As a former Operations Specialist for the U.S Navy, cultivating a drink menu featuring Mexican wines was not a job Woody Van Horn had imagined himself in. But when chef-owner Javier Plascencia of Bracero Cocina approached him to run their new concept of refined Mexican cuisine, he asked Chef Javier, “Are you sure you want a white dude running your restaurant?” His response locked the deal: He sure did.
Woody’s history in the industry is vast to say the least. He had always worked at restaurants in high school, and after he finished with the Navy he found himself right back in the game working with Carl Schroder. Schroder is not the only top dog he’s had experience with; Woody has also worked with industry legends Dan Barber and Thomas Keller.
Fast forward to 2015. Woody was successfully running the amazing Bankers & Hill when Chef Javier asked Woody to run his restaurant because of his deep roots in San Diego. The next thing you know, Bracero hadn’t even had their doors open for a year when they received a James Beard nomination for Best New Restaurant.
Needless to say, Chef Javier chose the right guy to execute his vision for the restaurant.
I had the chance to speak with Woody recently and he was full of great advice for the struggling restaurateur, enough to fill a book based on his point of view. But rather than a book, I made a sweet list of the 5 best tips he had to give.
Operate like a corporation.
“The main role in the Navy was operations. As I moved higher up in hospitality, I began using the skills that I developed in the Navy more and more. It’s helped me when I look at the chain of command, or at smaller teams where different people report to different people, or even just at the dissemination of information. In the Navy my job was to update my screen and I had to plan ships going this way and that way, deciding if this ship is friend or foe, or deciding what kind of ship this is; that correlates to running a door. I can be upstairs looking at the floor on Yelp Reservations and I can simultaneously make sure we are sending out free drinks to the right table or see if we are getting people out the door fast enough. We all need to use Yelp Reservations correctly to run this ship.”
Master the art of managing millenials.
“I read a lot about managing millennials. When you look at successful companies and restaurants, they are proud of their retention and always thinking of new ways to retain them. If you look at tech companies like Google or Facebook, they have made the offices fun and given employees flexible scheduling, all sorts of things. As hard as it is to implement that in a restaurant, I try to do as many of those things as I can.
The restaurant industry is a transient industry. There’s a lot of people that come and go; it’s similar in the military. The Navy has a lot of people who just joined because they had nothing else to do and they might not have goals and aspirations but you also have a lot of great people, just like restaurants. You have great team members but it’s tough when they have to work with people subpar. You’ve got to keep retention high and keep the right people on the team.”
Transparency is the key to staying relevant.
“Transparency is the biggest thing. The old school way was nobody would talk about how much they made, no one would help each other move up, and no one would share private information. Then that all changed. If you want to stay stoic in that way as a manager, then you will lose your younger staff. One thing I created was a tip pool so they can see how much each person makes and see the pathway to move up. This is how I keep retention high. I’ve kept 100% of the people I want in the front of the house since we’ve opened. I’ve given them a clear career path and people have moved up, and laterally, and they’ve stayed happy. I also don’t enforce a dress code. I want them to be themselves and not look like they work at a corporate hotel.”
Listen to your customers.
“If you peel away the top layers of the best restaurants, the core values are all the same. Yelp is part of the industry. Yelp has tools for you to combat malicious people and get an honest shot at responding to reviewers. It’s in your best interest to embrace how Yelp operates because Yelp is not going anywhere. For me Yelp is a pulse. I share every Yelp review with my entire staff so they can see where we’re at. For the most part, Yelp shows us who we are as a restaurant right now, and if these are the reactions we are soliciting then we need to makes some changes.
We keep customers loyal with our food and the food needs to be consistent. When a guest has a bad experience, that is a huge opportunity to gain them for life. You have a chance to go above and beyond to fix their issue immediately. That’s something I learned in the Navy. You know that you’re going to get attacked and things go wrong, that’s just what happens in war. If something goes wrong we need to know how to recover from it quickly. We need to train for recovery and have contingency plans for when things go wrong. I do that in the restaurant. If something goes wrong I make sure my managers and my servers are prepared. One of the things I do is allow servers to comp checks rather than having them get my approval first. It eliminates barriers so they can get the check to the diner faster and promotes pro-action among my servers. If I give my servers the opportunity to make a guest’s day without having to run it by a manager, then it takes us to the next level of service.”
Be courageous and concise with your concept.
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. The restaurants that get credit for what they are doing in the industry are the ones who took a challenge and grew from it. Take State Bird Provisions for example. They tackled the tip issue and shared their tips with the back of the house and had them run the food to the tables. They were able to make a difference for their staff and their restaurant. That attitude towards solving inherent problems in the restaurant industry are what sets you apart from the 99%.
We don’t need butter knives, we don’t need uniforms, we don’t need OpenTable, and what makes things better in restaurants is letting those things go and changing with the times. Some restaurants fail because they are not willing to invest in the correct assets and cutting unnecessary costs from the old way of running things.
Also, San Diego has never had a culinary scene. One of the main reasons we are successful is because we are riding this wave of Baja cuisine. Chef Javier has a huge following, he has his name on tons of restaurants in Mexico. He was on Top Chef this year and his name is floating around in the food culture. Now we have master sommeliers flying in to eat here . When you get people in the industry talking about you like that it puts you in the spotlight.
We were bold enough to take the stigma of Mexican food being just rice and beans and we are bringing it to the forefront. We are making Mexican cuisine special.”