Delectable flavors of the East
At age 15, Gretchen Andrews was riding her bike home with money in her pocket to pay for a car, thanks to her restaurant job. She loved the steady paycheck and that every day and shift was different. It was then she made the decision to make a career in the culinary world.
Fast forward to June of 2011, Laguna Beach – Andrews opened Starfish, her restaurant project that explores the ingredients and dishes from the coastlines of Asia.
Although much of the food in Asia is found in homes, huts, roadside, or as street fare, Andrews wanted to elevate these historical, diverse dishes with presentation and flavors that everyone could understand.
At the start, “We had an incredible foundation and idea, but it was rudderless. Once Archie [McConnell] joined me here in 2012, Starfish finally could begin to take shape.”
Archie McConnell was born into the trade, on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, above his parents’ restaurant. And his grandfather owned operations throughout the city, one of which was Chinese.
“There were many times I sat in the dry storage eating clam chowder waiting for my dad to finish orders,” McConnell said.
Starfish Laguna Beach
As owners/partners of Starfish, Andrews and McConnell have found the place that fits their skills and ambitions.
Andrews and McConnell sat down with us to talk about the restaurant, marketing, and their ingredients for success.
Starfish attracts (and builds up) amazing employees. Could you elaborate?
Gretchen Andrews: We have managers and GMs who made the switch from other restaurants to come work at Starfish, and real, institutional bartenders – you know, the ones that were pouring drinks when you were born.
We’re a family, and key people have grown up physically, spiritually and emotionally inside Starfish.
Our lead trainer, manager and event coordinator, Miss Kayli, has shown tremendous dedication. Chef Pedro was a prep cook, and took every opportunity he was given with excitement and graciousness. He’s taken ideas and developed them into our 72-item menu – which we execute nightly with ease. It still amazes us.
Archie McConnell: I think the majority of our retention has been due to environment. Our culture is healthy and fun with hard work and rewards.
We encourage staff to have a life outside of Starfish and to stay healthy, and we strive to create an environment where they thrive.
You’re marketing to locals and tourists, with a very sensory website. Other tips?
GA: We worked really hard to achieve credibility with hotels through our guest experience, and they’re very loyal in their recommendations.
With locals, like with everything, it’s all about consistency. There are fantastic choices in Laguna Beach, and our locals have dined all over the world. We do a Happy Hour that they love and provides a different kind of dining option.
AM: We’re always trying to stay on top of the social media aspect. It’s essential, but to gain a presence requires a lot of attention. Our manager does a wonderful job of keeping us in the social community.
Marketing, in general, is a challenge for an operator. It’s necessary, but measuring return can be tricky. We try to stick to what we can control within our four walls – the guest experience.
“After all our efforts and the money we’ve spent, nothing works as well as a treasured experience customers can’t wait to share with friends.”Archie McConnell, Owner/Partner
We hear you have a 7-foot-high Buddha in the restaurant… Tell us about the benefits of impressive decor.
GA: Well, we put Starfish in somewhat of a sleepy strip mall, not visible from PCH [Pacific Coast Highway]. Our design had to transport guests to a vibrant and energetic atmosphere, away from their day-to-day life.
Hatch Design Group helped hone our vision, allowing us to be creative but never veer too far off path.
We wanted guests to have a visual experience without being overwhelmed. We had some of our space finished by a local artist, and purchased pieces on our own to bring in our local community.
Our Buddha wasn’t here until last year – it found us through two amazing guests turned friends, who gifted it to us. That’s how it works at Starfish.
And the food?
GA: We never take shortcuts, and our guests notice more than we ever expected.
AM: New menu items are added about once a year; we’ve run out of space! Ideas are endless, and so is guest feedback.
“We test a recipe over and over until it stands up to the rest of our menu. Every dish has to be a wow.”Gretchen Andrews, Owner/Partner
Like our popular Banana Leaf Steamed Halibut – really unique. We take an 8-ounce piece of fresh halibut and rub it with ground Thai herbs and spices, then steam it to order in the banana leaf with lemongrass rice and sliced Fresno peppers. We decided to serve it with warm flour tortillas and a chilled Thai chutney.
I think it gives an interactive and comfortable aspect that people love because they have to use their hands.
Everything BOH is provided by Shamrock Foods. Plus strategic thinking.
AM: True! We count on Shamrock Foods for everything from straws to sea bass, and their services give us blind confidence our business will continue each day, every day.
We switched over 3 years ago because we could really see the diversity in product sourcing they’re willing to do, along with price matching.
“We’re constantly asking for things to better improve our ordering, our check-in process, and inventorying. They’ve given us multiple tools to help us create what we need.”Archie McConnell, Owner/Partner
Specialty ingredients are part of the Shamrock Foods package – details?
GA: Thai basil, taro root, coconut milk, 5-spice powder, Korean chili paste, curry paste, fish sauce. Everything that goes into making some of our most popular items.[Sales Representative] Jerod Heitkamp has contributed in so many ways. From samples, to pricing, to endless trips to find those one off Asian ingredients that only we use.
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