When we spoke to Dustin Valette, chef and co-owner of Healdsburg restaurant Valette, he was sitting on his front porch with his infant daughter in his arms, looking out on downtown Healdsburg. He called out and waved to people passing by name.
“I grew up here,” he says. “Where I’m living right now is one block from the restaurant, which is half a block from my farm, which is a quarter block from my office, which is three blocks from where I was born.”
Those kinds of community roots are what make Valette so personal. Dustin opened the restaurant with his brother Aaron a little over a year ago after dreaming about it for 20 years. He started cooking at 13 and, after studying at the CIA in New York, worked at acclaimed, fine-dining restaurants such as Aqua, Bouchon, and most recently, Dry Creek Kitchen. Valette reflects his take on the new style of fine dining: high-quality, locally sourced food without the suits and pretense.
A single, independent, 49-seat restaurant serving the freshest possible ingredient is a recipe for slim margins. But, Dustin says, “profitability is very simple.”
Here’s his approach: Imagine you’re standing four feet from a wall. Hanging side by side on the wall are the Mona Lisa and a painting done by an elephant — scribbles. At four feet away it’s easy to see the difference between the two. But if you stand half an inch away, you can’t tell the difference. If you stand a mile away, you can’t see it either.
That’s true of business, too, he says. “If you only care about the long-term future and your grandiose vision but you don’t care about ensuring the guest is happy today, you’re never going to be successful. If you only care about profitability today and don’t have a long-term vision, it’s too fuzzy. The key to our success is having our vision and standing with it, and utilizing the experience and background that my brother and I have of business. But also it’s saying, we want to share our story.”
Dustin is adamant that the story behind Valette is the best marketing they have: “Our goal is to work with people who want to share that story.” Here are a few ways he’s used the story to create loyalty to the restaurant.
Make vendors & partners believe in you.
Dustin and Aaron had no investors when they opened Valette. What they did have were a lot of people who believed in them and wanted them to succeed.
Their coffee vendor didn’t charge them 100%; the building’s previous owners charged a fair rate. Their bank backed them entirely. “They understood we’re not going to make 30% profit, we’re going to maximize the guest experience people have in Healdsburg,” he says. “Everyone gave us the benefit of the doubt, and that allowed us to have the opportunity that we have now: a family-run business.”
From macro to micro, relationships like that can pay dividends, so it’s critical to forge connections and work with the right people. The way Dustin built that confidence in Valette was through telling his story.
“People aren’t caring as much about big corporations — they care about the individuals behind them,” he says. “At a small family-run business like ours, you’re supporting my daughter’s education, the busboy who makes higher than industry standards, and a farmer who plants with their hands. When people start supporting small businesses they’re supporting an ideal, a driver.”
Build your network.
Dustin began building his network years before he ever found a location for Valette and it became a reality. By sharing his passion with people early on with everyone from his air conditioning guy to his bank, those partners grew to understand his story and his business.
Everyone in town wants visitors to leave Healdsburg with a smile on their faces, having enjoyed everything the area has to offer. Dustin sees tasting room employees, hotel concierges, and locals on the street as his partners because they are the ones who will recommend Valette to people they meet.
If winery friends and people in the industry come to town to dine at Valette, Dustin will even let them stay at a guest cottage behind his house — no charge. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Reinvest in the food, staff, and experience.
Valette doesn’t have a PR agency and they don’t run any marketing campaigns. That’s because Dustin would rather spend the annual fee on making the restaurant better: focusing on quality ingredients, quality staff, and treating his employees and guests well. In doing so, he stays authentic to the restaurant’s story and promise.
“How can I spend $60,000 a year? I can pay a company to go out there and spread our word, which would be fantastic. I would love to have more accolades in New York, where people have never heard of us. But that $60,000 has to come from somewhere. I have to increase my prices, cut my quality, shave my staff… I’d rather pay each of my employees an extra $100 a month and say, guys, go tell your friends.”
He recognizes that awards won’t come as quickly and his face might not be on any national newspapers, but that’s ok. Valette is sold out most nights, even weeknights. He thinks that if people come in and enjoy it, they will come back and tell their friends, and that little buzz will keep growing.
“The thing I love about OpenTable is that you’re a large company that enables us to be seen among a crowd. You give small businesses the opportunity to compete against large businesses that have huge marketing campaigns. OpenTable helps drive our business — ours and other little restaurants across the United States.”
Photo Credit: Chris Hardy & Kim Carrol