| | Print

Gabriel Stulman is kind of a rockstar in the restaurant world.
There we said it.


Over the last 9+ years he’s created a fantastic group of restaurants based in the West Village of NY. Starting with Joseph Leonard each has come to embody what a great neighborhood restaurant should be: accessible, unique vibe, top-notch service, and great food & drink.

We have this mantra: treat locals like celebrities and celebrities like locals
(min 22:30)

Want to know his secret to opening great restaurants? You’re in luck, he recently spilled the beans in a great presentation at the Welcome Conference in NYC. In it he outlines how he went from working (and eating) in some of the best restaurants in NY to opening and cultivating a group of great neighborhood restaurants. 

We thought it was full with such great insight that we wanted to share the YouTube video with you here. 

Our strong recommendation is to watch it start to finish, but we’ve broken down the highlights below, complete with time stamps if you want to jump ahead to specific topics:

Defining what it means to be a neighborhood restaurant
(min 4:40)

Great neighborhood restaurants have heart + soul, that’s a feeling that is hard to articulate in words. So how do you write an employee manual based on that feeling? You can’t, you have to find a way to make it more concrete. Stulman explore translating the feeling of a great restaurant into an actionable plan.

Not every every restaurant in a neighborhood is a neighborhood restaurant. There’s a sharp difference.
(min 6:40)

Four Star Casual: setting an approach to customer service (min 7:22) 

Neighborhood restaurants are casual, by core values and beliefs, and expressed in many ways: decor, music, food, beverage/cocktails. What Stulman didn’t want was “casual service” that denotes a lack of attention to detail, he wanted to define his own style of 4 star service. 

Fun… but serious (min 9:05)

Stulman talks about his earlier experiences as a bartender and how rigid policies shaped his work experiences and his approach to setting staff policies. Want to fill a room with regulars? Maybe you outta ditch the stale Dave Bruback playlist. Want your servers to feel confident? Maybe it’s time to implement a “wear your own clothes” policy.

Don’t put a box on how many people you can make an emotional connection to (min 13:23)

When you make your culture about everyone working in the restaurant then you create more opportunities to make meaningful connections with your business and your customers. If your staff is having fun, that energy is going to permeate directly to your guests.

… we spend all this time obsessing about coloring in the shades of gray. (min 19:00)

Accessibility (min 16:21)

How two great restaurants in NY: The Little Owl and Schiller’s Liquors helped Stulman define accessibility and the difference between being a great neighborhood restaurant and a great restaurant that happened to be in a neighborhood.

A neighborhood restaurant needs to be… (min 18:48)

  • open all the time – breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, cocktails
  • little to no reservations
  • fun
  • celebrate the identity of the team that has created it

Why your policies need to have “Gray areas” (min 19:00)

Who can wear sleeveless tanks, what time is it ok to rock out to your own music, and when have you had enough to drink?

Pick one customer a night, who you’ve never met or served before, and give them something on the house (22:30)

Hugs and Ziggy Piggies: the importance of creating cultural practices (min 20:20)

How unsolicited hugs became a nightly competition among his servers, and why one of his managers awards the “ziggy piggy” to the customer who orders the most and does the best job eating it. Creating culture can be as important for your staff as it is for your guests.

Treat locals like celebrities and celebrities like locals
(min 22:30)

Every night every bartender, server, maitre d’ has to choose one person they’ve never met and never served and offer them something special. Stulman’s policy among his staff helps make first time customers feel special and drives repeat visits.

If we do all these things we’re going to fill our restaurants with heart and soul (min 23:05)

…watch more great speakers from The Welcome Conference 

Restaurant Insider