How Businesses Gear Up for the Season

Insider Info on Navigating Busy LBI Summer
By MARIA SCANDALE | Apr 25, 2018
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

How do restaurants and other shore businesses gear up for the wave of summer? Success strategies learned by experience were shared at a recent forum by the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce at The Mainland – Holiday Inn in Manahawkin.

To make summer business work takes a handle on “staffing to managing customer expectations, inventory to training.”

And when staff ebbs before the season ends, when there are more patrons than there is a certain type of fish in stock, what do the owners do? (Hint: Restaurants, do bail each other out in food-supply emergencies.)

How to entice more good reviews and deal with those few bad ones – this and more interested the audience.

A panel of area business owners talked about strategies that have helped grow and strengthen their summer season. The panel included: Danni Hagler, manager of Hagler's Marina in Brant Beach, who obtained a master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science; Pete Palladino, director of Restaurant Operations – NJ, Fearless Restaurants, which includes daddy O, Plantation and Tuckers Tavern, who studied at Susquehanna University; and Kevin Sparks, third-generation chef/owner of Howard’s Restaurant in Beach Haven Terrace, who more recently opened el swell taqeuria.

Moderator was Brian Tyrrell, a faculty member of Stockton University’s Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism. Tyrrell holds a doctorate in hospitality and tourism management from Purdue University.

The first question for the panel concerned the internet’s influence on the industry. “With the good comes the bad – how can you drive positive or avoid and address negative online consumer content on the Internet?” asked Tyrrell. Below are excerpts from their candid and informal answers to the business audience.

Hagler: “To get positive reviews, what I noticed is that we weren’t on all of the review sites and some of our information was wrong on some of them. So making sure your information on Yelp, Google My Business, Trip Advisor is correct is important, and delivering what we promise. You can’t get a positive review unless you do that.”

She also said the marina may give an estimate that is a bit higher than the price may end up, or a timeframe a bit longer; then the customer is happy when the result is better than expected. The marina also started following up by email and inviting customers to give a good review if they had a great experience.

As to negative reviews, both Hagler and Palladino use a service that sends alerts every time their business is mentioned in media. Hagler said, “Definitely, addressing negative reviews is very important. Sometimes you have to let one or two go, but usually I try to address it with the customer privately and then also publicly.”

Palladino: Following up on Hagler’s comments, he agreed, “We’re all in customer services. It’s very important that you concentrate on the guests,” he said, noting that their management team is in touch with every guest coming in to the establishment. In the case of a complaint, “If you are present, you can head off something before it becomes an issue. I have worked with a lot of people in my career who run away from any sort of confrontation, but you can’t do that. Burying your head and hoping the problem fixes itself never works out. You’re not going to win every guest over, but the more you’re involved and the more you’re trying to follow up is just so important.”

Conversely, catching the satisfied customer while they’re still on the premises, “if they had a great time, we have a little business card we set up that says, ‘Had a good time with us? Why not tell the world?’”

People are motivated if they want to write a negative review, but they don’t always take the time to write a positive review, he explained. This urges them in the moment.    

Sparks: “There’s not much more to add to that; I just want to stress as far as online, timeliness is so important; negative word spreads really quickly. People are more likely to complain about a business online than write favorably about it, so getting on top of it before it becomes a problem is critical. I think when people see you engaged with somebody who writes negatively about your business, they see that customers’ opinions are important to you. It’s a good way to help turn that person’s attitude around, turn other peoples’ attitudes around before they even have an issue with you.

“Also, reaching out to positive reviewers and letting them know that you’re watching and you hear is good, and it’s free marketing, letting people see that other people like your business.”

Tyrrell: Pete and Kevin, seasonal staffing is always in short supply in your industry, for sure. How do you address this staffing challenge, and how do you keep employees committed to staying all summer?

Palladino: “I probably over-hire when we’re doing all of these job fairs. I find that LBI is ‘Groundhog Day.’ We all know what’s coming up; it’s the same every year. ... If you hire five people, three of those people are going to make it to the end of the summer; that’s just the way it is. We’re not pulling from a talent pool that is always looking for furthering their career; sometimes these kids just want to facilitate being at the beach, and that’s fine. Knowing what that is, though, is very difficult because we all take great pride in our business.

“So, incentivizing your staff: What we do with a lot of our kitchen employees is, if you make it to Labor Day weekend, you’ll get a bonus. In the interview process, one of my first questions is can you work through Labor Day? I probably won’t hire a lot of these college kids who have to go back Aug. 5. I can’t fault them for that, because it’s sports or whatever, but it’s just that I know that I’m going to be picking up the slack or my management team is going to be picking up the slack, because, thank God, we’re all really busy into September, which is awesome.”

Sparks: When hiring a lot of high school kids, “we try to hire as many local kids as possible. One of the reasons is hiring younger kids, you’ll have them working for you for a longer period of time, if you create a good work environment. I have kids who started out at 14 working for my parents who still work for me and who are now teachers coming back to work in the summer because it’s a good job.

“At some point, you’re going to have a bunch of kids who are college students. They don’t stay until even Labor Day now; they leave the third week in August. You just have to be prepared and be aware of what percentage of your staff is going to be leaving early.

“When I hire people, I like to tell them up front what’s expected of them regarding the season – how late we’re open, they tell us how late they can stay, and then we put it in writing and we both sign. That way if they say they’ll be here until Labor Day and then mid-August they’re like, ‘Oh, man, I gotta go,’ we show them the piece of paper: ‘You agreed to stay and you’re not,’ so chances are they won’t be back the next year. If it’s a job they really want to keep, they’ll think twice about bailing on you early.

“And with the kitchen staff, we do the same thing – I do a monetary bonus if you stay through the end of the season. I’ve got a few guys who can’t make it because they’ll leave and work in other resort towns and they have to leave early; I understand. They’re definitely assets to the kitchen, and we have to work with their schedule. But I try to get as many people to stay as I can, so at the end of the season when we’re doing the seasonal cleanup, which is not fun for anybody, it’s definitely a more-the-merrier situation. So a cash bonus goes a long way.”

Tyrrell: As expectations of the customer continually grow, how do you address this when you train your staff?

Hagler: “This probably pertains more to (the restaurant owners), but I’ll just say a couple of things. When we prepare for the summer, we have the same staff all year, so we just have to psych ourselves up. You go from nothing, to a little bit of work, to crazy all of a sudden.

“So you just have to prepare yourself. I know if we have a difficult customer or something, my father and I will trade on and off – this person really needs to know about technical stuff; that’s you; this person needs someone to be nice to them, that’s me. We just know our limits, and if one of us is having a really bad day, maybe you’re not going to be the one who talks to the customer.

“We just try and psych ourselves up and stay positive all summer, and remember when it’s July, it’s only a few more months of craziness.”

Palladino: “All of our training is written out in manuals, and it’s very easy for anybody to follow. Doing this every year, all of us executing the training, sometimes you forget to look in the mirror. We use a secret shopper service at all of our restaurants that comes in two times a month and gives us a written report, which is a great way to look in the mirror and make changes on the fly.

“I always tell everybody who works with us, if we want to implement a change it’s got to be right now ... there is no next week. The season is 10 weeks long, and if you don’t adjust and course-correct very quickly, you’ve lost valuable time. If that’s a week gone, that’s a 10th of your season. So this looking in the mirror constantly allows us to just course-correct.

“Also, the seasonality of LBI is such that it allows you to get to the end and regroup. I’m sure you feel the same way, where last year was awesome; now over the course of the winter let’s do a lot of the same things that we did last year, or this is an area we can improve upon.”

Sparks: “As far as changing demands, how expectations are growing and evolving, outside of the regular training that we all do and the demands that we put on our staff to meet our expectations, there are changing expectations with your customer base.

“I think it’s important to keep up with trends in your particular business, whether it’s reading trade magazines, visiting other businesses to see how they do things, and just keeping on top of current trends.

“But also, listen to people and just take them seriously. Don’t let yourself live in a bubble, basically is what I’m saying. You’ve got to keep your ears to the ground.”

Tyrrell: The next question deals with inventory. Certainly it can be a concern with shortages of supply and challenges with transportation as well, and getting those products into your space. What planning tips are there to keep inventory at the desired level?

Hagler: “We have a software program that tells us what products we used last year ... that’s a given. But then we always have a backup plan.

“We might have two or three main suppliers that we get a lot of stuff from, but there are three others that I’ll order from every other week in the summer, just to keep the relationship open, because those two main suppliers, every other marina on the Island is using them. So I know that there is going to be stuff in July and August that we can’t get, so I want to keep the relationship open; that’s important.

“Also, knowing that you sometimes have to save face, if you promised someone you’re going to have their boat ready this weekend, you might not have the parts ... we have the backup plan of calling other marinas. Yeah, we don’t make as much money on it, but we made the customer happy. To be honest, most of the other marinas on the Island we have great relationships with. We know they can call us and we can call them.”

Palladino: “What Danni hit upon is super-important. We’re a small-type community here. I know that if I call Kevin and say, ‘Kevin, we’re out of mahi mahi, can I borrow 2 pounds?’ I know he’s going to say yes if he has extra, and vice-versa.

“We all kind of work together. We’re all getting to the finish line together. So, the fact is that although we have other restaurants on the Island, they’re not necessarily next to each other. There is always friendly competition – we all want to be busy, but no one wants to be busy without somebody else winning as well. I don’t want to win because somebody else loses; I want to win because we all won.

“We’re very lucky that what we use – liquor, beer, wine, food – can get to us every single day, so it’s very rare that we run out of something. And we’re using fish from Viking Village, if we run out of that ... that means it’s going to be super-fresh, and the guests understand that. If we run out of something a second time, that’s poor planning on our part. It’s keeping our eyes open when doing ordering.”

Sparks: “One of the things I love about doing business around here is that there really is an attitude that there is room for all of us and we’re all in this together.

“It’s been that way since I can remember. When I was a kid, my dad was telling me to run over to M&M, they’ve got a bunch of clams for us, or other situations just like that, which is definitely a relief, because somebody is always going to have something you need.

“But as far as stocking, I like to keep a formula based on sales. From year to year, sales remain very consistent for us. Unless there is a major weather situation, it’s going to be just about the same, including a growth trend. I can look at June 5 from last year and we’re probably going to do just about that same amount. So keeping a record of sales and weather and inventory is very important.

“Sometimes you have to find alternate products. Fisheries close, they shorten, and certain products become difficult to find or unavailable altogether. You have to be flexible, which is not too hard in a restaurant situation; you always have multiple vendors for the same product.”

Tyrrell: Can you discuss recent developments in your marketing strategies?

Hagler: “One of the things I’m trying to do constantly is update social media, keeping it fresh, constantly looking for new content.

“Also, this year I’m trying a new strategy. People really get tired of emails ... I’m going old-school, doing more print advertising, which is something we did, like, 15 years ago. I’ve already seen positive results.

“Also, I’ve sent things in the mail this year, even though it upsets me because it’s paper, and got so much more response, and quicker.”

Palladino: “I think it’s important to identify your demographic and be able to target it. Kids live in a world of Instagram now. That’s their life; that’s how they source what’s going on around them.”

Palladino said that one aspect of the business will utilize a different manner of media than another, in order to focus on specific demographics. “So, if you’re trying to focus on 18- to 25-year-olds with a print ad, I don’t think you’re going to get to them. We have social media interns who are constantly posting updates. Like Danni said, if you don’t update the stuff, everybody’s got ADD; it needs to be fresh daily. They don’t want to look and see the same thing they saw yesterday. I’ve got to tell you that it’s exhausting, but it’s super-important. You can’t ignore it.

“Now, if you’re focused on an older generation, 55 and above, which we’re all trying to get them into our business, that’s print.

“Whatever it is, be on top of it, knowing that you can’t just set it and forget it. The content you put in and the time you put in is going to come back to you.”

Sparks: “Definitely one of the great things about social media is that it’s free. So, it’s free marketing, but you can’t just post, post, post, post.

“What we’re really trying to do now is use it as a vehicle to create almost like an online personality for the business. By posting from a voice that’s consistent, it’s honest to your business. In a way, it’s creating a brand for yourself. I also want to engage people. I don’t want them just looking and robotically liking. We’ll have contests; we’ll ask people questions.

“It’s tedious work ... but the more I evolve with it, the more I’m trying to look at it as a whole as opposed to a daily task. That being said, local print advertising is still super-important to us.”

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