No one goes into the restaurant business for its vacation time. Not only does management work outside of the typical 9-to-5, but extended out-of-town trips are also usually out of the question. So how was Gretchen Garofoli able to take a trip to Florida with her daughter and the peace of mind that her Cleveland restaurant Oak & Embers would continue running smoothly?

The answer is Upserve’s restaurant management solution: “As long as I have a Wi-Fi signal, I can pretty much run the restaurant…other than physically making the food and serving the tables,” says Garofoli, who is also in the process of opening a second location, Revival Social Club.

Upserve’s mobile app capabilities and real-time online reporting works with busy restaurateurs to provide them with the data wherever they are. “I do like to travel, and it makes it that much easier just being able to access Upserve from anywhere,” says Garofoli. “Any time of day I can go in and just check my sales, add an employee, add a food item to the menu, and do my payroll reporting.”

oak and embers owners
Oak and Embers owners, Gretchen and Marc Garofoli

From Bartending to Barbecue

It was a love of travel that led to Garofoli opening Oak & Embers, a full-service restaurant with a scratch kitchen specializing in barbecue and bourbon, with her husband, Marc.

“We did a lot of traveling, and when you travel, obviously we’d go out to eat. We just developed a love for barbecue,” Garofoli recalls. “We would just travel around to different barbecue restaurants and see what everybody else was doing, and we just decided that to develop a concept around barbecue.”

Before Oak & Embers, the Garofolis invested some sweat equity at other bars and restaurants. Garofoli started her industry career in bartending and moved up the ranks to management, even learning her way around the kitchen on the fly when someone didn’t show up for their shift. Soon, restaurant work moved from supplemental income to full-time employment. The couple then became managers of an Irish-themed bar, swiftly buying out the existing partners and building up a small menu of their own barbecue recipes.

“You can’t be afraid to take a risk. A lot of what this business is is just risks and trying something new.”

“People would actually come to this Irish restaurant for pulled pork, which is kind of weird, but everyone said it was the best pulled pork they ever had,” Garofoli says. “So we just kept putting more things in the smoker and playing around, and that’s how we got the ideas for Oak & Embers.”

Oak & Embers, which whips up 90 to 120 gallons of its housemade barbecue sauce every week, also features a menu of 100-plus bourbons and Southern-style cooking staples like shrimp and grits, chicken and waffles, and fried chicken. It was the first restaurant of its kind in Cleveland, acting as a pioneer for a subsequent barbecue boom, and even gaining national attention for its burnt ends and smoked meatloaf when their dishes were featured on Food Network’s Burgers, Brews, and ‘Que.

oak and embers Burnt Ends

Staffing is a Family Affair

“Sometimes family members are the only ones you can trust,” says Garofoli, who currently employs five of her own. And the staff who isn’t related to her? Well, she still treats them like family, boosting morale and energy with incentives for servers who sell the most specials, or handing out extra cash to back-of-house employees who are feeling drained. “It does kind of stink when you’re back in the kitchen. You get paid the same amount whether you’re busy or not,” she says. “If the kitchen has a really solid night and they got beat down, I will go around and give them a little cash bonus because that motivates them.”

But more than monetary incentives, Garofoli shows her staff she’s on their side by pitching in to help whenever she’s needed and taking a personal interest in their lives.

“I want to know what’s going on in their world, and I want to know if they’re having issues and if there’s anything I can do to help,” she says. “I think when they know that we care, then they care a little bit more. I think just us being here and very hands-on kind of shows them that, too. I had a dishwasher who was frustrated and needed to take a break. So guess what? I am now the dishwasher.”

oak and embers taps

Why Simple Staff Training Matters

Caring about her staff extends to selecting the technology they use to get their jobs done. Upserve’s point-of-sale is “super user-friendly,” Garofoli says. “If you can work an iPad, you can figure out the system.”

In fact, one busser was actually able to teach himself how to manage as host while he was waiting for his training shift to start. “He answered the phone and took a to-go order without ever being properly trained on the system,” Garofoli recalls. “I’m like, ‘How’d you take that order?’ He said, ‘I just navigated my way through it. It was super easy.’”

For servers, having the ability to take orders tableside with handheld iPads saves time and helps provide the best guest experience possible.

“Having the handhelds…they have the whole menu at their fingertips,” Garofoli explains, which is helpful when beers and spirits on-menu number in the hundreds. “I don’t expect them to know every single beer we have by memory. Having that right there at their fingertips, they can just walk the customer through everything. It makes the process so much simpler for the entire waitstaff. You’re not wasting that extra 10 minutes to try and get to the terminal to punch it in when there’s a line of servers already in front of you. It gets the ball rolling on service a lot faster.”

“You have to keep changing because otherwise, it gets stale, it gets stagnant, and people get bored.”

Using Data to Monitor Performance

Garofoli uses Upserve’s analytics and reporting features to make sure profitability is as top of mind as efficiency. She starts her day reading reports so she’s able to make the most of each shift.

“The first thing in the morning I do when I get up is read the reports Upserve sends out,” she says. “It’s nice to go on the Upserve platform and be able to say, ‘OK, who are my best customers this week? How are my sales?’”

Garofoli regularly references the product mix report to influence decision-making. She can see which specials are performing, and how inventory of beer and liquor is holding up. It’s one of the ways she makes sure Oak & Embers remains fresh and competitive.

“You can’t be afraid to take a risk. A lot of what this business is is just risks and trying something new,” she says. “And you have to keep changing because otherwise, it gets stale, it gets stagnant, and people get bored.”

oak and embers ribs

The Picture of Success

Garofoli acknowledges that even with some stumbles, she and her husband have found a winning restaurant ownership formula and a little luck along the way.

“We’ve been very lucky. We’ve had great restaurants and we’ve had restaurants that weren’t so great, and a lot of that is just trial and error, and being in the right spot at the right time. But it all comes down to hard work. It is hard in this industry because you’re not going to please everybody,” she says, saying that many mistakenly equate a five-star Yelp review with success. “If I can get the majority of people to be happy, then I’m happy. I feel successful.”

The slow-cooking methodology that goes into making signature barbecue dishes, she says, contributes to the overall goal of providing a space where guests can put away their phones, slow down, and enjoy each other’s company—something that extends to her own family.

“I think that food is a good way to come together. I still insist on my kids having dinner with us every night. I don’t care if you just ate. You’re going to come down and at least sit at the table,” she says. “It can probably bring us together a little bit more, as long as we just sit down and take it easy and enjoy each other’s company. I think that’s what it’s really meant to do.”

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Holly Everett is a five-year restaurant industry veteran turned small business marketing specialist. After working at Seven Stars Bakery in Providence, Rhode Island throughout college, she entered the world of marketing where she led B2B marketing initiatives at companies focusing on growing small businesses.