The Linkery Learns From Its Mistakes, and Changes a Bit of the World in the Process

Author: 
Scott Ballum
Contributors: 
Doug Gates

The Linkery in San Diego’s North Park is one of the hottest, if not the most recommended, farm-to-table, high caliber restaurant around. But if owner Jay Porter were in the same position now as he was in 2004, he certainly wouldn’t open a restaurant again.

Jay is an unlikely restaraunteur. A former project manager for consumer electronics and direct TV applications, he found himself making great money, but spending too much time swearing at board meetings. “Curse at your boss too many times and you start to feel like maybe you need a new job,” he remembers. Around the same time, he felt the constant frustration of living in a neighborhood that was awesome in many ways, and yet lacking a decent sit-down, quality food eatery. He would try to show out-of-town guests a good time, but would have to hop on the freeway take them to a great dinner. Whenever a new place opened up, he would see locals line up around the block to check it out, hoping it was the place they had been waiting for—and then see the same places boarded up a few months later when it wasn’t. He decided to take the savings he had, and create the place himself.

Once again, he saw folks line up to see if it was the promised eatery. But, Jay admits, his wasn’t either, not at first. Six months after opening, he found himself struggling to get people to come back. Food was inconsistent, as was the service. He was strung out, overwhelmed, and unprepared for the challenge. In hindsight, it was the first of several “inflection points”, moments of imminent failure that ended up shaping the future of The Linkery. He and his team decided they needed to do less, and do it better—a mantra they would regularly return to when things would get hairy again.

They decided to let their income set their business model: if they could only afford two servers, they would only have two servers, and everyone would have to be dedicated to “running their asses off.” They cut staff, cut hours, and began making a more deliberate effort to get better quality products. When they were told by their distributors that they couldn’t get high-quality, locally-sourced meat, they stopped using their distributors.

“If what you’re doing isn’t working,” Jay told me, “you can change what you do, or you can change the world so that it does. We decided to change the world.”

The restaurant started closing on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Tuesday was a literal day off, but Wednesday was full tilt, visiting farmers markets, the local food coop, and eventually farmers themselves, to get the best, local, seasonal meats and produce available. Then the team would converge to build their week’s menu off of what they found. Total revenue dropped, as they were closed two days and spending more on supplies, but they saw nightly revenue increase. People started waiting in line for a table, wanting the wonderful food and knowing they couldn’t come back mid-week to get it. They started to build a base of neighborhood regulars.

Though things were starting to fall into place, they were hitting another rut—business wasn’t growing, and the small base they had established wasn’t enough to carry The Linkery into the black. They needed to broaden their reach, but couldn’t afford the energy or resources it might take to do that. Thus was born the third of their long-standing mantras. “Do remarkable things. Be transparent about it. Make it easy for others to talk about it.” They refocused their efforts once again on getting the best product and being a fun place to eat. Their website and blog started announcing special beer/meat pairings nights, and events like a monthly “Rueben Tuesdays”, giving folks a specific reason to come to The Linkery, and not turn away if there was a wait for a table.

The most recent problem Jay and The Linkery faced was a personal one, and one that seemed the hardest to overcome. At the time, state law required California table servers receive minimum wage (unlike much of the country where their base pay is about a dollar an hour), and prohibited forcing waitstaff to tip-out bartenders and kitchen staff. The best servers want to work on a team with happy bartenders, and support their kitchen to be sure they have a great product to bring out to the table, so they were tipping out on their own accord. Others, though, were there to play the tipping game, only concerned with drawing a smiley face on the bill to grease their gratuity, and not give a dime to the rest of the staff. The law encouraged selfishness, and their good servers and staff weren’t sticking around because they weren’t taking home what they were worth. Rather than come down as “bad cop” on the self-serving servers, something Jay saw as only bringing morale down further, he returned to his mantra of “you can change what you do well, or you can change the world to make it work the way you want it to.” They made the decision to do what very few restaurants anywhere have done: they abolished tipping, and began charging 18% for table service, which would then be more fairly distributed across front- and back-of-house staff.

At first, he did hear a alot of noise from customers about the decision, angry that they didn’t yield ‘the power of the tip’ to demand better service. But effectively, his good servers were thrilled with the decision, as a better-paid kitchen sent out better quality food. His bartenders were happier and more comfortable attaching an unpaid bartab to a party’s table bill because they were going to get some of the gratuity regardless. And his greedy servers, the ones who had just been in it to increase their take-home, left. Service overall improved consistently, and customers had no reason to gripe. In actuality, it improves the customer’s experience as well, not having to worry about tipping too much or not enough, or forgetting completely after a few too many brews.

This has formed the model that The Linkery works under to this day. The best quality food from local, sustainable sources, great service, and a fun place to gather and eat. Jay is under no delusions that challenges won’t continue to present themselves. But he does feel confident that they have learned so much from the rough spots so far that they have the tools to handle them: Do less, do it better; change the environment so that you can do what you want to do; do something remarkable, be transparent about it, and make it easy to talk about.

So if The Linkery is proving to be such a success, why does Jay say he wouldn’t do it again? “Since 2004, a number of restaurants in the neighborhood have started serving a variety of good food in places that are fun to gather in. There’s just not the same need for it now. What we need is a good independent bookstore, or record shop, to increase local retail and office space. People are recognizing the neighborhood as one of the best in the city, but I’m not sure if just restaurants is enough to bring and keep people here.” Jay doesn’t find himself swearing at board meetings too often these days, so it’s unclear whether we should expect him to suddenly go into bookstore business, but it does seem like an invitation for others to look at a neighborhood or community they love, seek out the need, and determine to make it happen.

Learn about The Linkery’s dedication to local and sustainable meats and farmers, their revolutionary no-tipping policy, and their up-coming events, at www.thelinkery.com

 

Comments

Good stuff. Now we just need to find another brave soul to ditch the cubicle for the indy bookstore we've all been waiting for. Who's gonna step up to the plate?

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