Menu and redoing the menu constantly the first couple years is most important. You can have the best concept, best real estate location, etc. but if the food is not consistent and good, people will stop coming. Food is the key even if it is a Bar concept that serves food. That is where the longevity come from for establishments…
As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Michael Dobson, partner of the Venice Restaurant Group and owner of the recently renovated beachfront restaurant in Venice Beach, CA, The Pier House, which serves some of the freshest and most delicious oysters and scallops in town! He also recently opened the newly renovated Mexican restaurant Baja Cantina, a fun place with an eclectic combination of beach, surf, tropical and Mexican décor.
Dobson received his B.S. degree in Aeronautical Engineering from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo in 1986. After college, Mr. Dobson worked on a full-time co-op basis with Northrop Aircraft in their Advanced Design Department designing sophisticated fighter aircraft. Prior to founding EZ Lube in 1988, Mr. Dobson was an Account Executive with Southern California Gas Company/Sempra Energy (“Sempra”) and was responsible for negotiating large industrial power supply contracts. Mr. Dobson continued to work at Sempra during the first five years after opening EZ Lube in 1988. Mr. Dobson was responsible for setting the overall strategic direction of EZ Lube, interacting with key suppliers, financial institutions and negotiating real estate acquisitions, development and construction related activities. After selling over 90 locations to a Wall Street Private Equity Firm in December of 2005, Mr. Dobson became a successful real estate investor, developer, and venture capitalist. He has been a Venice Beach resident for over 30 years and is now currently a partner of the Venice Restaurant Group which includes The Pier House, Baja Cantina and The Venice Whaler.
The Pier House is a coastal California style seafood restaurant and bar steps away from the sand with an ocean view in Venice Beach, CA. The restaurant was fully renovated in 2018 by interior designer Jeffrey Kurt. The seafood inspired menu features classic fish dished with a modern twist. The beverage program, created by Kenneth Gray, serves beach renditions of classic cocktails, an approachable wine list and boutique assortment of spirits. 7 W Washington Blvd. Venice, CA 90291
Baja Cantina is a fun and vibrant Mexican restaurant with a festive interior and exterior where guests can enjoy outdoor seating on the sand! The restaurant has been serving the local community of Venice and Marina del Rey for 45 years serving the best tacos, margaritas and other delicious Mexican specialties. The restaurant first opened its doors in September 1975 in a building that was built in the 1940’s as apartments to house the men working on the oil wells in the area. Baja Cantina was originally a hobby store & flower shop before it was transformed into the Mexican restaurant we all know and enjoy today. Today, they are happy to serve the Marina del Rey area, located on the same street as The Pier House and the Venice Pier. They look forward to spending more decades making history and to serve food and drinks with love! 311 Washington Blvd. Marina Del Rey, CA 90292
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 restauranteur or chef?
It started when I tried to pitch in and work with the professional staff providing customer service. Their jobs are extremely hard, and all restauranteurs appreciate it and the BOH (back of house) is even harder because they’re usually in a tight space, it’s hot, and they’re dealing with customer issues every second. A lot of people think it is easy to provide consistent great service and great food. It is probably one of the most difficult jobs/tasks compared to all other business categories. People eat 3 times a day and have a lot of preconceived notions. When they buy something from Amazon, they are not experts, but everybody is an expert in Food and Service…
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?
The hardest is the COVID crisis. When I first started, I opened a new location where I was not as actively involved so I delegated it to a team of experts. What I found out was that they overspent and undelivered and there was a lot of fighting. If you have a vision, you must be involved every step of the way to realize that vision in this industry! We took over management and now the location is a homerun.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
We call that “craveables” in our industry. Every restaurant must have at least 3 or 4 craveables on their menu. Every chef has different specialties. At the Pier House, Chef Alex’s oysters and scallops are a huge hit. So is the halibut, and other fresh fish dishes we serve daily. We get deliveries of fresh fish the same day from fishermen. We just received Bluefin Tuna off San Clemente — about 45 lbs. We also have some side dishes like our French fries which are also a craveable. The most important thing is to not have an ego and take a lot of customer-family and friend input, but still not be afraid to take some risk…
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
I’m Irish so a perfect meal for me would be a steak and potato with great veggies. But I love oysters and scallop appetizers with seabass or halibut. Also, I love fish & chips. It’s not easy to make great fish and chips.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
The inspiration comes from helping all the team/staff get excited and get promoted and move up in their careers. Restaurants are like family and everybody is not just concerned about making money. It is more that we all grow as a Team and promote staff. I can’t tell you how many of the best bartenders, wait staff, etc. that are top sellers started as food runners or bussers. Many of my GM’s started as start staff. Creativity boost is talking to my Team about what happened yesterday and what do we have planned today. Also, as you know, an amazing amount of industry organizations and magazines that show what the rest of the world is doing are exciting.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
Yes! I am working on a couple new projects, but sorry I can’t tell you just yet. When we are ready for our massive PR splash, you will be the first to know…
What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
Balance and trust your people. Make sure you have at least one weekly meeting with top management and staff even if it’s only 1 hour. Don’t be a perfectionist. Strive for excellence but not perfection. Our industry is too dynamic and if you read every yelp review you will drive yourself crazy…
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 Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
- The margins are not super high so you have to watch every single expense and inventory daily…
- You can’t put a dress on a pig, location, location, location is critical. Even for a destination concept.
- It is a lot harder than you think to find good people willing to work hard, so you have to make sure you invest a lot of time in recruiting which will keep employee turnover very low.
- Tailor your concept and food to the area and needs of where you are located.
- Menu and redoing the menu constantly the first couple years is most important. You can have the best concept, best real estate location, etc. but if the food is not consistent and good, people will stop coming. Food is the key even if it is a Bar concept that serves food. That is where the longevity come from for establishments…
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
Fresh oysters and scallops!
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.
Figure out a way to take all the food wasted from over ordering and give back to the needy like the homeless, without them having to look for it on the street.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!