How 6 local restaurateurs are shaping Salt Lake dining scene

Dining • How six local restaurateurs are shaping the Salt Lake dining scene.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune There are not many Salt Lake City business owners with enough confidence to pack up a nationally-recognized restaurant at the height of its popularity and shelve it for an unknown length of time. Unless you’re Ryan Lowder. The Salt Lake City chef plans to close Plum Alley on Feb. 1 so he can transform the space into a wine bar he had originally envisioned two years ago when he signed the lease. Friday January 24, 2014 in Salt Lake City.

Salt Lake City's restaurant scene is thriving, and many of the restaurants that have opened recently are run by a handful of familiar faces.

These restaurant owners and co-owners started small with one unique eatery that prospered. That success prompted the opening of more dining ventures despite the risks all new restaurants face.

All of these owners have confronted challenges and learned lessons as they continued to perfect their approaches to the business of cuisine. Most agree that going from one to two restaurants was the hardest, and the subsequent spots came together a bit easier, largely because they had learned from experience.

There isn't a standard recipe for creating a successful restaurant group, but many of the ingredients are the same: excellent staff, delicious recipes, business acumen, courage, passion bordering on zeal, timing and a bit of luck.

Staff is key • No owner can run multiple restaurants alone, but finding a trusted management staff can be challenging.

"Our biggest factor in opening new locations was that we had talented people and we were going to lose them unless we did something else," said Ryan Lowder, who co-owns with his wife, Colleen Lowder, C.O. Hospitality, which includes Copper Common, Copper Kitchen and Copper Onion.

He put in place a management team of people he knew well, allowing him to get away from day-to-day operations at each location and focus on the group as a whole.

"Some owners have it so lean," Lowder said. "I would never do that. It would mean making more money, but it would create more problems and make for a less enjoyable experience for our guests."

For Joel LaSalle, president of LaSalle Restaurant Group — which includes Oasis Café, Faustina, Kyoto and Current Fish and Oyster — it's all about making sure a person fits in with co-workers.

"We're spending more time with each other than we do with our spouses and children," he said. "Our No. 1 criterion is chemistry. I can teach skills, but I can't teach personality."

He said he has had talented, capable people working for him who simply didn't make it because they struggled to fit into the culture of a restaurant.

He has promoted many of his servers to managerial positions and given them a stake in the company.

Logen Crew, his chef at Current, keeps his calm even in the highest-stress situations.

"It really does help when you have an awesome chef," LaSalle said.

Mikel Trapp, owner of Trio Restaurant Group who co-owns Current with LaSalle, has followed a similar hiring pattern, with 90 percent of his management staff having started as servers.

"We can offer them better pay and better job security," he said. "What makes our restaurants is our staff and the relationships they have with each other and our guests."

Other owners have looked to the outside for management expertise. Todd and Kristin Gardiner, co-owners of Taqueria 27, said they started with a server-manager when they had one location, but as they quickly expanded to three, they looked for people with management experience.

"Staff is key," Todd Gardiner said. "Consistency is key."

Business sense • Scott Evans, founder of Pago Restaurant Group, has a full-blown business plan he has painstakingly mapped out for his restaurants, which include places such as Pago, Finca and East Liberty Tap House.

It was one of the many fail-safes, including earning an MBA from Westminster, he put in place before opening his doors.

"I wanted to do what I could to eliminate as many options to fail," Evans said.

He opened Pago with an investment from his sister and brother-in-law, who lived out of state. Eventually, they returned to Utah, allowing him to open new locations.

Accounting is what Copper Onion's Lowder looks at in his business — he'll wax poetic about the importance of depreciation to a business owner, and he hired an in-house controller who oversees costs and expenditures at all three of his restaurants.

Ian Brandt, owner of Sage's Café, Vertical Diner and Cali's Natural Foods, said he highly recommends owners budget in legal services.

It was a lesson he learned quickly as his Café SuperNatural closed at Trolley Square and later when he moved Sage's Café's to a new location a few years ago.

Location • Café SuperNatural looked like it was going to be in a prime spot. It was November 2011 and Trolley Square was under new ownership. But Brandt said he ignored some warning signs, and the café closed in January 2014.

His other locations have been created largely on instincts that have worked out.

"My motivating factor as a business entrepreneur is the location. That starts the process," Brandt said. "The plan is an established plan, but not definitive. The location defines the plan completely."

The Gardiners didn't expect to expand as quickly as they did, opening three restaurants in about as many years. But real-estate agents kept approaching them, and when a spot in the new Holladay Village became available, they jumped. Having a brand new space was appealing after having opened their first location in a space that was once an Indian grocery store. When a spot next to Bar X downtown opened, they decided to open a third restaurant.

"We knew we wanted more than one location, but we had never planned to expand so quickly," Kristin Gardiner said.

"But these great spots kept opening up, and we knew we'd never get the chance at those places again."

Creating a space that causes a buzz is another way to approach a new restaurant. LaSalle and Trapp did that when they renovated an old antiques store into Current and its bar, Under Current. The soaring ceilings, exposed brick and ventilation and use of glass helped draw in crowds. The restaurant is currently doing 2 ½ times more business than the duo originally forecast.

"This level of architecture simply isn't something that is done in Salt Lake City," LaSalle said. "It looks more like a restaurant you'd find in Seattle, San Francisco, Philadelphia or Chicago. People love this building."

LaSalle said he plans to renovate all of his locations, which he owns outright rather than leasing, starting this fall with Faustina.

Hard work • All of the owners agree that everyone approaches the restaurant business in a different way, and no one has all the answers.

They recognize that dozens of people helped them get where they are now, and that hard work and dedication were helped along with a little luck and good fortune.

And it always comes down to keeping the customer happy and wanting more.

"I don't consider myself a successful businessman, it's just a matter of hard work," said Todd Gardiner of Taqueria 27. "It's a fickle industry, and what's important is to stay consistent and relevant to the people who come in."

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Todd and Kristin Gardiner, co-owners of Taqueria 27, pose in the Foothill Blvd. location, Thursday, July 2, 2015.