Making it as a restaurateur is never a sure thing — in fact, it’s not even a particularly common thing. But what if you are a successful restaurateur, and have been for a long time? We spoke with three of these people, who gave us a sense of how they get new people in the door while maintaining a loyal customer base.
Michael Foglia has “the Ship,” as he warmly refers to Ship Lantern Inn, in Milton, in his blood. After all, his grandfather, a transplant first from Parma and then later from New York City, opened the 9W landmark in 1925.
Some things at the Ship never change. For instance, they still “crumb” between courses. While it might feel rather Frenchy and old-school to have someone clean up after you, the goal is for it to feel comfortable, like home. And when people talk about this place, what they talk about is often the Old World attention and service.
Dinner there can be a destination-only meal, but Foglia has tweaked that. “We don’t have a huge corporate presence, so, to expand our market segment, we’ve added a prix fixe — a twilight dinner and an early Sunday afternoon dinner. These have a lower price point,” he explains. “This is a win-win: We get people in the door, cars in the parking lot, and it’s a good value for the customer.”
Foglia has also built an outdoor patio — with plantings and a waterfall — to capitalize on a beautiful Hudson Valley view.
But ironically, he is now changing some things back to the way his grandfather did them. After years of not using the land, it’s back in service. Foglia has teamed up with a local farmer, whose produce you might see in the Union Square Greenmarket. But a lot of it is going to the restaurant. Peppers. Acres of corn. Herbs. Foglia has a plan to bring in mature fruit trees. Having butternut squash soup? The squash was grown, for all intents and purposes, at the restaurant. Talk about locally grown.
PHOTO BY DRAKE CREATIVE
The Vanikiotis family operates three restaurants and a marina in the Hudson Valley. That means that success and continuity is not only important to them, but also to the 200-something local people on the payroll.
The Table Talk Diner in Poughkeepsie, Daily Planet in LaGrangeville, and Red Line Diner in Fishkill all serve American fare, but each operates separately. For scalability, they share some purchasing activity, some menu items, and some marketing. The one thing that the restaurants within the family all definitively share is a core philosophy.
The core can be summed up in a simple statement: We strive as a family to serve good quality food on a consistent basis to our customers. “It covers all the bases — it’s the backbone of all the decisions that you make,” says Nicholas Vanikiotis. “Whether it’s a purchasing decision, or decisions about food or equipment, every decision you make from colors on the walls to plates to type of food you’re buying — all details play into that one thing.”
They rely on Instagram and Facebook to engage a younger crowd, billboards to target travelers, and . . . you guessed it, coupons to keep the seniors coming. Print ads work, too.
“All that being said,” explains Nicholas, “the best marketing you can do is going back to good quality food and service on a consistent basis.”
Hudson’s Ribs & Fish owners Regina and Sam Bei (left) with general manager of 26 years, Edward Bogdan.
Photo by Micci Debonis
Regina Bei, vice-president of the Bei Restaurant group, handles the marketing for Hudson’s Ribs & Fish, and she explains how success nearly bowled them over in 1989 when they opened.
“We were a pretty small place and really could not handle the amount of business we were getting. So we added a huge addition which is now our main dining room.” The guests are more comfortable and it also opened a sideline for the family: Private parties can be held on the premises.
Since then, they’ve tried to hold on to what works. “I like to think of our approach to rebranding as slow changes that benefit the guests. Guests know when they dine with us they are going to have fabulous hot popovers with strawberry butter, fresh seafood, excellent aged meats, and an array of innovative daily specials. We are a Hudson Valley steak and seafood institution. We have to be very careful that any changes and rebranding is done subtly.”
They’ve been successful in making changes to bring in new customers by using a 25/75 formula. “With our menu we always keep 25% the same. This is our core brand: our prime rib, lobster tails, king crab, ribs, etc…what people know us for. We are always making shifts to what the food trends are with the other 75%.”
Recently, the logo has seen a redesign — but it’s slight. As it is at the Ship Lantern Inn, keeping service consistent is also a priority for Hudson’s Ribs & Fish. “We have many (staff members) that have been with us from the early days. They are invaluable to us. I believe guests want to see familiar faces when they dine.”