CEDAR RAPIDS — Zeppelins Bar & Grill owner Dan Marquardt is a contrarian in the restaurant game.
While Marquardt is on his second successful restaurant, he said the restaurant industry overall has one of the lowest returns on investment of any business. Much of that problem, he said, is due to unwillingness within the industry to embrace new management concepts and try novel ideas.
“It’s the lowest return, worst possible business there is,” Marquardt said, blaming the sorry state mainly on weak business management.
Marquardt opened Zeppelins restaurant in September 2009 at 5300 Edgewood Road NE with partners Hunter Parks and Clay Parks. He’d been called in by some of the former owners of Beckett’s Public House, an Irish pub concept that ran into trouble early. He became 80 percent owner.
Zeppelins took over the Beckett’s space — a large but relatively inconspicuous strip center near the Hy-Vee store at Edgewood Road NE and Blairs Ferry Road. The interior remodel was an ornately staged total transformation built around a vintage zeppelin theme.
The 230-seat restaurant has been busy — and profitable — from day one and revenues continue to climb, Marquardt said. Sales, he said, have been up $250,000 a week since that first day.
Things that might trouble other restaurant managers have become big advantages for Zeppelin.
About 85 percent of the entire restaurant staff of 60 — including all but one of the 20-plus servers — are full-time. The arrangement enables Zeppelins to hire a more professional staff with lower absenteeism and greater dedication, Marquardt said.
And instead of having a commissary full of food, Zeppelins keeps a lean supply that is delivered fresh daily, and occasionally runs out of certain menu items. That’s because of a deliberate just-in-time inventory approach.
The restaurant doesn’t take reservations. As it usually has a wait at peak hours, reserving tables would only take tables out of inventory while they were held for the reserving guest, Marquardt figured.
The practice of “comping” — writing off part or all of a meal when a customer has a complaint — has been almost eliminated at Zeppelins. Giving comps has become so rampant in the industry because of shoddy quality that it’s become an easy scam for unethical customers who always demand a comp, Marquardt said.
“The average restaurant comps $143,000 a year according to Restaurant News,” he said. “We don’t comp $143 a year.”
Production, not art
Zeppelins has a diverse and eclectic menu, from Thai lettuce wraps and coconut shrimp skewers to pistachio-crusted grouper and maple balsamic pork chops. The bar menu is equally diverse and quirky, featuring cocktails with names such as Pomegranate Sidecar and New Age Cucumber Mojito.
In the kitchen, Zeppelins doesn’t go out of its way to seek promising culinary school grads. That’s because Marquardt views food preparation as an extremely precise form of production rather than an art form. As with other forms of production, he believes it can be performed by almost any capable, intelligent employee with the right training, management and quality control.
The short explanation for all of this is that Marquardt’s ideas about business were formed early in his career — in manufacturing.
After receiving a master’s degree in public administration and industrial relations, the Ankeny native went to work with John Deere Consumer Products in Wisconsin.
His proteges at John Deere Horicon Works included Karl Eberle, now senior vice president for global manufacturing at Harley-Davidson, and George Elliott, former vice president of TRW’s Aircraft Components Group.
The factory was a kind of John Deere test bed for promising management and manufacturing practices, Marquardt said, and an early adopter of just-in-time (JIT) inventory control.
JIT manufacturing eliminates most of the costs of carrying inventory by having all of the parts and materials arrive just when they are needed. Companies that subscribe to JIT not only pay for less inventory, they pay less for taxes, storage space and inventory management.
Most restaurants take deliveries once or twice a week, relying heavily on frozen and refrigerated storage to preserve foods.
Marquardt went on to teach administration at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater before moving to Cedar Rapids. He adapted JIT inventory methods to restaurant work when he and a longtime friend, Todd Meyer, opened the Irish Democrat in the 1970s on First Avenue SE.
Meyer and Marquardt bought a teensy neighborhood bar called the Spider Web, renamed and expanded it into one of the state’s most popular upscale pubs.
“The just-in-time concept is something that’s been very successful for us,” said Marquardt, who later sold out to Snyder.
Marquardt got Zeppelins’ supplier, Reinhart Food Services, to provide daily delivery by offering it an exclusive on all its food orders. He also doesn’t haggle on price, providing a fixed margin such as an override on its orders in exchange for excellent delivery service.
In addition to lower costs, JIT inventory management gives the restaurant fresher foods, reduced food waste and fewer issues with refrigerated or frozen storage.
Masters of the system
Another lesson Marquardt learned from the Irish Democrat involved hiring. He noticed that many of the customer service or kitchen problems that arose were due to high turnover and problems with new hires.
Zeppelins set out to hire only experienced staff members who could immediately show their ability to master the system. If new hires aren’t cutting it, Marquardt said, they’re usually dismissed within a day or two of being hired.
The average age of Zeppelin’s servers is about 37, Marquardt said, and many have worked as assistant managers or managers at other restaurants.
Zeppelins General Manager Tim Oathout said service at Zeppelins also benefits from the use of a single-server system. While many restaurants speed service along by having the next server available take food, beverages or a check to the table, Zeppelins has one server take care of a table throughout the meal.
“We do it because we wanted to build the personal experience,” Oathout said. “You get to know your server from the get-go, and who’s going to be taking care of you. It gives a little more care, a more personal touch.”
Many Zeppelin customers know not only their server’s names, but their days off and birthdays, Oathout said.
Marquardt said many of the servers are recruited with one simple pledge — that the things they need to provide a satisfying customer experience will be provided for them.
“I tell them if they can make a better living for their family somewhere else, they have an obligation to move on,” he said.
The experienced servers at Zeppelins handle about 50 percent more tables than a typical restaurant server, Marquardt said.
It’s not unusual for a server to handle six or seven tables, but a server doesn’t get that many tables automatically. They’re expected to show they are ready to take more tables by pitching in with unassigned tasks such as clearing a table quickly when other staff members are busy and guests are waiting.
Assistant Manager Dan Schissler, who handles the dining room, said the professionalism of the serving staff is so high that it’s sometimes hard to find replacements.
“Sometimes we go short-handed rather than hire somebody inexperienced,” he said. “My servers don’t want to work with somebody who’s not a top performer.”
At the top of the training list for all new staff members is cooperation between the kitchen staff and the serving staff. Friction between the kitchen and the serving staff almost always makes its way to the customer’s table when problems break out.
Like helping out, fixing problems before they reach the table has become part of the Zeppelins culture.
Marquardt believes the real magic happens when staff members voluntarily become instructors.
“If you can teach a dog to roll over, it’s great,” he says. “But if you can get a dog to teach other dogs to roll over, you’ve got something.”
Marquardt joked that he’s the negative part of the customer experience. He often greets customers personally with a sharp-edged sense of humor that can sting. It’s rarely awkward, however, coming off as a show of comfortable familiarity.
Colleagues say Marquardt is often at the restaurant seven days a week, even though he doesn’t have to be.
“He’s easy to work with as long as you’re doing your job,” Schissler said.
Marquardt doesn’t plan on opening any more Zeppelins. He said the restaurant is as profitable as several chain restaurants combined, even though it doesn’t advertise.
One of the consequences of the restaurant’s success was a shortage of parking that required customers to walk about a block from the nearest Hy-Vee store. Zeppelins leased an adjacent storefront that became vacant just so another business wouldn’t come in last year, making it Zeppelins Pizzeria.
The pizzeria doesn’t open until after 4 p.m. when business is falling off at other businesses in the shopping center, however. But Marquardt said he would have leased the storefront just to keep it vacant so that customers don’t have to park far away.
- By Dave DeWitte