“A million dollar view and a long history of failure…What would you do?
Much like the chicken or the egg debate, when opening your first restaurant you will be faced with the question of which comes first; Develop the Concept, or Find a Location? At first thought many people will automatically say that you have to have your concept set in stone before you could ever think about finding a suitable location. How can you write your business plan and seek investors without a solid concept in place? On the other hand you may have knowledge of an amazing location that has sat vacant for some time, or the lease has expired and the current operator is on a month to month lease, a future vacancy. The uniqueness of the location, charm and character of the space and neighborhood can become the driving creative force that helps to inspire and define your overall concept. How can you seek investors without knowing upfront what your costs are going to be to design and build out the space? How can you create a targeted marketing plan without having a firm grasp of what your concept is: and without a location how do you determine if the demographics support your target market?
In my case I was presented with a beachfront restaurant location in Malibu that had been nine different restaurants over a fourteen year period. It had sat vacant for three years and the building was in a state of disrepair. People said that the location was cursed and I saw a diamond in the rough. The view from the deck was nothing short of spectacular overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Catalina Island and breathtaking sunsets framing the iconic Malibu Pier. Immediately next door was a successful restaurant that had been in operation for fifteen years. The surrounding area was full of high end restaurants that were very specialized in Seafood, Mediterranean cuisine, Italian and so on. As well just down the road was one of the busiest restaurants in all of California, serving average seafood at above average prices. There was also the local college bar where you could get dollar drinks at Happy Hour and listen to some local bands at night. The local economy was seasonal and weather driven. During the summer months the beaches in Malibu were packed with bathing suit clad tourists from around the world and those from the inland cities and valleys wishing to beat the summer heat. During the winter months the beach was quiet and you could walk the shores for hours and not see anyone else. I knew the risks and focused on the rewards. This location was one in a million and I could not believe that so many others had previously failed here.
It did not take long for me to determine our target market; and that a casual dining restaurant, serving great food at affordable prices was what the area lacked. There was no place anywhere that you could go to watch the dolphins frolic and surfers play just yards away while enjoying, breakfast, lunch, dinner, a sunset or a great Happy Hour and drinks with friends. Friendly service at reasonable prices in a comfortable atmosphere was completely counter to what everyone else was doing along the beach. Everyone around me was very specialized and lacked variety and especially value. Almost all were trying to appeal to the small but very affluent upscale community members offering only specialized fine dining options. No one was targeting those that worked there in town at the large office complex directly across the street, or the college professors and staff at nearby Pepperdine University, or the thousands of out-of-towners and tourists that visited Malibu every year. At night every restaurant in town with the exception of the college bar was closed by 9 pm. If you were hungry late night the only thing open was the drive thru at Jack in the Box. Nobody was targeting the restaurant industry employees who had nowhere to go when their evening shifts were done. Serving food until midnight seven days a week seemed crazy to others, but in my opinion was just another opportunity missed by them.
The interior design like the concept was ultimately derived from the location itself and we utilized its rugged exterior and gutted interior to our advantage. Instead of expensive wood floors we used 3/4 plywood and covered them with wood shavings. The structural beams that were open and exposed were replaced with pier pilings to create an effect of being underneath the pier. We built out a new bar that overlooked the Malibu Pier directly and on the deck we created an exterior bar counter top as well. All of the dining room and bar seats had an unobstructed views of the ocean and all of its activities and surroundings. We built steps down to the beach so guests could easily access miles of shoreline and created a mock break wall of rocks that doubled as seating. We installed a volleyball court, picnic benches and a satellite bar along with temporary flooring to host weddings and events right on our own private beach. The overall effect allowed us to create an environment that brought our guests a truly unique and memorable beach going experience.
Had I approached this location with a preconceived concept it is unlikely that we would have achieved the same level of success. By allowing the location and setting to influence our decisions in design we were able to tailor our concept so that it would be a perfect fit for the community and surrounding areas. We operated successfully from this location for fourteen years before selling out to a wealthy billionaire. So I ask you which comes first- the Concept, or the Location?