Quality food and service are the end-product of a massive amount of work and planning that is not visible to your guests. As an industry outsider, the restaurant industry is an artistic, romantic thing. Great food is effortlessly delivered to your table by attentive servers. The reality is we have spent days in meetings arguing over types of wine glasses, espresso cups, fish vendors, etc. When we changed our original concept, we replaced every chair in the restaurant. We changed our light fixtures. Everything matters to achieve quality.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dan Wilkins.
Dan, a North Texas native, made Austin his home after graduating from The University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering. Through his world travels as an engineer, program manager and chief operating officer in the aerospace industry, Wilkins was inspired by the unique cuisines within each culture — especially those in Italy. With memories of delectable pasta and his heart set on Austin, Wilkins transitioned from technologist to restaurateur after opening Juliet Italian Kitchen in 2015.
With his extensive leadership background and more than two decades of experience in operations, Wilkins is an essential player in Juliet’s growth and management. He is a respected adviser to startup businesses and enjoys indulging in Pilates and strength training in his free time. He resides in Northwest Austin with his wife, Donna.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restaurateur or chef?
It wasn’t exactly a direct path. After the sale of my last company, I became very involved in commercial and residential real estate investment. My original business concept was a spa, including a cafe and wine bar. Over time, the spa component in the business model became smaller, while the restaurant element grew more prominent. Eventually, a call from a friend led to a distressed property that eventually became my restaurant, Juliet Italian Kitchen.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? Can you share a story about that with us?
At the midpoint in my career I spent a lot of time in Europe, particularly in Italy where I spent my evenings in both formal and casual Italian restaurants.
In Umbria, I had my first experience with serious Italian dining at a restaurant called “La Foresta.” I arrived before 8 p.m. to an empty dining room. The staff was gracious and took my dinner order, which was soon answered by a plate of antipasti. I enjoyed the first offering with a great glass of local wine. Soon after, I was served an enormous bowl of pasta. Thinking this was “dinner,” I jumped in and ate most of it in short order. The staff was very impressed and cleared the table just before placing a huge plate of grilled meats (Secondi Piatti) in front of me.
By this time, a good number of local Italian families had filled the dining room for their dinner, and I, an obvious stranger, was the total focus of their attention. It took me at least two hours to casually eat the last course, with plenty of rest periods for wine. Then I went to my room and proceeded to sweat the rest of the night.
In all Italian restaurants, I found the ambiance, food and service lent themselves to a great experience. I always imagined that my first restaurant would feature some form of Italian cuisine.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you became a restaurateur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
The first restaurant was originally conceived as a fine dining destination with a complex, modern Italian menu. That was a huge mistake in a casual dining neighborhood. After two years of operating, it was clear that there were serious limits to growth with that format. We made some management changes and planned a transition to a new upscale casual concept and menu. We closed the restaurant for two weeks, redesigned the menu, service and interior. During the change, we paid all of our staff to stay on and retrain under the new format. The kitchen cooked the new menu, and the servers learned and tasted each new dish. When we reopened in just two weeks, it was a hit. I was humbled that the entire staff placed such trust in us. Since that time, I have been personally involved in the day-to-day operations of the restaurant. We are now serving more than 12,000 guests per month and are finishing up our third year of record growth.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
Restaurants are not like other businesses, but the fundamentals still apply. When I moved into direct involvement in business operations, there was a lack of alignment between the goals of the various departments. I’m not ashamed to admit that I asked for outside help to take a look at our internal processes and metrics. Management was eager to learn and quickly responded to shortcomings and overspending. Cost controls and pricing became major considerations, along with food and service quality in internal weekly reviews.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
All dishes on the menu must fit within the parameters of the restaurant concept. As an owner, I never dictate menu content to the management team. Management evaluates what is selling and what is not, and they ask the Executive Chef to propose replacement dishes for those that are faltering. The Chef and his team apply their creative license to suggest changes to existing dishes or replacement dishes. Candidate dishes are prepared and tasted by the team for final selection.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
Because I am so passionate about personal fitness at my age, there are two answers to that question. The first: My perfect daily meal is a protein-rich, low-carb combination, like our Chicken Piccata on a bed of sautéed spinach. My second: My occasional cheat meal is something like our fabulous 17-layer lasagna with a glass (or two) of good Primitivo, followed by a glass of Amaro with vanilla gelato. Don’t tell my trainer!
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
My staff, in every case. They share with me their good and bad experiences with guests, each other, and their opinions on our food and service. I love to stop by at all times of the day just to chat with them and hear what’s going on. If your staff is not proud of what they are preparing and serving, they will leave. They inspire me to help them succeed.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
We have an amazing cocktail and wine program, and I’d love to create a dedicated, high-end cocktail bar concept around it. The primary impact it will have is to create more career growth opportunities for existing employees.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
Front and back management must train employees to be able to manage shifts and close for them. Everyone needs time off occasionally, and I have no respect for those that can’t make it happen. Holding work skills close for job security is a danger to everyone else on the team.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restaurateur” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Quality food and service are the end-product of a massive amount of work and planning that is not visible to your guests. As an industry outsider, the restaurant industry is an artistic, romantic thing. Great food is effortlessly delivered to your table by attentive servers. The reality is we have spent days in meetings arguing over types of wine glasses, espresso cups, fish vendors, etc. When we changed our original concept, we replaced every chair in the restaurant. We changed our light fixtures. Everything matters to achieve quality.
- You must be intimate with your numbers all the time. Restaurants can achieve large revenue numbers but still fail. In order to achieve financial success, you must understand the cost of every dish, cocktail and glass of wine you serve to a guest. We are just ending our third year of substantial revenue growth, but more importantly, we have achieved important milestones in reducing our labor costs in the kitchen and dining room, as well as our food, wine and cost of goods across the board. We got there by collectively reviewing our cost data and discussing strategy every week.
- Everything must be documented: Recipes, stations in the kitchen, points of service, opening and closing checklists. The nice thing about the industry is the support systems that are available. We use cloud-based systems that provide accounting, daily journaling and inventory functions, as well as recipe pricing. These are vital, but it is also necessary to implement a checklist to ensure that critical operations are completed at the right times. Employee turnover happens and you must be prepared for new personnel to step into any job at any time.
- You must train employees realistically and in accordance with your job documentation. We spend a lot of time and money training employees and it is necessary to expect those costs in your budget forecasting. We expect servers to work a minimum of three shadow training shifts and pass a menu test before they are allowed to serve in our restaurant. After training, employees are expected to also attend cocktail and wine training as well. We lose some candidates because of the requirements, but our guests experience better service as a result of the investment.
- All reviews are good, even the terrible ones. Before I get out of bed in the morning, I first look at the numbers for the preceding night, then I read the reviews. Most of them are four or five-star reviews with positive comments. But, there are also the rare one-star reviews with blistering criticism. We try to respond to the negative reviews directly whenever possible to try to convince people to give us a second chance. It also gives us a chance to explore what we may have done wrong. My all-time favorite negative review was “The patio was too hot.” In August. In Texas. You just have to read reviews dispassionately, disregard the good ones and use the bad ones as a chance to do some self-reflection. Someone in the industry once said, “When you get depressed by reviews, just go to the Yelp page for the best restaurant in Manhattan. You’ll see the same reviews.”
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
Everyone I meet asks me that question. The goal of a good restaurant is to provide a menu that supports a spectrum of tastes. Me? I love our grilled octopus or salmon crudo.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I have been distressed by some of the stories I have heard about the treatment of people who work in the service industry. At first, I thought it was just grousing by disgruntled employees, but I have now come to realize it is a bigger issue. The people who work in our restaurants and other service businesses are often treated as disposable, easily replaced assets. They lack professional, mobile benefits. They generally have no access to physical or mental health care or retirement benefits. I believe there is an opportunity to start locally to turn that around.