Chuck Kneeland is a veteran of the restaurant industry. His career started waiting tables in Austin, TX and has led to Managing Partner of Steel Restaurant Atlanta and Vice President of the restaurant management company, Restaurant Works. Along the way he has honed his experience growing national restaurant brands, starting several of his own restaurants, and helping to turn around struggling brands – learning several key things along the way:
- Offer high quality food, service, beverage and environment.
- Surround yourself with a great staff.
- Provide structure and systems to manage uncertainty, but allow flexibility.
- Aggressively squash issues before they spread. If you have an unhappy customer, hunt them down and delight them.
- Finally, Adapt, Adapt, Adapt – 1) pay attention to your patrons, your neighborhood, the economy, technology, marketing trends …. and…. everything else. 2) Make adjustments as necessary.
With Steel Restaurant Atlanta, Chuck has created a beautiful, mid-town destination that embraces these ideals and attracts a mosaic of patrons. He strives to achieve Accessible Elegance, offering something for diverse palates and budgets.
I was able to sit down with Chuck and get a LOT of insights from him. That has resulted in a pretty long post, but it’s warranted considering all of the insights he provided. As always, you can read my summary below, but if you have time, listen to the entire interview (75 min, so it may take a minute or so to load) here
Steel Restaurant has a diverse audience depending on the time of day and which Steel Restaurant you are talking about.
Lunch versus Dinner
Lunch is more business people that work in the area. Dinner is completely different and can include bachelorette parties, corporate events, wealthy patrons that will buy $150 bottle of wine, as well as people that are looking for a good deal, but there is also a geographic difference.
Dallas versus Atlanta
The audience in Dallas is largely professionals, but transitions from older patrons that live in the Turtle Creek area early in the night to a younger demographic as the night progresses. When people go out in Dallas, it is an event that people dress up for.
Steel Restaurant Atlanta’s audience is more tricky. Similar to Dallas, it includes older patrons that live in mid-town high rises that love the food and service as well as younger patrons that like the hip environment. However, Chuck has discovered that Atlanta is much more neighborhood driven and casual than the Dallas market – kind of like his experience in Austin. Patrons – especially on weekends – are more likely to show up in jeans and t-shirts than in Dallas.
Both cities, however, demand a high quality experience.
Fundamentally, Steel Restaurant focuses on great food, service, and beverage programs in an elegant and stylish environment conveniently located in mid-town Atlanta and the Turtle Creek area of Dallas. More specifically, Steel offers:
- Delectable sushi as well as dishes where seafood, chicken, and beef take center stage.
- An excellent wine selection for those that demand the best.
- “Craveable menu items” that stand out in people’s minds and aren’t available anywhere else.
- Great service and attention to details.
- Affordable Bento boxes around $15.
- Noodle and rice dishes for cost conscious patrons – those looking for lunch under $10 or dinner under $15.
Steel’s offering is constantly being fine-tuned is based on patron feedback and even focus groups.
To address the neighborhood and casual culture of Atlanta, Chuck sees the need to “think neighborhood.” This includes:
- Connecting more intimately with people in surrounding condos as an involved member of the neighborhood.
- Taking into consideration the pedestrian nature of mid-town.
- Marketing targeted specifically to the locals.
Part of being able to execute on great promotions is having something great to promote. Steel Restaurant adds special events to their core offering (see the Upcoming Event section) to take advantage of this fertile ground. Some of the promotional tools Chuck has used include:
Traditional and Off-Line Promotions
- PR – Chuck works closely with Jamie Annarino from Red Clay to help orchestrate an ongoing PR strategy.
- Editorial – Chuck is a big fan of publicity through critic reviews, etc. … free promotion that comes if you are really good and can connect to the writers.
- Steel’s website – Steel Restaurants’ websites have been great at not only providing people information about the restaurants, but also setting the tone for what they are all about. The look and feel is a reflection of the actual environment. Steel Restaurant also puts a lot of effort in SEO (Search Engine Optimization) to improve their organic search result ranking.
- Open Table – allows the collection of names through reservations which Steel follows up on by sending emails to visitors – especially those that take the time to write a review.
- Radio – Steel doesn’t pay for any radio advertising, but does encourage radio personalities to come in and get a first hand experience of the restaurant, which frequently leads to on air mentions. Jamie has been able to help connect to these personalities.
- Print Promotions – Steel doesn’t pay for promotions in print publications either, but has been able to work out a gift certificate trade program with some – notably Sunday Paper. He provides them with gift certificates in exchange for print promotions and they use the gift certificates in giveaways and resell them at a discount. This allows effectiveness to be measured by tracking the certificates that are redeemed. Overall, however, Chuck “doesn’t believe in print anymore,” it’s just too expensive for a single restaurant.
- Direct Mail – the only mailing that Steel has participated in is with Welcome Mat Services that delivers special offers to people moving into certain zip codes. Steel offered a $20 off voucher with a “Welcome to the Neighborhood” message, which tied in well with Atlanta’s neighborhood mentality. An added benefit is that Steel gets the demographic and address information for the people that redeem the coupon.
- Special Offer Book – Chuck is also providing a 2 for 1 special offer, included in a promotions book sold to corporations. Extending these offers is unusual for higher end restaurants, but he believes that there are more people using coupons now than ever before and it gives him a conduit to get new people in the door, stun them with Steel’s offering and turn them into patrons. These deals require no money up front, however, he carefully monitors the other restaurants that are included to make sure he is less susceptible to brand dilution.
- Hotel concierges – Concierges are trusted by hotel guests and Steel Restaurant builds relationships with them by hosting special events, sending them gift bags and occasionally comp’ing their meal when they visit. Referrals can be tracked in Open Table to determine who is driving business to Steel and they treat referred guests as VIP’s through little touches such as providing a complementary glass of Champagne “from the concierge.”
- Taxi Appreciation Day – At one point, Chuck distributed free lunches to the taxi drivers of Atlanta in an effort to increase word of mouth. In hind site, this doesn’t seem like it was very effective, but when friends of his asked a cab driver if he knew about Steel, the cabbie told them about the promotion (“Steel really cares about us”). It didn’t have a huge return, but the point is to be creative.
- Membership discounts – Steel offers a variety of discount programs to different groups. For example, Mid Town Alliance members receive a 10% discount and residents of Plaza Midtown receive a 20% discount.
- Cause Marketing - Steel is a proponent of helping local charities, not only because of the exposure that it provides them, but also because of the opportunity to give back to the community. They have helped raise money for non-profits through work with organizations such as Camp Twin Lakes, Backpacks in the Park (sponsored by For the Kid), Toys for Tots, AID Atlanta, Jerusalem House, Breast Cancer Walks, Lymphoma Society, Community in Schools (Dine out for Kids), and Zoo Atlanta. This has included contributing to silent auctions as well as hosting events where Steel donates the food/venue and a percentage of the bar to the charity.
Viral and Social Network Marketing
Viral and social network marketing is, in general, very valuable, but takes time. Chuck believes you have to schedule for these activities or these efforts are likely to fall between the cracks. Also, the staff must be part of the game plan, so he encourages activities like the collection of customer feedback cards to build a patron database – creating ongoing relationships with patrons needs to be part of the culture.
- Email Campaigns - email addresses are collected through Open Table and customer comment cards and followed with periodic emails. Chuck’s rule is no more than 2 messages a month and Steel Restaurant is working on developing more involved newsletters that provide comprehensive information about the restaurants and what they have going on to keep patrons plugged-in.
- Local Search (i.e. Citysearch and Yelp) – Steel has been active on both Citysearch and Yelp (paying about $300/month), but tracking the performance of these sites has led Chuck to believe there is not a lot of value beyond the features that are offered for free. The most notable advantage has been the ability to monitor user posts, especially negative ones, so that Steel can resolve issues and ideally connect to individuals directly. He’s gone as far as, after receiving a negative review, calling every person with an Open Table reservation from the previous night to find the reviewer and offer to make things right.
- Facebook – both Steel Dallas and Atlanta have Facebook pages – tapping into social networks – that have provided decent activity related to user posts and promotions. They don’t have a lot of fans, but “the ones that are on there are the most loyal.”
- Twitter – with over 1,200 followers on Twitter, even if a fraction of Steel’s posts are seen, it provides a way to stay on patrons’ minds.
NOTE: Steel’s willingness to provide special offers is worth highlighting. Many higher end restaurants resist this idea because of concerns about how it reflects on their brand, but Chuck makes the point that things are different now – “who pays full price nowadays?” When you live in a world where Macy’s is having 50% off sales, he believes you need to change to meet the market’s demands.
Chuck believes that word of mouth is “the most important thing of all.” Good word of mouth leads to returning customers, event bookings, and referrals. Making it easier for patrons to spread the word is the responsibility of the organization.
- Social networks like Facebook allow for news and upcoming events to be rapidly shared with the click of a button
- Twitter allows information to be “re-tweeted” easily
- Email thank you’s keep Steel Restaurant on people’s minds and makes it easy for them to respond, forward the email to friends, or click to make another reservation
- Email newsletters can also be easily forwarded
Some of the tools that help build the email database are:
- Open Table – Open Table serves as a valuable funnel of email information on patrons reserving through the site.
- Mailing cards – Steel also encourages patrons to fill in survey cards with their information that can be entered into their contact list for email or physical mail follow ups.
The most obvious connection points to patrons is their time in the restaurant, but in this competitive market, taking the extra steps required to maintain a dialog is a huge advantage. Chuck’s dialog focuses on:
- Being Appreciative. Call, email, or send a card to guests after their visit using information from Open Table, your POS system, or customer comment cards. Show them that you value their business.
- Being Informative. Keep them informed about the organization using email campaigns, but DO NOT ABUSE THIS. No more than 2 a month.
- Feeding those with passion. Provide a way to connect with your most passionate patrons; being active on Facebook and Twitter allows people to choose how they want to interact with you. Think about it this way, if you try this and no one signs up, then you didn’t annoy anyone. However, if you have patrons that want to actively be informed about what your organization is up to real time, whether you understand it or not, why not feed their zeal?
Throughout this interview, it became obvious how many things Chuck focuses on to make Steel successful. Obviously, anything that can simplify this helps a lot and here are some of his tricks.
- Add process and structure – having procedures in place so that employees know what to expect helps to streamline operations. This includes managing work schedules, taking monthly physical inventory, systematizing ordering and delivery processes, etc. People like structure and knowing what to expect.
- Be flexible. While structure is important, don’t be so rigid that it stifles the patron experience, let the staff do their job.
- Partner with people that make life easier. Find partners that understand their success is intertwined with yours and that are willing to go the extra mile. For example:
- Cat Chang performs every Friday night at Steel Restaurant Atlanta and promotes herself in addition to Steel’s efforts.
- National Distributing is a vendor that works with Steel to build a wine strategy, comes in to dine and refers others to visit – Chuck does business with people that do business with him.
- POS – Steel uses Aloha POS, which provides information on not only what food items are popular, but the activity of various discount programs and analysis of Net sells derived from those programs.
- Open Table – Open Table provides information on guests, including phone number, email address, birth dates, etc. This makes it easier to build your patron database, which in turn enables you to Connect and Leverage word of mouth.
Using metrics to find out what promotional tools are successful and the aspects of your organization that are working – and those that aren’t – is critical. Steel has a robust framework in place for this, with a focus on efforts that show quantitative results.
- User comment cards. This is low-tech, but can provide great feedback for detailing people’s in-house experience.
- Special Offer redemption. Steel tracks who is redeeming special offers and where those offers are coming from. This closes the loop for their efforts and let’s them know where to focus more resources.
- Web Activity. Steel actively monitors how active their Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, and Citysearch profiles are and tracks how people are finding their website (through Google Analytics). Instead of paying a online reputation management company approximately $2,000 a month to do this, they have enlisted the help of a Georgia Tech student that provides them with monthly reports.
- POS – Aloha provides metrics for what menu items are popular and which are not, helping to refine Steel’s offering to meet the demands of patrons. It also allows them to track the special offers previously mentioned.
- Open Table – this has provided a wealth of information about patrons and the frequency of their visits.
Words of Advice
Chuck believes that you first must be passionate about what you do. Beyond that, he advises:
- Don’t just say you are customer driven, be customer driven to obtain repeat business.
- Stay committed to quality, no matter what.
- Your people are your best asset and mediocre people equal a mediocre business. Take great care of your staff and spend the time to choose them wisely.
- Organization and structure is critical – watch your pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.
Connect with Steel and Chuck Kneeland
Located in Plaza Midtown at the corner of 9th and West Peachtree
Located in The Centrum Building at intersection of Welborn and Hall
|Steel Restaurant Atlanta: www.steelatlanta.com
Steel Restaurant Dallas: www.steeldallas.com
Chuck Kneeland on LinkedIn
Steel Atlanta on Facebook
Steel Dallas on Facebook
- Monday – Thursday, 5:30-7:00 PM – Sunsets at Steel. 3-course dinner for $30.
- Wednesday nights, 5:30-7:00 PM – Sushi Night. Complementary Sushi and happy hour specials on Steel specialty cocktails, beer and hot Sake.
- Thursday nights, 5:30 PM – close – Kampai Thursdays. 50% off Sake by the bottle.
- August 14-30 – Restaurant Week 2009. Prixe Fixe, 3 course meal for $35 that benefits North Texas Food Bank.
- Monday – Saturday, 5:00-6:30 PM. Pre-Theater Menu. 2-course menu for $19.95 or 3-course menu for $24.95.
- Wednesday 5:00-7:00 PM. Steel Happy Hour. Complementary Sushi and signature cocktails.
- Friday 10PM until. Fantasy Fridays with Cat Chang. Live on piano and mic… check her out at http://catchang.com/.
- August 5, 2009. Participating in Taste of Asia’s Public Tasting at Macy’s.
- August 29 – September 6, 2009. Participating in Midtown Restaurant Week.
- August 20, 2009 . Participating in Dine out For Kids. Helps to raise money for Communities in Schools.
- TBA. 2 year anniversary party
- Lots more !
Chuck Kneeland started his career as a waiter paying his way through the University of Texas, which led to bar tending and night club management. After graduation, he spent a brief time at 3M before returning to the restaurant industry:
- He began by working for Sfuzzi in Dallas in the late 80′s. This grew from one restaurant to about 19 across the U.S. and Chuck moved up in the organization.
- He then moved on to Lettuce Entertain You out of Chicago which was bought by Brinker International, leading to a role with the Maggiano’s division. He worked there for 7 years in Chicago, D.C., and ultimately ended up opening the Maggiano’s in Atlanta.
- In 2001, Chuck opened an Italian restaurant in the West Village (Dallas) called Ferre’ with his current business partner, Patrick Colombo (founder of Sfuzzi). This was followed by a wine bar next door called Cru.
- Steel Restaurant in Dallas was owned by one of the investors from Ferre’ and Cru – Mike Chen – and was struggling, so Chuck helped turn the restaurant around, creating a successful sushi restaurant in a market with very strong existing players.
- After turning Steel Dallas around, Chuck decided to expand the concept to Atlanta, which he was familiar with from his Maggiano’s days. He felt that there was a hole in the Atlanta market that Steel could fill and they opened in November 2007.
Chuck is also the Vice President of Restaurant Works – a restaurant management/ownership company founded by Patrick Colombo that, is involved with Steel Atlanta, Steel Dallas, Victory Tavern in Dallas, Ferre’ in Fort Worth and Cru’s multiple locations.
Chuck continues to focus on the growth of Steel Restaurant Atlanta, but is also considering how to expand the concept in addition to growing the other properties associated with Restaurant Works.
- Red Clay Public Relations – Jamie Annarino works with customers such as Highland Bakery (one of my favorites) and Dantanna’s and is a great resource for connecting Steel Restaurant Atlanta to valuable PR opportunities.
- Cat Chang – not only is she a great musician, but pushes hard to promote herself and the nights she performs at Steel Restaurant Atlanta.
- National Distributing – Emmanuel and Todd Martin are great to work with.
- Selig Enterprises – a great landlord.
- RDS – the vendors for Steel’s Aloha System is responsive and reliable.
- Kiyo Kajima from Sake Story - provides classes and other events at Steel Atlanta to educate people about Sake.
- Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau
- The Mid-town Alliance – for their help with email blasts, promotions, and all around commitment to growing mid-town Atlanta
- Communities in Schools
- Chris Kids
- AID Atlanta
- Jerusalem House