Monday, August 26, 2013

Do Not Fall In Love With Any Particular Space

Interview at Langosta Lounge, Asbury Park, NJ
with Marilyn Schlossbach, owner

By Kathryn Gordon, Food Startup Help

Editor’s Note: Marilyn Schlossbach is a successful restaurateur whose multiple restaurants were damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

Kathryn:  Hi Marilyn, I wanted to come talk to you about the process of reopening numerous restaurants at once after Hurricane Sandy. 

Marilyn:  You have to make decisions on the fly, and based on the money situation each week.  It was a process.  You know what you need to get done, but with everyone in the area needing help as well, the people who were available to do the work – things don’t always line up together like a perfect storm.    

It takes time to get up and running, and the timeframe for reopening was never set in stone.  Our finances weren’t completely in line before the storm because we had started a construction project at Langosta.  It was very difficult to know when to say we would be opening, and when to be able to hire and start training staff again.   We got an SBA interest-bearing loan in the end, and now I’m applying for a state grant for additional funding.

Editor’s Note:  a commercial establishment is not covered under FEMA

Kathryn:  How did you go about finding replacement staff?  I imagine you didn’t keep many on board during the 7 month rebuilding hiatus. 

Marilyn:   We basically opened the weekend before Memorial Day with all new staff.  I bought into different website restaurant career sites, like “Good Food” jobs (, and did some recruiting at career schools and through Craig’s List. 

Not all people can handle our volume.  It can be a monster, depending on the shows open at The Stone Pony (right outside our door), festivals, etc. and the weather.  It’s a tough dichotomy.

Finding back of house staff (the chefs) was very difficult.  Everyone in Asbury Park along the beach reopened at the same time.  Unfortunately, New Jersey labor laws are not conducive for hiring “seasonal” employees versus year round staff.  Paying overtime when we are at our peak season becomes a financial drain on the employer.  But there’s a 12-16 week window in a seasonal situation in which everyone has to be open in order to make their money to allow them to remain open for the year.

Kathryn:  What exactly was the damage here at Langosta Lounge from the storm?  It’s located right on the boardwalk (1000 Ocean Avenue, Asbury Park, NJ).

Marilyn:  There was 8 foot of water in the basement.  All the windows got blown out.  I had to replace the kitchen equipment, chairs and moldy walls.  We had a $100,000 electric bill for rewiring – and even now, something new happens that was an effect of the storm, like a computer dying (and the inside turns out to be filled with sand). 

                                                                       Photo from Event Planners Guide to The Jersey Shore

Kathryn:  How has business been since you reopened in May? 

Marilyn:  The weekends are great.  Jersey Shore business is all driven by visitors.  We need people to come, visit and eat!

Kathryn:  I see that you now have a new sushi area?

Marilyn:  That’s the construction project I’d started before the hurricane.  We’d decided to have a new format, bringing it up to over 300 seats.  The sushi bar area can either serve sushi or we can transition it to a private dining room – with a view of the ocean.

Kathryn:  I love how all your places and menus have different themes!

Marilyn:  I try to create a fun place.  I want a vacation atmosphere – and allow people to “go away from life” while they are here.

Kathryn:  To me, you’ve always been very good at self promotion.  I know you always have posters up of events at your various restaurants up and down the Jersey Shore, and postcards to mail to your customer list…  In fact, we did a macaron class and hot chocolate tasting here in February to help raise money for beach restoration and Kula Café, and you made up some fabulous postcards for that event!  

Editor’s Note:  only one of Marilyn’s restaurants and stores stayed open after Hurricane Sandy, the Dauphin Grille in the Berkeley Hotel.

Marilyn:  Early on I started collecting customer email addresses.   Word of mouth is the best PR!  So I built a grass roots database, to allow me to reach my customers.  

Kathryn:  What do you think of social media, or sites like Yelp?

Marilyn:  I prefer to display the postcards in the restaurants, and send them directly in mailings, because the people who post on review sites – the majority had a negative experience and there’s no “balance” in the reviews, and they’re superficial.  If you have a fabulous dining experience, you’re just happy.  You’re not driven to go home, open up the computer and post something on Yelp. 

Kathryn:  Can you talk about your community outreach efforts?  I know you’re very active in the local community, philanthropy, and helped found Kula Café (a community café with a youth job training program in an economically deprived area):

Marilyn:  To me, you have to love what you do and not pursue it for the financial end.  Community based businesses support a lot of people, not just residents who need to eat.  They are the core of a community in providing a “sense of normalcy.” 

I’m financially responsible to over 100 employees.  I also believe in supporting local farmers.  We have a farm-to-table special at Langosta on Thursdays tied with cocktails.  Every Thursday evening, I started a 4:30 to sunset farm market in the old carousal in Asbury Park and encourage residents, and other restaurants, to buy local produce.

Kathryn:  You’re certainly busy!  How often do you visit each of your restaurants, since they’re scattered north and south on a 25 mile or so corridor?

Marilyn:  I try to visit each restaurant at least once a week.  The biggest storm hit was at Labrador Lounge (located in Normandy Beach, about the narrowest part of NJ with the ocean on one side and the bay on the other), so I spend most of my week at Labrador at the moment.  My staff there had on average been with me over 10 years.  Luckily, since it was a seasonal business – a lot of those employees came back, and have other jobs the rest of the year…

My husband and brother are also involved, as primary investors and managers.  And we need great, talented people to run these places and be the best they can be.

Kathryn:  What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned, running multiple establishments?

Marilyn:  For any business venture, understand your demographics and have a firm business plan.  Do not “fall in love” with any particular space.  You need a reality check.  If there’s no foot traffic – a location is not perfect.  And be receptive to change – you always have to look ahead and see what you need to do to make things better.

Kathryn:  What’s next for you?  You seem to have no shortage of ideas!

Marilyn:  Our biggest hurdle for ourselves is we are full of ideas.   My husband looks at me and I get a certain look on my face, and he says “oh no…”  But you have to be as good an operator as an idea person to succeed.

We are reopening our retail outlets, and the Asbury Park Yacht Club (APYC) surf bar.  Pop’s Garage (in Asbury) will be open year round.  Opportunities always come my way – if they’re perfect, then I’ll decide.

We need support from everyone.  When people’s routines disappear, it adds to the general sadness and frustration regarding what happened with the hurricane, losing mementos that will never be replaced.  Come help everyone and come visit!
Wood cat that drifted into Langosta Lounge in the storm, on display -- hoping its owner comes to eat at the restaurant one day and claims the cat to take it home

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