Rick LeSage is always peeking at restaurant kitchens. He notices their size, their shape, how many people they need to run each station. When he sees a line of eight cooks cranking out plates on a busy Saturday night, he imagines that same setup during a slow lunch in winter, and he knows it won’t work as well.
“The cooks are running back and forth,” he said. “It’s taking longer to cook.”
LeSage, 55, started in the restaurant business more than 30 years ago as a dishwasher and cook at Coco’s Bakery Restaurant, a chain with more than 50 locations in the West, and worked his way up to district manager. Then, he joined a restaurant management company, Synergy Pacific Management, in Irvine, California, where he rose to chief operating officer, overseeing seven brands in multiple states. His last stop in the corporate world was Sbarro, where he was part of an executive team attempting to turn around the mall-based pizza chain.
Now, his solo firm, Northwest Restaurant Consultants, is teaching independent restaurant owners in Bend and elsewhere how to operate more efficiently and consistently. Recently, he’s worked with Bend-based businesses Bad Wolf Bakery & Bistro on a second location and Silver Moon Brewing on a kitchen and bar renovation.
LeSage sat down with The Bulletin to talk about the restaurant business. His responses have been edited for length and content.
Q: Do you think the public interest in cooking shows and local cuisine helps independents compete with chains?
A: Absolutely. Many chains have become old and tired. They are not really about pushing the envelope, or a lot of creative or risky or new styles of cooking. They become very consistent-based, so they can have the same product nationwide or regionwide. Independents are more about flair.
Q: How can an independent restaurant owner survive the rise and fall of food fads?
A: There’s going to be risk with the specific niches they may go into. However, the ones that are sharp and want to continue to evolve, they’re going to pay attention to industry movement. They can do enough research and pay attention to what’s happening in the communities they’re in to steer their menu to new tastes.
Q: Has there ever been a restaurant concept that totally surprised you with its popularity?
A: Some, I was surprised they had stayed as long as they could. You look at Arby’s, how it declined so much. Now, it’s back on the rise as one of the hotter concepts out there you could franchise. Many times, that’s strictly the involvement of a good CEO and leader. Many chain restaurants get stagnant because of their leadership, not because the product’s bad. The ones that stand out could be because they have great marketing. I never though Pieology would be as big as it is.
Q: Do you get many requests for help with labor costs?
A: There’s a big struggle with that. They also may not have the capital resources sometimes to put in more efficient equipment or redesign so you can run the business with less employees. That’s one of the things I work hard on, is efficiency improvements in kitchens.
Q: What are small changes owners can make to increase productivity?
A: You need to look at your menu, too. If you’re not selling items, sometimes you may need to revise your menu to accommodate for space on the cook line and/or execution. Too large of a menu can create more waste, more prep. It may not result in more sales.
Q: How can restaurants improve on the front end?
A: (Fast casual) was designed to alleviate some of the front-of-the-house labor. I still prefer the full-service model where you have servers waiting on the tables. I don’t think there’s that much of a labor burden versus fast casual. I look at the turnover. I look at the quality of employee you can get. If I have a full-service restaurant, I’m going to look for people with experience already.
Q: Do you ever discourage potential clients from opening a restaurant?
A: I’ve told many, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? Who’s going to cover for you? When’s your next vacation? How are you going to buy a new this or that when it breaks?’ I’ve had people come to me with very little cash and want to open a business. By the time I’m done talking to them, they don’t come back. I don’t want to see anybody fail.
If somebody is new in business and they want to open a 5,000 square-foot, full-service restaurant, and they’ve got $100,000, $200,000, don’t do it. You’re going to be disappointed. By the time you buy everything and do it, you’re trading hours for a job. To do it right, you want to think long-term and budget and forecast properly.
Q: Where do you see opportunity in the Bend restaurant scene?
A: For full-service restaurants, there doesn’t seem to be a lot in the middle-price segment that delivers a great product. Zydeco (Kitchen & Cocktails) downtown does a great job. There’s not a lot of players in that. You start getting into some of the higher-priced places, Jackalope Grill, Bos Taurus. Where can you get an entrée for $10 to $25, versus $20 to $50? There’s not a lot of places here that have that mid-scale price affordability. That’s why some of the chains are doing OK, because they’re in that price segment, but the independents are not.
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