Restaurants of a Certain Age

Nine restaurant success tips on how to grow old and stay hot

Restaurants seem to come and go in the blink of an eye. But every so often, a restaurant delivers just the right mix of quality food and comfortable ambiance to survive—even thrive—every passing year. 

To keep regulars loyal and attract new diners, stalwarts know how to work it. They provide great food, pile on the hospitality, regularly refresh menus and ensure that interior spaces stay up to date.  

But much of their success comes from embracing their roots.

If you fail to keep your regular, core customers, you’ve lost that voice, that advocate, who’s talking you up to five or 10 other people,” says Craig Huse, owner of St. Elmo Steak House, an Indianapolis fixture since 1902. “They continually introduce the restaurant to friends and business associates and keep it moving forward.”  

Balancing tradition with the need to remain current can be tricky. Here are nine ways to keep foot traffic high and earn veteran status.

1. Refurbish, Not Remodel

“You’ve got to continuously reinvent yourself, but that idea is complicated for some people,” says BJ Lowenthal, chief financial officer at Johnny Harris Restaurant, which has served smoked chicken and ribs in Savannah, Ga., for 89 years.

His solution: evolve more than change. 

Earlier this year, for example, he upgraded the restaurant’s wall coverings and floors, among other interior modifications. Lowenthal says those changes drew little notice from guests—which was precisely the point.

“We can’t let it get old and tired, but we can’t get away with changing the 1930s supper club look,” he says. “When people come in, that’s the draw.”

2. Give a Warm Welcome 

Regular patrons often enjoy being recognized and greeted by name, especially by an owner or favorite server, but it’s important that tourists and other first-timers feel welcome too, Lowenthal says.

The waitstaff at St. Elmo is trained to avoid lingering too long with regulars and to share the restaurant’s rich history, including a “Wall of Fame” of celebrity-signed menus, with out-of-towners.  

“We have a history, stories and traditions to tell,” he says. “It entertains many of our visitors and it’s something we have that others don’t.” 

3. Court Younger Customers

For years, the lunch crowd at Adelmo’s Ristorante, a quaint two-story Italian spot in Dallas, has been mostly men. Now, construction of a Trader Joe’s grocery store and Lululemon Athletica shop is underway on the same street. Adelmo Banchetti, who has owned the restaurant for 24 years, says he plans to add salads and lighter pasta dishes to the menu to appeal to younger shoppers.

Two years ago, St. Elmo built the 1933 Lounge on the floor above the restaurant, offering craft cocktails and a small plates menu to attract the younger after-work crowd. “We had to adapt to a clientele that didn’t want a two hour steak-and-potatoes-driven meal,” Huse says.

In Minneapolis, 59-year-old Kramarczuk’s adapted by taking its food to the crowds. For the past four years, the restaurant, which is known for Eastern European fare, has been selling its iconic sausages at Target Field, the home ballpark of the Minnesota Twins. In the first year, they sold $2.3 million in sausages during baseball season.  

“It’s a lot of exposure to the 20- and 30-year-old group,” owner Orest Kramarczuk says. “They’re the survival of our business.”

4. Update Traditional Dishes

Paola Bottero, chef-owner of Paola’s on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, owes much of the restaurant’s 30-year success to maintaining the traditional flavors of her Roman upbringing. 

"When you share something new with your customers, they'll get excited, too."

—Regan Jasper of Fox Restaurant Concepts

To improve the classics, Bottero takes advantage of today’s varied and trendy, high-quality ingredients, using grass-fed beef, locally sourced fish, new varieties of lettuces and herbs, and eggs and produce delivered from a farm in upstate New York.

“I keep all the old dishes traditional, but I change the seasonal ingredients to keep it fresh, clean and bright,” she says. 

5. Remain Hands-On

Dexter Weaver has dished up soul-food staples for 27 years at Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods in Athens, Ga. In October 2012, after several lean years, Weaver announced that his restaurant would close if business didn’t pick up.

He reached out to local media, many of which covered his story. A Facebook group sprang up to encourage a mass outing there, and in the weeks that followed, customers packed the dining room. More than a year later, the buzz has settled and Weaver D’s is still standing.  

Weaver says that most of the restaurant’s problems were tied to the economic downturn. But he acknowledges that he could have been friendlier to his customers and that running daily deals and other promotions was a mistake. 

Today, he says he’s more involved than ever in all aspects of the business, taking the time to greet guests and thank them for their support. “You have to be hands-on,” he says. “You cannot operate it from home.”

6. Be a Good Neighbor

Many restaurant owners look for ways to build relationships in their communities. For the past four years, Bottero has donated group dinners prepared in a private home to support fundraisers for neighborhood schools and other charitable groups. 

“A lot of people see it and it’s made us more friends than ever,” she says.

Regan Jasper, a partner with Fox Restaurant Concepts, which owns the 15-year-old Wildflower American Cuisine in Tucson, Ariz., and other restaurants, has a long history of involving community organizations. Last year, Wildflower expanded its outreach by donating red wine to a gala benefiting the Angel Charity for Children Inc. 

“They appreciated us showing up and we’ve attracted a new demographic that way,” he says. 

7. Check Out Other Restaurants 

Jasper encourages his team to try different restaurants and visit food-centric cities for inspiration.

You can’t stay in your own bubble,” he says. “Go to another city and eat at 10 different restaurants and come back with two new ideas. It doesn’t have to be food; it can be a light fixture, uniforms, a new cocktail.”  

On a recent trip to Denver, for example, Jasper liked the vintage coupe glasses at speakeasy bar Williams & Graham so much that he replaced Wildflower’s traditional martini glasses and Champagne flutes with similar glassware.

“You’ll make your restaurant better,” he says, “and when you share something new with your customers, they’ll get excited too.”

8. Use Space Strategically

With 28,000 square feet in the French Quarter of New Orleans, 95-year-old Arnaud’s houses several dining options under one roof. The namesake Arnaud’s offers Creole fine dining while the less formal Jazz Bistro features live music. The French 75 bar, adjacent to the main dining room, serves classic cocktails and draws guests who aren’t eating at the restaurant. Remoulade, the restaurant’s casual sibling, is accessible via a separate entrance and features local dishes like shrimp remoulade, along with an oyster bar and café fare.

 “We’ve been successful by reaching out to people via different outlets instead of just one traditional dining experience,” co-owner Katy Casbarian says. “It keeps us relevant and opens up new ways for people to get their foot in the door for the Arnaud’s experience.” 

9. Plan for Passing the Torch  

Many long-lived restaurants are family-owned and operated. Problems can arise when plans for succession from one generation to the next aren’t in place or are not clearly communicated among family members. This can be tricky, especially if owners have more than one child.  

“There’s two different decisions to make: what’s best for the business and what’s best for the family,” Kramarczuk says. “Sometimes they don’t coincide.” 

Kramarczuk requires his four adult children to work for at least two companies outside of the family business before coming aboard full-time. He’s also sought advice from business consultants, accountants and attorneys to work through the process. With one son working in the business, he says succession is resolved.  

“It’s one of the most difficult things in a family business to do,” he says. 

Monica Ginsburg is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

Signature appetizers like souffle potatoes at Arnaud’s in New Orleans (below) and of-the-moment ingredients such as grass-fed beef in classics, says Paola Bottero of her namesake restaurant in New York, are essential to staying current.

Several dining options at Arnaud’s expand its reach while guest favorites such as Strawberries Arnaud (strawberries macerated in port, red wine, spices and citrus with French vanilla cream) keep guests loyal.