Finding the Recipe for Success

"It seems like pure fun when the lights dim from the customer’s perspective, but before the doors open it is hard work getting everything into place from the staff to the kitchen to the behind-the-scenes administrative work."—Sam Sanchez

The hospitality industry is in Sam Sanchez’s blood. His father was in the restaurant business in Mexico; his uncle owned restaurants in Chicago. He worked for both through the years, learning at a young age that a strong work ethic and undeterred dedication are required to make a family-owned business a success. It was a good introduction, and now Sanchez is sharing the family passion through his own ventures, which include John Barleycorn and Moe’s Cantina.

Entrepreneurs open quoteWhen it’s done right, being involved in the hospitality sector is a lot like working at a party. It seems like pure fun when the lights dim from the customer’s perspective, but before the doors open it is hard work getting everything into place from the staff to the kitchen to the behind-the-scenes administrative work. Every day is different so it never gets boring, and when the day is done there’s a sense of accomplishment that the guests had a great time, good food, and good service. Even though the hospitality industry is very hard work, it’s also very rewarding.

The best competitive advantage isn’t setting my sights on what the other restaurants down the street are doing, but how I can improve on my own success. I started asking myself how I could make this project better than the last one. It’s not only operating and running a venue, it’s everything from seeing the grand opening to hearing from the operations manager that we’ve hired almost 200 people. I’m excited to create jobs and add to the local communities we call home.

1988– Becomes operations manager of the original John Barleycorn location in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood

1992– Purchases John Barleycorn Lincoln Park

2000– Opens second John Barleycorn in Chicago’s Wrigleyville neighborhood

2004– Launches EMC Construction, which focuses on the hospitality sector

2005– Opens first Moe’s Cantina location in Chicago’s Wrigleyville neighborhood

2007– Receives Businessperson of the Year award from the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce

2008– Opens third John Barleycorn in Schaumburg, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago

2010– Opens second Moe’s Cantina in Chicago’s River North neighborhood

2012– Receives Founder’s Award from the Chicago Latino Network

2012– Opens fourth John Barleycorn in Chicago’s River North

2013– New restaurant scheduled to open in summer 2013

Many changes have come about in the past five years within the restaurant industry, mostly due to the sluggish economy. Menus today are less focused on entrees and more geared towards building a meal of sharable small plates. People not only want a great meal when they go out, they want the entire experience to be fun and memorable. It’s all about the atmosphere in the room.

Another development in the industry is the rise in popularity of the online coupon. These deep-discount coupons may increase a restaurant’s exposure short-term, but the loss in income and perceived reduction in value can end up hurting the restaurant’s image. Good restaurant operators are fighting back, saying this isn’t the way to do business. Instead, it’s important to maintain good quality control and offer incentives as a way to drive repeat traffic. We offer a variety of incentives at our venues including daily specials, a frequent-diner club, and student discounts. This offers value for the customer and builds business long-term.

The economic recovery has been slow, and hospitality companies need to stay one step ahead and focus on growth to survive. You cannot stop building restaurants. We look for high-density areas and commercial districts for expansion and study the demographics, traffic patterns, and other key components of each prospective neighborhood. Families aren’t going out to eat as much in these tough times, instead it’s the young professionals, so we focus more on communities that appeal to that segment.

In my opinion, good menu development contributes to providing customers with the atmosphere and enjoyment they crave. We change our menu four times a year, with the seasons, and we also create specialty plates, where people get even more value for their money. Great food and a great dining experience is the combination will keep people coming back. If restaurant operators concentrate on the atmosphere, and on the quality of service and food, they will beat this bad economy.

Community involvement is important, and all business owners need to find time to give back to those around them. It may not be possible for me to attend every community meeting, but my managers are also involved in the local scene and linking the restaurants to the people they serve. The more visible you are and the more active you are, the more recognition the name of your restaurant gets, and the more people know you are a part of the neighborhood.

Even with multiple locations, a strong sense of community can still exist. You can have 20 restaurants in 20 different areas and each should have its own subtle personality beyond the corporate identity. Each location should be targeted towards the community and tailored for the neighborhood where they do business. By caring for and getting involved with the neighborhoods they’re in, each restaurant generates goodwill and interest. That results in better traffic and more customer loyalty.Entrepreneurs close quote