Ken Stewart credits his father, an attorney, for making him what he is today: a great restaurant customer.
The 54-year-old Akron native says he and his older sister frequently dined out with their parents. And when they did, their father always encouraged them to order something different.
“My father would always say to me, ‘You’ve got to try everything. You don’t have to finish it, and if you don’t like it, order something else. But at least order it and try it,'” he says.
The thought of a child ordering entrees like Goldilocks samples porridge may shock those who remember being admonished to clean their plates. But despite his somewhat unorthodox introduction to restaurants, Stewart has some decidedly old-fashioned ideas about running them.
His continued success in a business in which eateries routinely come and go proves that attention to quality and customer service still pays off, even in a world in which profit margins and volume are king.
According to Stewart, Friday night sales at Ken Stewart’s Grille now equal what he grossed in an entire week when he opened the 225-seat Akron restaurant a dozen years ago this month. And proceeds from the 350-seat Ken Stewart’s Lodge on North Cleveland-Massillon Road in Bath Township, which celebrates its first anniversary this month, have exceeded his original projections, despite the recent economic turndown.
“During tough times, we give value,” he boasts. “People will come in for that. They’re treated well, they feel comfortable and they know they’re getting their money’s worth and then some.”
The University of Cincinnati graduate learned about the restaurant business working in the Brown Derby chain owned by the family of his one-time brother-in-law, Paris Girves. Stewart worked his way up from trainee to manager, then bought the chain’s Lorain franchise. For a time, he was the company’s director of operations.
“I worked with Gus Girves, the founder,” Stewart says. “That was a great experience, just watching him operate and learning his concepts. I was able to take some of that information and incorporate it into the kind of places that I wanted to have.”
In 1990, after 17 years with the chain, Stewart sold his franchise and decided to open an eatery of his own. A wine salesman offered to set up a meeting with the proprietor of Foley’s Restaurant, who was ready to sell his business.
The eatery, long a fixture on West Market Street, enjoyed an established clientele and a location that was easily accessible from the Akron, Canton, Cleveland and Youngstown areas.
“It had been a really good restaurant for years, so I knew that it had great potential,” Stewart says.
He was so intent on building upon the restaurant’s past that he didn’t even change the telephone number.
But Stewart also wanted to develop a grill that was more upscale, yet comfortable and unpretentious, a place where people could dine in suits or jeans and a nice shirt.
His interior decorator wife, Lori, began the transformation by redecorating the worn, dated space, filling it with an eclectic mix of deer antler chandeliers, whimsical Western art, antique pine furnishings, tapestry-like upholstery and velvet draperies. The beige exterior was painted hunter green with burgundy trim.
“We never closed,” she says. “We did all of the design work in the evening, had people working all night long.”
The straightforward menu, which has evolved over the years, was built around the things Stewart himself likes to eat — “whole fish, head and tail, big steaks, big chops, lots of steakhouse side items.”
The big portions reflect the important lesson he learned from the late Gus Girves about providing value to the customer.
“Everyone leaves with a doggie bag full of food because they can’t finish what we provide them,” he says. “It’s almost like a dinner-and-a-half.”
Suppliers, Stewart says, no longer bother selling him anything but the best, a result of his repeatedly sending back meats that weren’t trimmed to his specifications, frozen fish that was defrosted and passed off as fresh, etc.
“When you have to send a truck out and pick everything up, then replace it immediately, you soon learn that it just doesn’t pay to try to slide anything through,” Stewart says. “A lot of people want to know the price of everything. We want to buy the best food that we can get. Then we figure out how we’re going to get our money back on it. I’d rather make less on it and put out a good product.”
And what if the food still doesn’t satisfy a patron’s demanding palate? Complaints about the food are addressed immediately, whether it’s by replacing a meal or giving the patron a gift certificate.
Stewart says keeping customers happy is vital to his business, which relies solely on word-of-mouth for advertising.
“If servers don’t tell us there’s a problem, they can lose their job over that,” Stewart says. “That’s our biggest fear, that we’re not notified if something doesn’t go right. We can turn anyone around as long as we know there’s an issue.”
Perhaps the most important element in creating the atmosphere Stewart envisioned is the employees, whom he interviews and hires himself. Although other employers bemoan a lack of qualified applicants, Stewart says he’s never had a problem finding servers who can rattle off the 30 to 40 nightly specials (appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts) from memory or are willing to undergo a two-to-three-week training process that includes learning exactly how each item is prepared. (He admits, however, that he had to interview 500 to 600 people to fill the 75 positions available when the lodge opened last year.)
He doesn’t insist applicants have experience, just a good attitude and a willingness to learn.
“I would take a person who … really has that high energy level, a friendliness and sense of humor and willingness to serve, over someone who maybe has better credentials,” he says. “We’re not interested in hiring people who want to tell you what fancy or formal service they can give.”
Last year, Stewart applied the same philosophies that made the grille prosper to the restaurant formerly known as Li’l Joe’s Pub. Like Foley’s, Li’l Joe’s had a dedicated following, an easily accessible location and an owner who wanted to get out of the business.
The site’s proximity to his West Market Street location appealed to Stewart, for it would allow him to move from restaurant to restaurant with ease. He still tries to visit each table in both locations every night.
“Most people who eat here could afford to go anywhere they want,” he says. “They come to our places. They ought to be acknowledged for that.”
Once again, Lori Stewart stepped in to redecorate, gutting the building and endowing it with a more casual look her husband compares to that of “a Ralph Lauren cabin.” Stewart stresses the menus of his two restaurants are different enough that someone could visit each of them on consecutive nights and not feel like they’d eaten at the same place.
“There’s so much good food around that you can’t put it all on one menu,” he says. “We just have to watch that we don’t put too much on.”
Stewart reveals he is scouting locations for a third restaurant.
“I want to do it carefully and slowly,” he says of expansion. “Most restaurants get in trouble because they do it so quickly. I want to make sure that both restaurants are settled and have a strong base before I move on to something else.”
How to reach: Ken Stewart’s Grille, (330) 867-2555