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.