Welcome back to IBJ’s video feature “Inside Dish: The Business of Running Restaurants.”
Our subject this week is Monon Food Company, which celebrated its first year of operation on April 27. After those tumultuous 12 months, fledgling restaurateur Tim Williams is finally satisfied with the eatery’s service strategy and menu offerings, but it took several on-the-fly strategic shifts to find the right mix.
Williams, 40, practically grew up in a kitchen. A native of Carmel, his family owned the 10-location Jeanne Marie bakery chain based in the Indianapolis area. “I started using the stove when I was in kindergarten; I made my own meals,” Williams said. “I think that is where my love of food and food production started, just from being in the bakery.”
The family left the business in the early 1980s when the economy took a turn downward and grocery stores began branching into baked goods. Although he continued to feel the pull of the food industry, Williams at first took a more traditional career route. After graduating from Indiana University in 1995, he went into sales, and then helped found a web-development firm. Another professional turn took him to California from 2001 to 2002, where he began enjoying casual West Coast street vittles like gourmet burritos and fish tacos.
Returning to Indiana, Williams worked as a massage therapist and began crafting a business plan for his first restaurant. In the video at top, Williams details his original concept–based on mobile food trucks that had become popular in California–and how it eventually morphed into the Monon Food Co.
Williams also discusses his willingness to make quick changes in the first year of business when it appeared an element of the eatery wasn’t working. After three months of asking patrons to order at a counter, the restaurant hired 12 waiters for more traditional table service. When patrons balked at the lack of conventional entrees, Williams and executive chef Jeff Kleindorfer scrapped half of the menu and added hearty items like sirloin steak, meatloaf, a thick pork chop and blackened mahi-mahi.
“My original concept was to have the price point be a little bit lower, but we decided why not have some really good entrees that are a little more pricey, but people just want them,” Williams said. “Everything that I have read has supported the idea that you should be analyzing your menu on a regular basis, and if something isn’t selling, then get it off. Try something else.”
Other additions and refinements include adding brunch service on Saturdays and Sundays and hosting occasional beer dinners in which a fixed four-course meal is accompanied by six small pours of beer from a microbrewery. And early this month, the restaurant began opening on Mondays, giving it a seven-day-a-week schedule.
“I’ve had a number of people tell me, ‘We stopped in on Monday, and you were closed that day. What a bummer.’ I had mixed emotions, because it’s really great to have that day off,” he said. “But if more and more people are saying they’re stopping by and we’re not open, I really feel we should be open.”
The extra day likely will drive sales even higher. In its first 12 months, Monon Food Company recorded gross sales of $611,000, with a net loss of $12,000. Williams plans to cut labor costs as much as 25 percent in the next year to help push the bottom line into positive territory.
“Where you really have the ability to control your expenses is in your labor,” he said. “You cut people earlier. You schedule less. We paid way too much in labor costs in the first year [$240,000], but I was willing to do that because I wanted to make sure the service was there. My biggest fear was under-servicing people, and I overcompensated for it. This year is going to be a lot different, because we’re going to scale that way back.”
In the video below, Williams goes into more detail about lessons learned over the first year of operation, including the boom-and-bust cycle of business in Broad Ripple, and what commonplace element in Indianapolis restaurants he would add to the mix in a new location.