order to compete in the market, we have learned to be a very technology-forward business. I would say out of every custom builder in the country, we are probably the most technology-reliant builder out there. That's a good thing."

The building group, which was started by 30 years ago by Scott and Kevin's father Jim, uses technology in every aspect of its projects.

Five to 10 years ago, builders would have to import designs into AutoCAD, a software that allows builders, engineers and architects to see their drawings in 3D form. Those AutoCAD drawings would then be printed and given to the homebuyer.

At Frankel Building Group, clients are able to login to an online portal that allows them to see every communication between them and the Frankel team, as well as building plans, updates, and digital 3D renderings of their homes. Everything from estimates to the latest updates from their assigned project manager are available to homebuyers from their phone.

"Our clients want that access," Frankel said. "If they don't get that access, they are going to be left with more questions than answers."

Frankel believes that they are only doing what the clients expect from a custom homebuilder: increasing communication through every means possible to make sure the client is satisfied with what the builder is doing.

"My brother and I are not huge technology guys," Frankel said. "We didn't come from this as framers who became custom builders. We came from a family that built custom homes and (using technology) only makes logical sense because it's something that makes it better. It's kind of like when you're banking with Chase and they came out with online banking — it just makes it better."

Within the next five years, Frankel believes that the technology they are using will evolve even more, perhaps to include holographic 3D models of homes they hope to build for their clients.

But, for now, Frankel Building Group is focused on growing their business one day at a time.

"Our focus is people in Houston who want to design and build that home for them on their property," Frankel said. "We just want to make sure we're putting the best product out there."