Solid Success Through Constant ChangeSynergy Restaurant Consultants | Restaurant Management
Chicago-area Sam Vlahos knows the secret to steady growth — it lies in his ability to be nimble and constantly improve
Sam Vlahos is no newbie to the restaurant business — he grew up in the industry while helping his father operate Johnathan’s Steakhouse in Lombard, Illinois. Sam and his sister Patricia have carried the family legacy onward with their two suburban Chicago-area restaurants, Pierce Tavern in Downers Grove and Fuller House in Hinsdale. Both establishments have grown quickly into highly successful upscale pub concepts within their respective neighborhoods.
Both Pierce Tavern and Fuller House share similar brand and operational characteristics. Each concept was named for the gentlemen who established these communities in the 19th century. From a menu perspective, the restaurants showcase elevated American cuisine with items like brisket grilled cheese, buffalo shrimp with blue cheese crumbles, and wood-fired pizza. Their approach to polished pub food and ambiance have made both locations wildly popular destinations for suburban dwellers who used to live or currently work in downtown Chicago.
Creating two new restaurant concepts that successfully compete with large chains is no small feat. What’s the secret? According to Sam, it’s all about community. “Our biggest competitive edge comes from our dedication to the communities we serve,” he explains. “We’re very active in giving back through community charity nights, school donations, and promotions that coincide with community events.” Beyond donations, Sam’s efforts to connect with the community lie at the center of the guest experience that he and his staff crafts on a daily basis. “We work hard to make guests truly feel like they are part of our place; that this is their hangout. This is our true success — to keep our customers coming back, some of them three or more times a week.”
Brand loyalty on this scale is enviable in the cutthroat restaurant business that pits the Goliaths of the industry against the David’s like Sam’s operations. One of Sam’s biggest advantages over the big guys lies in his ability to be nimble. According to Sam, “my chefs, my managers, and I look at food costs and availability of key ingredients every day. If an item isn’t available or is cost-prohibitive to serve, we’ll make menu changes on the fly. We print our menus in house so we can help manage food costs instantly.” But what about guest expectations? “Whenever we have to make a menu change, we’re very transparent with our guests about it,” says Sam. “For instance, over the summer the cost of green beans went through the roof. We serve a very popular fried green bean appetizer, but we were forced to take it off the menu for a bit. When customers asked about it, we explained that the price had gone up and we weren’t able to carry that item for an affordable price. We never want to just say that we’re out of something — to us, it’s important to have an open dialogue with our guests, so they understand why we make certain menu decisions.”
Being able to have these kinds of conversations with his customers begins with Sam and his managers maintaining an open dialogue with team members. “We spend a lot of time and effort making sure our teams at both restaurants understand what’s happening at all times,”
Sam explains. “Part of that effort involves technology. We use an app called 7 Shifts for scheduling and its messaging feature. If we have a menu change, we can communicate it to everyone on the team instantly. We also do pre-shift meetings before each lunch and dinner shift without fail, so everyone knows what’s going on.”
“We treat our training program seriously and have carefully honed it over the last year or two.”– sam vlahos
Another area to which Sam is dedicated is team member training, an effort that reaps real rewards. Sam’s approach to training aligns with his approach to guest service — make everyone feel like a part of the place. “On their first day, each new team member receives a welcome email, packet of training materials, and a gift bag that includes their uniform. We want everyone to feel a part of the team right away,” says Sam. “We treat our training program seriously and have carefully honed it over the last year or two. For example, our servers have to pass a final test where they wait on me and our managers, and we purposefully throw them a few loops, especially around menu items that contain allergens. We have a lot of families that dine with us, and allergies are a really big deal for our customers.” Besides ensuring a great guest experience, this rigorous training program has helped Sam retain front-of-house staff.
Sam’s dedication to all aspects of his operations boils down to delivering one thing — amazing hospitality. “We are lucky enough to have customers who come in several times a week, but we don’t take that for granted. We want them to have a ‘first-time’ guest experience every time they come in,” declared Sam. “We spend our marketing budget inside our four walls by comping desserts and drinks to exceed guest expectations. Servers are trained to get to know our regulars as well as make recommendations and create a great table presence for new guests.”
Sam’s establishments have been met with outstanding reviews and financial success. To maintain his momentum, he is future-proofing his restaurants by embracing change. “We’re constantly keeping up with customer requests and the larger trends impacting our businesses,” says Sam. “When things like poké and kale started to catch on, we worked them into our menus. Even when we thought we were too small to get into the delivery game, we got on board with DoorDash and some of the other third-party apps. We’ve expanded our to-go packaging options when we found that our delivery customers were ordering whole meals for several people. We’re constantly learning and changing what we do to stay ahead.”
True to his work, Sam is now tackling the world of catering. “We’ve been working on a catering menu that scheduled to go live in the next couple of months, says Sam. “We’re excited about potential sales from catering, but we don’t want to rush it. We have one shot, and we’re determined to get it right.”Restaurant Management