WATCH: The OpenTable Marketing Engine at Work at Founding Farmers

Road to Extraordinary: Bringing People to the Table with Dan Simons of Farmers Restaurant Group (Part 2)

Last week, I shared the first part of my interview with Dan Simons, founder and co-owner of Farmers Restaurant Group. We covered some of the early influences in his hospitality career, as well as Dan’s learnings from his first restaurant venture. It was so clear to me that for Dan, being around a table matters, relationships matter, and food matters. 

Our conversation continues here with Dan sharing how he built the huge success that is Farmers Restaurant Group, what qualities he looks for in his team, and what it takes to create an authentic experience for diners. 

Building Farmers Restaurant Group

Winston: You have talked about how you, in some ways, tried to impose your values on the diners and you thought you knew what they wanted. What have you learned since and applied to Farmers Restaurant Group?

Dan: The first restaurant we owned that failed was in the suburbs outside of Dallas. We saw a couple of really successful, iconic fried chicken places in the suburbs outside of Dallas. We ate at a few of them, and we were like, “Wow. We can use better chicken, better oil. We can used fresh green beans. We can use real iced tea instead of Lipton iced tea. Why don’t we take this whole iconic soul food approach, and really chef it up?” That was our thought, and then we opened and that customer just didn’t care. That customer knows themselves best. They know what they want. 

They tasted the iced tea and they were like, “This is funny.” They looked at the green beans, and they’re like, “Why are they so green?”

We ended up giving an improved (in our own opinion) product to an audience that didn’t want it and weren’t asking for it. We didn’t understand them. We thought we knew better. What we realized was, we’re doing some good stuff. Who would want it? Because we wanted to be authentic to us, too. 

In the end, I didn’t want to run a restaurant that would’ve been successful in that location; I had moved back to D.C. and was starting a family. Applying our lessons learned, we focused on D.C. and opened our first Founding Farmers on the corner of 20th and Pennsylvania. The cornbread recipe is the same. Fried chicken recipe is the same. The iced tea is the same. We ended up really taking a look at why we wanted to do this. The planet matters. Quality matters. What’s in Lipton iced tea scares me. And, I thought people should know. But, that’s only useful if there’s enough people who think like that. I learned that I didn’t want to just choose a message that worked with an audience. Mike and I had the chance to partner with real farmers and create an authentic platform for the messages that mattered to all of us, and I was confident that what mattered to us would matter to people in D.C.

Winston: What are some easy things that someone should be thinking about when they’re opening restaurants?

Dan: I do try to step inside the guest and wear all their senses, seeing through their eyes, hearing through their ears, and cue in on the aromas, the sights, the sounds, the smells, and that kind of sixth-sense vibe. You’ve just got to sit in every single seat. That’s how I work a dining room as well. Observing them, where are they? What are they not doing? Who’s cold? Who’s got to put a sweater on? What plates are wiped clean and what food or drink isn’t being finished? Because if you ask a restaurant manager, how’s it feel in here? Their answer is always: too hot. They’re running around. It is how the guest feels that matters, not how the manager or restaurateur feel.

So I know what our main touch points are, the physical touch points. The way the menu feels in their hands. I think things should be spotless. It just matters, right? “And so, to me [Dan looks at and picks up a silver sugar packet holder with a barely noticeable fingerprint smudge] this isn’t spotlessly clean, and I find that just a total failure. So I think those touch points, if it’s supposed to sparkle, it needs to the sparkle. If it’s supposed to be spotless it needs to be spotless. And we teach our team, everything matters. No detail is too small. But the toilet paper needs to roll over the top. That’s the way toilet paper’s built.” [I nod furiously in agreement].

Winston: You were ahead of the curve on a lot of that messaging and the farm-to-table narrative, and everything associated. How did it come to you, or was it just a value-based thing that you always had?

Dan: That was a little bit of luck, because we got introduced to the North Dakota Farmers Union and formed a partnership with them. This is and was a farmer-owned business, which then became so much of the story. 

We weren’t even focused on using the “farm-to-table” phrase. We were thinking and talking about being farmer-owned: Who gets the profit? Vertical integration. Supply chain. Because every restaurant is some-kind-of-farm to table. The thing is, what farm? Who owns that farm? How do they operate that farm? And then who owns the restaurant? Ours is much more of an economic model, about where the value of the equity and the profits go. 

Winston: Rank food, service, value, and ambience. And briefly why number one is one and why number four is number four.

Dan: For me, there’s a word missing, because the number one thing is essentially the overall recipe – the experience.

I can love a restaurant where I’m not blown away by the drinks. I’m not blown away by the food. The service may not be perfect, but the server is perfect. So I would probably put service first. But it’s really about the server, and them taking responsibility to create my experience. Timeliness for me is vital in an experience, absolutely vital. 

Food, beverage, ambience: one of these three can be enough to get me to come back. The only thing that matters in a restaurant is if people want to come back and do come back. That’s it. The normal diner isn’t just inspired by, “That was the best cocktail I’ve ever had.” And then you say to them, “How often do you go back?” “Well, I haven’t been back.” “That’s the best burger I’ve ever had.” “Are you there once a week?” “No, because…” There’s a whole bunch of other ingredients in the only recipe that matters: do the guests return and do they recommend the restaurant to their friends. 

Prioritizing Authentic Experiences

Winston: I want to focus on authenticity between the restaurant and the diner. What’s your secret sauce here, and how do you make it scalable? When you’re one location, you can be at the hostess stand every night and recognize everyone by face and all that kind of stuff. But as you grow your business, it’s a lot more difficult.

Dan: It’s all about the culture. It’s not the brand name. It’s not the interior design. Not about the recipes. It is all about how you build the team – who you select to join that team. That’s what we are growing and enhancing, and also why we can’t grow super fast. 

A culture itself is a living being, and you can nourish it or you can poison it. You can only do it at a certain rate because like farming, it takes a certain amount of time to grow something. A tree is another good analogy for us. You see a big, beautiful tree, but the magic’s in the roots. And if the thing gets too top-heavy, or the limbs aren’t healthy, it doesn’t survive. 

We focus on the culture and making those roots deep. And we do that by spending a lot of money and time teaching, listening, trying to do individual things for people. Whether it’s helping immigrants or helping people in difficult times in their life, I don’t think they should feel lucky to have a job. I think we should feel lucky for them to come back to work every day. Our culture is built a lot around trying to inspire people to want to come back the next day.

Winston: It’s clear that it comes from the family round-table you grew up with. I mean, it makes perfect sense why that drives the culture here, and frankly your success. So with staff, what do you look for in that server, host, or GM? And then also tell me, what’s your favorite question to ask in an interview if you still do interviews, and why?

Dan: I still interview almost every manager and chef that we hire. I don’t know if I have a favorite question, but what I sort of ask is, “Take me all the way back and tell me about your journey and the relationships and the moments that have really mattered to you.” A lot of times, what I’m really cuing in on is what I’m not hearing, but I also look for common threads in the types of experiences and relationships they have and haven’t had.

Winston: What is the most important success of a restaurant? Good review or good staff?

Dan: I would rather have five stars long term on Glassdoor than focus on any single review. Because I know that if we win with the people, our staff will win the guest. I also trust us. We’ve got really great culinary talent. We’ve got really great beverage talent. So our playbook is good, but the playbook isn’t going to win games if we don’t have the people to deliver it. 

The way I see the world is, you end up winning a positive review by winning with the people first. I’m not doing shift meetings where I’m like, if there’s a food reviewer in tonight, we need to behave a certain way. I’m way more focused on, how do we make tonight awesome for our team? How do we make sure that you are all making the most money possible? How do we make it fun? Who needs to get out early? Who’s desperate for rent money? Okay, what do we need to do?

And then, what are our objectives? We’re going to tell this wild catfish story, here’s what’s going to connect. This is why the pessimists or the haters or those who drive clicks with negativity, don’t click with us, because even when they’re in the restaurant, I don’t have a protocol to do anything differently for them. They don’t get us, and fortunately, they don’t affect us. 

In the end, this is what we do. If you don’t get any joy because your server feels joy and likes to work here; if you don’t want to ask about the fact that we have our own bakery, why we sell wild-caught blue cat, and you’re just judging us on some other criteria, you’re not going to like our restaurant. It’s fine with me. So I’ll take people’s choice awards over the singular critic all day long.

Winston: Greatest or most memorable experience you had at a restaurant?

Dan: A couple decades ago, a little restaurant in Paris, called Laperouse. Suzi and I got engaged on that trip, so it was really special. It’s etched in my mind forever. It wasn’t super expensive, I just felt like we were being welcomed into somebody’s home that had been there for hundreds of years. We walked through the kitchen, and it was the most spotless, meticulous professional kitchen in this old historic building. 

Winston: Who else should I interview?

Dan: Barbara Lynch in Boston, she’s just so awesome. She’s the type of person I’d love to work with. She’s real and raw and very relatable. She sees the world differently that I do, but at our core, we’re both from Boston, so I know we’ve got that common ground.

Reflections

My conversation with Dan could have lasted hours but, alas, Dan had to “run” to his next meeting… two tables over. He left me with Founding Farmers’ signature Beignets and I took his advice to act like my three-and-a-half year old son Levi and slurp the chocolate sauce that came with them.

As I sat down to write this, I reflected on two themes: authenticity and entrepreneurship.

Dan wasn’t afraid to be his authentic self and build the culture and mission around his core beliefs. His first foray into restaurants failed because he thought what he cared about was what the diner cared about. He tried to impose his values in a market that wasn’t ready. Did he change his values to succeed? No, he just moved to Washington, D.C. where the diners’ beliefs were more aligned with his.  As a native Washingtonian, I’ve never been so happy that someone failed at something.

Listening to Dan the entrepreneur also brought flashbacks to my nine-year journey as Venga’s cofounder. When talking business partners, it was déjà vu all over again. My cofounder Sam is the ying to my yang.  We share the common mission of bringing hospitality to customer experiences, and that’s where the similarity ends. My experience is in the marketing/PR world and the running joke at the office is “Winston doesn’t even know how to open an excel spreadsheet.” That’s where Sam comes in – he’s got business acumen in spades. 

The true utility of this experiment will be hearing from YOU about your problems, suggestions for interviews, your own “aha” moments and, most importantly, your feedback. You can enliven and help me shape this platform – tell me when you jotted down notes and when you yawned. I encourage you to email me at winston@getvenga.com.

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