Acclaimed chef and restaurateur John Howie was our guest for the August 6, 2020 CEOtoCEO live stream event. He shared his experience in the restaurant industry, and explained how he has persevered through a constant stream of challenges to keep building his culinary legacy while keeping his employees working through difficult times.
John began by describing how his inspiration to cook came from his mother and grandmother, who always made great meals for the family. His professional career in food began in 1974 when he was 15, living on his own, and working as a cook at a restaurant. Twenty-seven years later, he opened his first restaurant just one block away.
John remarked that he had the opportunity to work for the titans of the Pacific Northwest restaurant industry: Bill & John Schwartz of the Schwartz Brothers chain of restaurants, Rich Komen of Restaurants Unlimited, and Gerry Kingen, the founder of Red Robin and Salty's. Despite the immense amount of knowledge he gained working for such leaders, John acknowledged that he still had to learn many business lessons the hard (and sometimes expensive) way.
John admitted that he had a habit of opening restaurants in difficult times, so he is used to adversity. Even prior to the COVID-19 epidemic, the restaurant industry was generally making very small profit margins. Increasing regulations and a shortage of restaurant workers were driving up costs. He revealed that he would constantly ask for input from employees from the dishwasher to the CFO to continually improve on operations, the customer experience, and the employee experience.
He noted that he has several employees at his first restaurant Seastar Restaurant and Raw Bar who started when the restaurant opened 18 years ago, and that making them integral to the success and identity of the business is part of what makes the business successful. He said that being able to give his employees hundreds of sets of gift certificates over the years for them to donate to charities has been gratifying for him, but has really made a difference for his employees, who get to feel more connected to the community by being able to offer a donation from their place of work.
John has managed to keep his restaurants operating throughout the COVID-19 epidemic. Although he initially had to lay off some of his employees, he has been able to bring them back gradually by innovating and offering different products and services to his customers.
He started with curbside delivery at some of his restaurants, providing inexpensive family meals that gave a larger portion of the community the opportunity to enjoy his food. He also created "butcher boxes" and "from the sea boxes" with premium meat and seafood from his suppliers, along with recipes and instructions for cooking at home. He knew that his suppliers would also be struggling with restaurant volumes reduced, and knew that their interdependent relationship made it in his best interest to support them. He called them up and asked them what they had that they needed to move, and created boxes to sell to a public that was enthusiastic for premium at-home cooking experiences with restaurants closed.
A sale of some of John Howie Steak's renowned wine collection proved very popular and provided additional funds to keep cash flowing, and John said that he is planning another soon. He also created cocktail kits to take home for patrons who were missing crafted mixed drinks.
John also discussed pivoting his Wildwood Distillery from production of gin and vodka to producing hand sanitizer. In the first months of the COVID-19 epidemic, he was able to provide hand sanitizer to first responders when it was in short supply throughout the country. He was also able to sell $20,000 worth of sanitizer to the public and donated the funds to Big Table, a non-profit which provides meals to those in need. The success of Wildwood, combined with the uncertainty of the restaurant industry in the coming year has inspired John to open another distillery in Ballard.
The epidemic has also forced John to make adaptations that probably needed to be made even if it hadn't happened. He found that at his Beardslee Public House brewpub, the delivery services were taking a cut that was several times larger than the profit margin. This compelled John to create Beardslee's own delivery service. This had the added benefit of giving the restaurant better control over the delivery, ensuring that food arrived at its destination in a condition the restaurant could be proud of. The improvement to the delivery experience resulted in an increase in delivery revenue of nearly 100%.
John emphasized that being able to give back to the community was not just rewarding, but a large part of his success. His employees are a tremendous part of his charity, both as recipients, and as donors of their own time and money. Many of John's employees cook meals for those in need, or for healthcare workers during the pandemic, and Seastar has since its opening been closed on Thanksgiving to serve meals to low-income families. One of the rewards of success is being able to give back, and John has been able to let his employees share in that giving, and that sense of success.
He revealed that his commitment to his employees, guests, and the community is the true secret of his success. The desire to provide his employees with rewarding work, to provide guests with great, memorable experiences, and to help the community is what makes him push forward through the toughest challenges.
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