Take care of yourself and stay healthy mentally, emotionally and physically, so that you’ll be able to effectively handle the sometimes-turbulent times that are bound to happen.
Being a founder, entrepreneur, or business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur,” we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Chef Lisa Dahl, one of the country’s leading female chefs and restaurateurs who have pioneered the culinary scene in Sedona, Ariz. for more than 25 years.
Dahl is the executive chef and CEO of five outstanding restaurants in Northern Arizona’s red rock country where she has earned international acclaim for Dahl & Di Luca Ristorante Italiano, Cucina Rustica, Pisa Lisa, Mariposa Latin Inspired Grill, and her newest, most-buzzed-about addition, Butterfly Burger, A Couture Burger Lounge.
Dahl is widely credited for Sedona’s emergence as a national “foodie destination”. As a self-taught chef, she was the first to introduce fine dining to Sedona in the late ’90s with the opening of Dahl & Di Luca and has since expanded to become the largest restaurant group in the area with accolades spanning the culinary spectrum.
Today, Dahl Restaurant Group welcomes nearly 400,000 guests annually across all five restaurants and employs close to 250 people, many of whom have been with the company for over 15 years. Each of Dahl’s restaurants continues to garner prestigious recognition and accolades.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
After the tragic murder of my son Justin in San Francisco, I sought healing and moved to Sedona, a small town at the time I felt drawn to because of its reputation for metaphysical energy and therapeutic powers. Through my tragedy, I had the realization that if I was going to get back on my feet, I had to invest my time and energy into something that fulfilled a higher purpose.
After shedding my life in the Bay Area and a career in the fashion industry, it felt like I was starting my life over again. That allowed me the time and space for deep introspection, and through that, I unearthed a passion I once shared with my son — cooking. Immersing myself in the kitchen, I began to fill the missing piece in my heart and love that I had for my son that I had been missing.
I believed that turning my sorrow into other people’s joyful experiences would be immeasurably healing for me. I opened my first restaurant in 1995 by turning a small, shuttered drive-through restaurant into Dahl & Di Luca Ristorante Italiano, one of Sedona’s now most cherished fine dining establishments serving classic Italian dishes. As demand grew, I expanded my presence in Sedona by opening Cucina Rustica in 2003, followed by Pisa Lisa in 2013, Mariposa in 2015, Butterfly Burger 2019, and a second Pisa Lisa location coming later this year.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Becoming a chef wasn’t so much an “Aha Moment” as it was just the outlet for healing that I needed, at least initially. I came to Sedona first and foremost as a survival mechanism, because I had lost my only child. I never dreamed of starting a business here, especially not as a chef, but my values and perspective shifted so much after that loss.
When I look back on my life, it’s apparent to me that I always had a true inclination for hospitality. There was always an element in the jobs I chose that centered around taking care of people. That innate desire to serve others naturally evolved from years of servicing accounts in a fashion-driven business into a career in the service industry, which I found to be much more conducive to the values that were closest to my heart. Although it was my first time owning my own business, it didn’t feel like my first rodeo in that type of role — it just meant that instead of leading customers to styles that made them feel the most confident, I led them to a fabulous dinner choice they’d never forget.
In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?
I think I’ve realized over time, as I came to understand more about what it really means to be an entrepreneur, that that drive did come naturally to me, but I truly believe it was inspired and cultivated in me by my mother.
In a time when being a female entrepreneur was rare and certainly an unpopular career path, she chose to follow her passion for fashion regardless and opened up her first clothing store, which I later worked in. I reflect often on how that work never felt like a chore, because I was so fulfilled by watching my mother grow her business from the ground up over the course of almost 40 years, mirroring her tenacity in my own individual way. Even though I had my own distinctive abilities that ultimately led me to hospitality, I credit that experience for shaping me into the entrepreneur that I am and preparing me for the highs, lows, and pivots that naturally come with it.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
Honoring Justin’s memory has always been at the heart of what I do. His spirit has been the driving force behind my journey in every way. But I’ve also been fortunate enough to have the constant support of my boyfriend Scott, who witnessed the struggles I faced in my early years with a troubling business partner. He saw how ambitious I was, and he knew my partner was preventing me from reaching my potential as a luxury brand, so he took it upon himself to confront him. Seeing that courageous display of loyalty and how much he believed in me and our shared vision was the support I needed to finally break free. I owe him for helping to take the company to the next level and for our brand recognition being where it is today.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The quote we live by at Dahl Restaurant Group is, “devoted to excellence, blessed by grace.” I feel that those six little words have always encapsulated our mission. Before the pandemic locked us down, we were on the threshold of serving 500,000 guests in 2020. When I think of how many lives we’ve touched through our dedication to that motto, it’s astounding to me. Had I ever been okay with just serving a good meal and locking up for the night, I would have never accomplished my goal as a restauranteur to offer spaces and experiences that guests would connect with and feel the urge to return to.
I also take pride in the fact that we are not a typical corporation where the CEO is sitting in an office. My employees see me daily in our restaurants, which I’ve always believed is critical for maintaining the strong, family-like bond that is so cherished among our company. Having such frequent face-to-face interaction has allowed me to connect with each and every one of my team members in a very thoughtful and intentional way, and that has been hugely rewarding.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Putting in the tough work: Managing my business after buying out my partner proved to be an intimidating challenge. At the time, my kitchen staff was largely male-dominated, which gave my partner some great advantages over me. I felt pressured to constantly exhibit my strengths and talent so that they would afford me the same respect and take me seriously. It wasn’t as easy as it might seem, but ultimately, they came to view me as a leader because of my conviction and dedication to the vision I had for my brand.
- Tenacity: There were several pivotal moments in my career when I questioned my path and ability to succeed. The one that always comes to mind was during the first year after opening my woodfired pizzeria, Pisa Lisa. I had worked with my nose to the grindstone for so many years to develop the concept and it was so special to me, but after receiving scathing online reviews and some downright cruel comments from members of the community who had unfounded resentment toward me, I was on the verge of throwing in the towel. It was only after a friend came to me about a dream of hers where Justin had appeared with a message of encouragement that he wanted her to share with me, that I felt the fire reignite in me and I found the inner strength I needed to turn things around. Shortly after, before its first anniversary, the restaurant surpassed $1 million dollars in revenue and was voted the #1 pizzeria in Sedona, huge achievements that would’ve never come to fruition if I hadn’t picked myself up and persevered through that rocky start.
- Commitment to a higher purpose: When people tell me that my story has inspired them, I always feel extremely humbled, because all I’ve ever done is follow my heart in doing something I love, which is to make people happy and feel good about themselves in an experiential way. I also feel that it’s a testament to how important it is to not only have a higher purpose for what you do but to be able to attract others to identify with that purpose as well. I’ve had many encounters, especially recently, that proved to me that being naturally business-savvy or forward-thinking might keep you in business, but that benefits no one if you lack a true purpose behind what you do. Everyone that works for me has always known that our very foundation has been built on the love that I have for my son and that they are dedicated to his legacy he has left. There is a higher purpose to these restaurants beyond making money.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
I’ve always trusted my instinct. I tend to gather feedback from those I trust and have a history with. I tend not to live life looking in the rearview mirror. I like to set a course and go for it. But one of those gut instinct moments that could have produced a better outcome revolved around my initial business partner. I was the majority shareholder in my first two restaurants for over 13 years. After some badgering from him, I relented and granted him a 50%/50% position. Later when I bought him out it was a costly decision. I don’t regret it in the sense of taking advice from others, only I now trust my instinct on what is ultimately right for me and the organization.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?
Your goal should be to always lead with compassion and gratitude. Acknowledging the sacrifices that your staff has had to make in hard times, like that we’ve all experienced through the pandemic, is one of the simplest and most effective ways to ensure they feel appreciated.
I recently sent an uplifting message to my entire team that recognized their leadership and encouraged them to take pride in the fact that they’ve maintained such a high level of service for our guests despite the additional challenges of the past year. It was a random “high-five” to communicate my sincere gratitude and love for them, and it was received beautifully. When you’re the CEO, your employees look to you for guidance, and it made me so proud to be able to share my fuerte and forze — “strength” in Spanish and Italian — to reassure them that there’s always a silver lining and we’re going to get through this together.
What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry? Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?
Transparency and honesty have to be built into the culture of your organization to establish credibility. As business leaders, we have an obligation to offer the new generations coming up an opportunity to build careers, not just jobs or roles that feel expendable, so our industries continue to thrive.
When morale is low, it doesn’t work to just supplement with more pay and benefits — your employees need to trust that you’re equally invested in their development as they are in your business. I’ve built trust among my employees by being authentic, even in the face of adversity.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
A very common mistake I see many owners make is that they try to be something to everyone, instead of focusing on what they should offer to set themselves apart. Remember who your customer is and that they know who you are. There’s no need to reinvent yourself with every passing trend. Specialize in what you need to do to make your business the best that it can be.
Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?
That’s a very deep question that I could ponder for a great period of time. In essence, being an entrepreneur allows you to command a ship, but you have to accept that you cannot control it. Being a CEO means having to find the balance between gaining respect, managing fear, and prioritizing compassion, at all times. It’s a delicate tightrope.
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
I was in France for a long-overdue vacation when I learned I had won the “2018 Top Chef” award by the Arizona Restaurant Association’s Foodist Awards, which was a total “holy shit” moment. And then the next year, I was awarded the prestigious top honor of “2019 Food Pioneer” by the same program, and it was a culmination of pride that I couldn’t even put into words. Not only did it feel like the over 20 years of hard work and not coming up for air that I had put in had really paid off, but I also realized that my peers were recognizing what I had done and how I’d paved the way as an innovator. That recognition was truly life-altering to me and propelled me all the more.
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
As I mentioned earlier, we were on track to serve 500,000 guests in 2020 before the pandemic hit, but that was also a special time because Dahl Restaurant Group was being recognized in many national hospitality magazines as one of the top emerging brands in the country. I had my nose to the brownstone trying to raise the bar for the restaurant business in Sedona, which has about 12,000 permanent residents and about 4 million tourists at its peak. We were trying to keep up with the demand as the city was growing in popularity, which we ourselves had co-created, and despite the hustle and bustle, that period of time was definitely a “high” in hindsight.
When COVID hit and we went into lockdown, we were forced to go from 300+ employees down to 40, and our survival mechanisms kicked into high gear. Our focus suddenly shifted to strategizing how we were going to weather the storm and protect our remaining tenured employees, some of who had been with us for over a decade. Things went from very high to very low seemingly overnight.
Being a sole proprietor, and this is really pertinent, forces you to take challenges in stride. But when the reality that we were going to lock down five restaurants hit me, it felt like my entire nest egg was about to fall out beneath me. I knew I was going to either retreat into a pity place or commit to not going down the road of despair and choosing to be pragmatic instead to get through this. We’re a microcosm here in town because we’re a melting pot of people coming from all over the world, yet we still have the same problems, illnesses, highs, and lows, but I believe we in the restaurant industry share a collective heart, and that comforts me.
Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?
To stay afloat while our restaurants were closed, we pivoted to a new business platform to make food that could be shipped anywhere in the country, which we dubbed Dahl to Door. This allowed us to provide food to guests that were stuck at home and to help us keep our long-tenured employees working during those times. We also converted our two casual concept restaurants to offer curbside pickup, to hold us over while we planned our next move. Although we’ve been fortunate with Arizona’s climate to be able to meet CDC guidelines with outdoor dining, we’ve not yet recovered from the loss of having to let so many employees go, so recruiting has been like a full-time job lately.
At the end of the day, my motto was, “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again”, and that’s what we did here. Our corporate team all worked together on a one-day-at-a-time basis to really try to do that, and here we are finally beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel. It still doesn’t ease my pain that there has been so much debilitation and people that have become jobless and homeless or even lost their lives this last year, first and foremost because it has been a constant reminder of who is guiding me (Justin). I thank God that I listened to those voices though that told me the show must go on because we are still here to serve with the best of our ability.
My passion has not wavered through this trial, but my nerves have had to weather some very emotional times. This business has brought me the highest highs of pride, and it has been inspirational to know that I could and did rise to a higher level of challenging my own self to be the type of CEO that my employees really needed.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”?
- Have a more spiritual outlook on life that allows for a cohesive balance between work and the time you need for your mind to be creative.
- Be focused on who you are and the greater purpose of your brand. At the end of the day, everything you do leads back to that.
- Don’t expect every day to be like clockwork. Routine is the antithesis of innovation and will inhibit you from being nimble when necessary.
- Build a team of like-minded associates that you trust to lead alongside you.
- Take care of yourself and stay healthy mentally, emotionally and physically, so that you’ll be able to effectively handle the sometimes-turbulent times that are bound to happen.
We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Resilience to me means staying humble and nimble. If you possess those traits and keep them balanced, a renaissance is always possible. Out of ashes comes the most fertile soil, that will bring new growth in ways that can only come from when we are stripped down to very little and our minds have the space to dream up new ideas that re-launch our creative spirit. You almost have to burn down to start over.It’s not easy, but we’re not alone.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?
There have been many experiences throughout my life that have built me into the resilient person that I am, but abruptly losing my son and having to start my life over was without a doubt the most impactful. I know now that no matter what challenges I face, I’m not going at it alone.
In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?
I work very hard to keep a positive and forward-thinking attitude in times of strife because in our business, it’s crucial to never let our guests see us sweat.
Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.
The attitudes of leadership can make or break the success of a company in any industry. Negativity, or even just apathy, communicates to staff and clients that their satisfaction isn’t a priority. If you’re not making either party feel valued, you won’t build the lasting relationships necessary for long-term success.
Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?
I live by the mantra, “When you cook with love, you feed the soul.” It keeps me humble every day, and it’s my mission.
How can our readers further follow you online?
Facebook: Lisa Dahl, Sedona
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!
The depth of these questions allowed me to tap into my cellular memory and brought a few tears that I haven’t shed in a while. I’ve been so caught up in the day-to-day, and this article gave me an opportunity to reflect in a deeper, more cathartic way, so I sincerely thank you for that opportunity.