When was the last time that you walked into a restaurant like this: The bartender is leaning against the counter texting. Two busboys chat in a corner while a server struggles to keep up with his section. A manager stares frustratedly at her computer. And where the hell is the host?
Opening a restaurant provokes many questions: Where will it be located? What will the concept be? Who will be hired? What is our budget?
But company culture can get overlooked. When there are multiple daily stressors, such as getting through a busy service short-staffed, equipment breaking down, or dealing with an unhappy customer, it is easy to fall into survival mode and to forget about big-picture concepts.
But, in order for any restaurant to thrive, it has to be top of mind.
This is what Dusty Grable, general manager of La Vie and Quiora in Waikīkī, believes and nurtures in every restaurant that he ever has owned or managed.
“It’s not simply a transaction,” Grable said when comparing customer service with hospitality. “It’s an interaction.”
This mentality is what elevates the scenario above from a terrible dining experience to one that generously welcomes you in, making you feel taken care of and appreciated. Interactions create trust, giving the impression that the staff has your best interest in mind and is not just trying to get your money.
“What is hospitality if not a family inviting people into their home and collectively working together to create an experience, a meal, or whatever it may be for their guests?” Grable posed.
It is with this mentality that Grable creates professional, tightly knit front-of-house teams to perform superior service wherever he goes.
Grable was practically born into the restaurant business. He grew up in Kailua, Hawaiʻi, with a mom, dad and grandma who all worked in the hospitality industry. When he decided he wanted to go to college to pursue fine arts, his dad advised him to get a job as a server to pay for school and to get fed for free.
After being exposed to the industry via Round Table Pizza and The Old Spaghetti Factory, Grable advanced to high-end restaurants inside The Kahala Hotel & Resort, where he said he was exposed to the world. This worldly exposure sparked further curiosity and a position at Alan Wong’s, the No. 1 restaurant in Hawaiʻi, according to HONOLULU Magazine and No. 5 restaurant in the world at the time, according to Gourmet Magazine.
“If you want to get in and learn from the best, go work with Charly Yoshida at Alan Wong’s,” Grable said.
Realizing how much he enjoyed hospitality and was good at it, he quit school with one semester left and dug into the restaurant business for real. His mission from here was simple: Continue to learn from the best, get more experience and open restaurants.
After bartending all over Chinatown and helping open a new restaurant in Kailua, he started to expand his horizon.
“I knew if I wanted to do something special and unique and different than what Hawaiʻi was offering, I’d have to go away and learn,” Grable said.
Working at Michelin-starred Ame and Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco did the trick. He returned to Oʻahu three years later to become a restaurateur.
Grable went on to open the wildly successful Lucky Belly, Livestock Tavern and Tchin! Tchin! Bar in Chinatown. With zero marketing in a still up-and-coming neighborhood, each establishment succeeded one after another.
Guests showed up and were pleasantly surprised. Word spread, and Grable and his partner, Jesse Cruz, enlivened Hotel Street, encouraging more restaurants to open nearby, helping to create the dining destination it is today.
Still, his triumph was never easy – for him or his wife.
“We put in every penny we had,” he said. “I slept on my friend’s couch, and Elise moved back in with her parents.”
They ate only at the restaurant.
“It was a pretty humble time,” he said.
Looking back, Grable identified the most pivotal time in his career as reading New York restaurateur Danny Meyer’s book, “Setting the Table.” The revelations that came from this seminal book on hospitality led Grable to develop the unconventional hospitality philosophy that he lives today.
“I can’t take credit for it,” he explained. “It’s something I learned from many people, particularly one: Danny Meyer.”
Basically, the philosophy works like this:
There is a fundamental belief that every restaurant is made up of five groups of people: customers (or, “guests,” as Grable refers to them), vendors, community, employees and the owners/shareholders.
“The idea is always to create a win-win-win situation so that every decision anybody who’s involved makes … has to have a certain order of importance,” Grable said.
What makes his philosophy untraditional is that it prioritizes his employees above all.
“Even though the goal is to have everyone’s best interest in mind and have wins across the board, there’s gotta be a belief or an understanding that there’s some sort of domino effect in order to have it work out best. And so, it’s a shifting from the idea that the customer is always right or that the guest is No. 1.”
Grable believes that the best way to take care of guests is to encourage everyone on his team to take care of each other first and foremost.
With the majority of restaurant managers training their service staff to always put customers first, it is understandable how one could be skeptical about this strategy. After all, it is because of the guests that restaurants are in business, right?
The problem with this attitude is that it spotlights only two things: the guests and their money. Both are necessary for restaurants to stay in business. But putting them at the top of the priority list can turn a team into an every-man-for-themselves situation.
For example, it can lead to employees giving certain guests special treatment in order to make extra tips or guests coming in to dine only when particular employees are working. This opposes the family mindset that Grable aims to instill in his staff so that they will strive for a collective accomplishment rather than an individual one.
The first component that Grable observes when he enters a restaurant is the energy of the team. If the staff appears low-energy or incohesive, then he knows that he most likely will not be receiving a hospitable experience.
“I don’t want people to get along and work well together,” he said. “That’s something you do in society in a grocery store or on the freeway even. … I don’t want that. That’s basic. I want people who have each other’s best interests in mind, and I want people coming to work knowing – not believing or hoping – but knowing that the people they are working with has their best interest in mind. Because when you feel loved and supported, you’re the best version of yourself.”
Those high-energy employees showing up as the best versions of themselves transmit that energy to one another and to guests, creating a loving atmosphere with happy staff, happy customers, and, eventually as a result, higher profits.
“It’s a beautiful circle of joy when everyone is looking out for each other,” Grable said.
This culture also deepens the team’s commitment to the restaurant.
“When you have people who find that and understand that, man, you have a loyal bunch,” he said.
So loyal that Grable has a team of staff that now follows him wherever he goes.
After the success of his own restaurants, he split from his business partner and returned to managing. He led teams at Stage Restaurant and Merriman’s in Honolulu before settling in with the G.Lion Hawaiʻi hospitality group, where he conceptualized, developed and operates La Vie and Quiora.
Some of his staff have been with him since his Chinatown days.
“They’ve definitely followed me places where they made a lot less money than the last place they worked,” Grable said. “There’s a responsibility attached to all of this that haunts me. I discourage people from coming over at certain stages because I wasn’t ready. Building something isn’t, ‘Hey, come make a bunch of money right away with me.’ It’s, ‘Hey, come help me build something and suffer along with me in the process.’”
One reason why they stick it out could be due to the rigorous interview process that Grable puts his employee prospects through. He wants to make absolutely sure that the new hire will respect the restaurant’s culture.
One of the first questions he asks is what their short- and long-term goals are. If the answer doesn’t coincide with the goals of the restaurant and the rest of the team, then they do not get hired. The reason is threefold: Those goals could work against the collective momentum of their company culture; the restaurant would be a distraction for that individual’s goals; and the person could start to become resentful, adding toxicity to an otherwise harmonious environment.
“Leaders are there to protect their teams,” Grable explained. “One of the most important things to protect them from is each other or preventing anybody from actually joining the family who doesn’t deserve the opportunity or doesn’t respect it. … I need somebody who’s going to invest their soul into each other.”
Another reason for staff loyalty is appreciation. More than anything, Grable wants his team to feel appreciated. Not only by the guests and leadership, but also by their peers.
“People don’t follow me,” Grable said after further reflection. “They follow each other, and I just happen to be part of that group.”
The controversial part about Grable’s philosophy is how he measures success. Profit, rewards and recognition are not top priority. He considers them results of his team’s success – not the reasons for it.
“We can measure our success within our walls,” he said. “We don’t need to look outside. Even further, we can measure our success by our employees’ quality of life. This doesn’t replace a guest experience … We are humbled and appreciate recognition and awards … but the main thing to measure is quality of life of your employees, and that will tell you everything else. Because, if they’re happy, your guests will be happy.”
Grable doesn’t focus on the bottom line first. Instead, he focuses on staff development. Rather than strategizing sales or angsting over budgets, he puts his energy into his employees.
“I’d rather just teach them about wine and see what happens, you know?” he said. “Because, what will happen? We will sell more wine! Why give them a number that they have to chase? Why not just give them a tool that they get to use?”
Profits become a byproduct of this education, he theorizes.
“If profits are your motive, you’re going to have a hard time in this industry doing something of quality,” Grable said.
Going back to the five-groups hierarchy, Grable believes that, if he puts his employees first and they are happy, then the guests will be happy, the vendors will make more money, the community will be supportive, and the owners will do well.
He admits that convincing business-driven financial professionals of this is hard. The philosophy is not novel, but it is unorthodox. This has led to disagreements with business partners and restaurant owners that Grable has worked with over the years.
But Grable holds strong to his beliefs and carries them out with integrity, knowing that shareholders eventually will not only benefit from this long-game approach, but also will understand and appreciate it.
When was the last time you walked out of a restaurant you enjoyed so much but could not put your finger on why?
Grable aims to create this type of restaurant with his team.
Whether you are a restaurateur, dining room manager, or the owner of an ice cream shop, his perspective inspires you to consider, “What could happen if I didn’t put the customer first?”