In the quest for longevity in the hospitality industry, it can be helpful to re-examine ongoing challenges with fresh eyes, a strategy exemplified by L’Artusi owner Kevin Garry. The West Village restaurant has been going strong for over ten years, and Kevin has helped steer the ship for more than half of them. We sat down with the opening GM-turned-owner to discuss how he stepped away from L’Artusi in 2013 to gain experience in a completely different sector of the business at Shake Shack, and how he’s applying those new perspectives since his return last year.
Kevin, it’s wonderful to see you back here at L’Artusi. But before we skip that far ahead in the story, could you share a little bit of your background?
I’m from upstate near Albany. My uncle is a chef, and I started in his restaurants at 14: washing dishes, doing prep, cooking, a little bit of everything. I took to it really quickly and really embraced the culture. I worked there throughout high school, and during summers while I was in college. By that point I’d learned to be a waiter and learned about wine.
Then I graduated, expecting to get a “career” type of job, but it was just a few months after 9/11, which was a tough time. My father had always told me, if you know how to wait tables or bartend, you can get a job in any economy, anywhere in the world, at any time. So I did some research, and Danny Meyer popped up as The Guy.
Twenty years later, I suppose he’s still the first Google search result.
Pretty much. [laughs] So I got hired as a waiter at Gramercy Tavern, which I quickly saw was a place people went for a career. I felt like I got my MBA in hospitality there. Things that felt intuitive to me, having already spent so many years in restaurants, were vocalized in a clear way for the first time. I felt like I was playing for the Yankees.
But eventually you reached a point where you felt like you knew the Danny Meyer playbook?
I did, and after five years or so, I wanted to see how someone else did it. My mentor, Kevin Mahan from Gramercy, was living on 14th Street and was a regular at Dell’Anima. He introduced me to the team there, who were about to open L’Artusi, and I started as GM two weeks before we opened in December 2008.
And everything was silky smooth from the start?
Well, this was right when the economy crashed, so we had to be really scrappy. We were hustling! Culturally, I was just doing my best Danny Meyer impersonation. And looking back, the thing I’m most proud of, is that nobody left the team voluntarily during that time. We had great employee retention because we were really invested in creating the right culture.
Then one night you looked up in the sky and saw the Shack Signal?
Not quite. I had worked with Randy Garutti [CEO at Shake Shack] at USHG back in the day, and I was seeing the trend of our industry moving towards fast-casual. He was very active in recruiting me, and I started as the NYC Area Director back when there were just 20 Shacks. By the time I left, there were roughly 200 more.
What did you learn during your time there?
I always try to be a sponge, and there was so much to soak up. I learned a lot about scale, that what works when you have 50 employees or 50 locations doesn’t work when you have 200. I learned about running efficient businesses. I learned to lean on the people that you work with in terms of third-party vendors.
Could you share an example of what you mean by that?
Once I returned to L’Artusi — this time as an owner — I was tasked with taking a mature concept, a place that has done things really well for a long time, and implementing small changes in order to keep that going. One of the first things I looked at was brunch. If we were so busy at dinner, with hundreds of people on the waitlist, why were we never seen as a brunch spot? Well, I called our OpenTable rep and it turns out, our computer system wasn’t configured for brunch! It was a simple fix, and we doubled our business the first Sunday after that. As a result, we’ll also start Saturday brunch service soon.
You mentioned having learned a lot about scale at Shake Shack. How do you apply those lessons to running a stand-alone restaurant?
At Shack Shack, I came to better understand buying power. Here at L’Artusi, I saw that we were buying a ton of products from a ton of different purveyors. So again, I picked up the phone and called a few. Can we buy more things from them? Can we consolidate vendors and lean more heavily on you guys? It turned out, we absolutely could! Now our purveyors are happier, and we hit better food cost numbers. It’s, again, the Danny Meyer philosophy of treating your purveyors like guests and trying to better understand their needs.
And then you reinvest those savings back into your restaurant ecosystem?
Exactly. I want our business to make more money so we can channel that towards our team. We’re starting a 401(k) plan soon, which we’ve never been able to offer. I really believe that if you can create the best work environment, you get the best people. And we have a lot of day one employees who really illustrate that.
Twice earlier you spoke of the importance of picking up the phone and calling people. That feels like the old school approach now, with digital interfaces so prevalent across this industry.
Totally. Twelve years in at L’Artusi, we still have OpenTable. We still have a full reservations department. We call each and every guest that visits our restaurant. It’s a small hospitality touch that I feel like a lot of people aren’t doing. It allows us to unearth all of these valuable nuggets: that someone is celebrating their birthday, or anniversary, and so on. At the end of the day, that’s what it all about: doing everything in our power to make sure that everyone in the room — guest or employee — is having a good time.