Restaurant Fun Is Serious Business
Talk about customer engagement…
“At our BOOTLEGGER PLATES AND POURS concept, whenever Engine #4 from the nearby fire station drives by, we have the ‘Fireball yell.’ Then there’s the crowd at THE LOCAL PACIFIC BEACH chiming in every midnight when we play Rupert Holmes’s ‘Escape (The Piña Colada Song)’. And, in conjunction with a local animal shelter, we host a monthly meet and greet with rescue dogs on the deck of our newest restaurant, OB SURF LODGE.”
That’s Brendan Huffman, co-owner of Social Syndicate restaurant group, discussing how Social Syndicate builds “good energy”– as he puts it – at its many San Diego venues. Helping customers have fun is serious business. From venue branded merchandise to a guy dressed as a pineapple, there’s a real art to being memorable, and Social Syndicate has it nailed.
First, your introduction to the culinary world and your partners in Social Syndicate.
BH: My career started with my first bartending gig in New South Wales, Australia. Tipping isn’t customary in Australia, so you truly have to enjoy the trade to be slammed behind the bar – five people deep – with loud blenders and margarita mix, and only making an hourly wage. I realized just how much I enjoyed interacting with customers. I also learned that hospitality is our true ideology. I’ve known Mina Desiderio and Mark Huber for years and always held them in high regard both professionally and personally. Individually, we all had hired outside companies to fill gaps in our expertise in our various businesses to bring ideas to fruition. We recognized each other’s different strengths and, with a natural synergy, it made sense to combine forces.
Your group is focused on setting high expectations, such as regular Monday Night Karaoke. Why?
BH: I like the combination of variety and consistency – it’s a great balance. While we have several locations, menus and customer bases, there’s something consistent about each venue that makes it clearly a part of Social Syndicate. Every concept is community driven; we always use a piece of history from the area in our décor or theme and support local businesses, non-profits, festivals and events. We also really pride ourselves on the environment we create in each venue, as well as the menus – both food and cocktail.
What are some unique attributes among your concepts, in just a few words?
BH: Bootlegger: Alabama football headquarters to many. Wonderland Ocean Pub: nightly sunset toast, live music, some of the best coastal views, 320 seats in 8,000 square feet. The Local PB: incredible options include upstairs, downstairs and deck. Also, Hawaiian BBQ. The Local Downtown shares space with another one of our companies, Resident Brewing Co. The Rabbit Hole is located in one of San Diego’s oldest neighborhoods. Our new OB Surf Lodge has amazing brunch seven days a week and arguably the best Mai Tai in town.
Your Local Pacific Beach operation calls sandwiches “Two Handers.” Fun! Other food strategy?
BH: We have a seasonal calendar for menu edits that each chef follows, but they have full autonomy to be creative. While we have different types of restaurants – some heavy on coastal cuisine and others on American comfort food – our chefs share a common passion for craft beer. Given that we also have a beer company, it seems natural that our chefs are skilled at using craft beer in their recipes.
Without disclosing too much, what gives the thumbs-up on new venues?
BH: A lot of prospective restaurant properties come across our desks, but very few pass the so-called “sniff test.” If they do, then we begin to measure potential. Although we admit to some instinct on certain projects, we try to limit risk by researching all kinds of attributes, including physical location and demographics. Each venture must have an inherent advantage, like a great view or the “guts” of a buildout already completed.
And if you’re ready to discuss your staffing focus …
BH: While the aesthetics of our venues may be the initial attraction, we believe that it’s the staff and a consistent quality of the guest experience that make them successful. Social Syndicate employees really take pride in the brand and the service they provide. Behind it all is that friendly face you see every time you walk in the door. We consider our workforce an extended family, so we are always wanting to pave the way for opportunities for them to grow their careers within our group. I grew up in Hawaii and learned of “HO’OKIPA”. In a sense it is the Hawaiian version of hospitality but it is more than what we’ve come to consider hospitality to be these days. Ho’okipa goes beyond and ties in with our concept of family and gratitude for our guests. Having our own unique way to explain our core values within SS certainly adds more prideful cohesion.
You’ve chosen Shamrock Foods. What is that decision based on?
BH: To me it’s about relationships and trust when developing a partnership like this, or with any company that we work with. We consider our sales representatives, Rob [Fockaert] and Janis [Palmeter], great friends first and foremost, and decisions are always based on what’s best for our concepts. Also, we share a “think big, but act small” attitude that is always mutually beneficial.
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