For their book “The Founder’s Mentality,” Chris Zook and James Allen researched multiple companies around the world, studying their various stages of development. One restaurant group they focused on had a CEO who said, “We create restaurant owners, not waiters.” The authors went on to highlight one of the primary characteristics that goes into an outstanding employee— taking ownership of where you work while representing your employer as if you have a stake in the company’s success. Think about this. If you worked in a restaurant, and another one opened up across the street, how would you react? See if you can spot the difference between those two options.
“Wow, I wonder if they’re hiring.”
“I wish them all the best, we will continue to focus on our goals and getting better every day.”
Which employee would you want?
When Johnny Fisher opened Fisher’s Restaurant in May 2013, he did so on the backs of people he trusted and knew from working many years in the industry. With just three months to conceptualize, design and hire for a 400+ seat venue, the pressure was nothing short of intense. As he reflects back on that time, however, you would never know the odds of not succeeding were ever present in his mind. Mainly because his mind is stocked with plenty of optimistic philosophy.
“Love for the environment, love for our guests,” says Fisher, as if teaching a course in restaurant management. “We want people who work here to have a passion for this business. That feeling doesn’t just happen, it’s created.”
Stepping into Fisher’s, you immediately sense this positive vibe. General Manager and Sommelier, Sara Kavanaugh, started with the company in August 2016. A New Orleans transplant with a professional pedigree that includes the Windsor Court Hotel in NOLA, she was impressed. “I don’t know if I’ve ever managed a restaurant where the service team is so passionate. It was really exciting to see. Some of our employees drive an hour to get to work. Nobody does that in New Orleans!” she says, laughing at the thought.
Listed Top 20 in the “Best Wine Program in the Country” category by James Beard in 2013 & 2014, and mentioned as having one of the “Top 100 Wine Programs in the Country” by Wine Enthusiast Magazine, Kavanaugh’s focus is more than palatable.
“The wine training is never ending. I taste as much as I can, and read about wine on a daily basis. It’s an ever-changing business and you must stay on your toes.”
Fisher’s occupies two floors and over 20,000 square feet at the Orange Beach Marina in Coastal Alabama. Its two-story layout is just that: two different stories. Seating 220 guests downstairs, Fisher’s Dockside is pure Coastal Casual, just steps from the water. Flip-flops and t-shirts are welcome here. Fisher’s Upstairs, the fun-loving, Coastal Chic sister, seats 200, and was designed as a place for people to spruce up, have a ladies night or business dinner, all while feeling comfortable while dressed for success. Both spaces have their own kitchen, and their atmospheres remain consistent with Johnny’s philosophy and intent.
“To whom much is given, much is expected,” he says. “It’s our responsibility to use our gifts and talents to make a difference in the world.”
Hearing these words from a restaurant owner, who cites New York City’s Danny Meyer as an influence, has a humbling, yet empowering effect on the listener. Meyer is a legend in the business world, and known for quotes such as, “Hospitality is present when something happens for you. It is absent when something happens to you.”
Wouldn’t you drive an hour to work for someone who channels that wisdom?
At the risk of hyping another magazine, it’s important for us to mention some of the superlatives that go along with running a sophisticated restaurant on the order of Fisher’s. The readers of Southern Living recently named this venue one of the Top 5 restaurants in the South. (“South’s Best Restaurants 2017”). With over 22,000 participants, readers weighed in on their favorites below the Mason-Dixon, and restaurants from Charleston to New Orleans showed up on the list. And there’s good ole Orange Beach, AL, at number 5. How will that affect their business?
“A lot of pressure, but in a good way!” says Kavanaugh. “Now there’s a responsibility to live up to that award. I’m optimistic, but I don’t think we’re ever good enough. Each day is a new challenge, each day we have to find our stride.”
Johnny adds, “So think about that. In 2015 we made the Top 100. Last year we made the Top 30. This year we’re in the Top 5? What kind of impact do you think it has on our staff? They understand we’re doing whatever it takes to create the best guest experience. More importantly, we take care of each other. That drives us. Everyone feels like they’re part of a family here. When they start to see the recognition that flows from that, it has an impact.”
Chef and 2016 & 2017 James Beard Award nominee, Bill Briand, agrees. “If someone in my kitchen has an idea, I get them involved so they see a bigger picture. They see their future. I ask them, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years.’ I want them thinking about this job as a career, so their opinion matters.”
Adds Fisher, “The three of us have a chemistry that lends itself to creating the best restaurant in the country. That may sound crazy and pompous, but we believe in having high goals. Why couldn’t we be the best restaurant in the country? Why couldn’t we create a place where you walk in and you just float because everything is just amazing?”
When a professional sports team wins a championship, the tendency is to think it’s because they have the highest payroll. A small part of that is true. But sportswriters and insiders will tell you money is just a small part of their success. As management consultant Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
At Fisher’s, the same is true for lunch and dinner.