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All Back Issues » July/August 2010

Local Epiphany
Larkspur surveys yield surprising results for creation of Tiburon Grill.
By Denny Lewis

Larkspur Tiburon Grill local surveys
(L-R) Michaela Winn, general manager, the Lodge at Tiburon; Nathan Tanner, VP of restaurants, Larkspur Hotels and Restaurants; Nelson Escobar, restaurant manager, Tiburon Grill; Freddie Lam, chef, Tiburon Grill. [Photo by Genevieve Shiffrar]
Larkspur Tiburon Grill local surveys
The Lodge at Tiburon’s original “almost fine dining” restaurant under Larkspur ownership, Three Degrees, had been considered too touristy and gimmicky for locals. Survey results showed residents wanted affordable food served in a warm and welcoming environment, goals that have been realized with the creation of Tiburon Grill.

Larkspur Tiburon Grill local surveys

Larkspur Tiburon Grill local surveys

Larkspur Tiburon Grill local surveys
Making good on the preferences expressed in Larkspur’s informal surveys, locals now frequent Tiburon Grill, where two patios lure guests outside for drinks or dining. The bar has become a lively gathering place, and happy hours have led to a vibrant after-work scene and all-day-Sunday specials. Restaurant covers are up significantly, and revenues have increased by more than 50 percent.

Larkspur Tiburon Grill local surveys

Larkspur Tiburon Grill local surveys
Survey results showed that Tiburon townspeople wanted uncomplicated food presented in a simple manner. The result is what consulting Chef Bruce Bowers describes as Northern California “comfort food.”

Larkspur Tiburon Grill local surveys

Larkspur Tiburon Grill local surveys

“Never build a restaurant you want to build,” cautions Larkspur Hotels’ VP of Restaurants Nathan Tanner. “As a restaurateur, you need to take all of the guesswork—and all of the ego—out of the thing.”

This guiding principle turned a dying F&B space into a serious draw. The key was a change in mindset from second-guessing the local market to asking the clientele pool exactly what they want.

A short drive over the Golden Gate Bridge or a ferry ride across the bay from San Francisco leads to the scenic Tiburon Peninsula in Marin County that is home to one of the wealthiest communities in the country. The breathtaking natural beauty of Northern California, the salubrious sea air that rises in mists as a balm to the surrounding wine country, and the proximity to one of the most vibrant food cultures in North America combine to make the Tiburon/ Belvedere area an ideal destination for culinary endeavors.

Less than a block off Main Street, the Lodge at Tiburon has welcomed guests in dignified Craftsman elegance for half a century. One could hardly find a more likely place for an upscale restaurant to cater to the affluent population and tourists alike. But the denizens of Tiburon had a very different idea.

With a portfolio of three brands including 23 properties and nine restaurants, Larkspur Hotels has built a distinctive identity for celebrating local character in its California, Oregon, and Washington locations. Larkspur purchased the Lodge at Tiburon in 2006 and made it part of their upscale Larkspur Collection brand.

A $6.5 million renovation brought the Tiburon property up to brand standards, and the renewed location included a pre-ordained Larkspur concept, the “almost fine dining” restaurant, Three Degrees. The concept— featured at two other Larkspur properties, with the tagline “Meet, Greet, and Eat!”—tried to cover all the bases and worked to compete against the top-notch venues in San Francisco proper. Despite the concerted effort to create a great dining experience, the restaurant garnered a tepid reception, and months of spotty attendance left Three Degrees with a morale problem and a revolving door for staff that wounded service standards.

The Lodge at Tiburon’s General Manager Michaela Winn looked at the financial figures that—were it not for Larkspur’s commitment to full service—hardly warranted keeping the venue open. Winn noted the restaurant’s performance was less than optimal and that a great amount of revenue potential was being wasted. “We thought Three Degrees had all of the right elements, but the community was non-responsive,” Winn says. “I would walk through the restaurant with only a few people in it or look at the numbers and ask, ‘That’s it?’” The hotel had guests, and the town’s main street was busy, so there was obviously something about Three Degrees that left potential patrons cold.

Enter Nate Tanner. As Larkspur’s VP of restaurants, he had been watching the Lodge’s lagging restaurant since he joined the company in 2007. In mid-2008, Tanner wanted to give the local Tiburon clientele the restaurant they wanted.

Tanner’s intent was to reverse the standard procedure and create a concept based on local patrons’ desires; to leave behind preconceived notions of what would work best and to listen to the people who “would actually be paying for it.”

“On the surface, it looked like we could do an upscale restaurant,” says Tanner, “but the reality was that the community wasn’t interested. Larkspur invested in the property and invested in the community of Tiburon, and we plan to be there a long, long time as part of that community. I personally believe that a restaurant should reflect the character and needs of the community it serves. There is a time and place for over-the-top design and high-profile chefs. This wasn’t it.”

Collecting feedback from the community became the primary goal for Tanner. He queried guests at dinner, buying meals here and there. Winn spoke to locals from her seat on the Tiburon Economic Board of the Chamber of Commerce, at public receptions, and in the line at the grocery store. Larkspur executives who spent any time at the property quizzed diners about what they wanted from the Lodge’s restaurant. Tanner and Winn combed through comment cards, online comments, and notes from face-to-face conversations to gather a true sense of what Tiburon’s citizens wanted and needed.

The results were surprising. Tiburon’s wealthy population had never needed or wanted another fancy venue. Residents looked at fine dining as an outing; a special occasion to cross the bay and have dinner, see a show, and make a big night of it. Back in their home environs, Tiburon’s families wanted affordable offerings in a warm and welcoming setting where they could interact and feel a sense of community. Three Degrees had been regarded as “touristy,” “gimmicky,” and “over-priced” for locals, who felt they were being taken advantage of because of their affluence.

Tanner was energized by the feedback. He assembled more data, asking, “How much do you want to pay for a burger? How much for an entrée? What will bring you in one, two, three times a week?” Local input was both broad and detailed, ranging from wanting a real “sense of place” and elements essential for a “gathering place” to menu suggestions and value concerns. The scope of community feedback provided a clear picture of what a successful, sustainable restaurant at the Lodge should be.

Equipped with the ideas given to him by the people of Tiburon, Tanner assembled his Larkspur team to bring the vision to life. Along with Winn and Tanner, Executive VP Jim Hansen, consulting Chef Bruce Bowers, consulting Sommelier Ann Davis and restaurant GM Andrew Sturmfels rolled up their sleeves to realize what would become known as Tiburon Grill.

“We were starting this thing in the worst economic times in recent years,” Tanner says. “We had a small budget, so we did everything ourselves. Jim Hansen and I basically designed it. Larkspur employees helped build it.”

Bowers worked on creating the fresh, local, organic, affordable California cuisine future patrons had requested. Davis set up a wine program that featured high-quality, high-value bottles from the vineyards of Marin County, Napa, and Sonoma that locals regarded with almost personal pride. Tanner and his team labored with the confidence of knowing they were constructing what would become an integral part of the Tiburon community.

By March of 2009, the 135-seat restaurant was ready. But very little of the budget was left for marketing or advertising. Tanner and Winn resorted to the guerilla tactics they had used to get the community involved in the first place.

“We put out a sign and opened the doors,” Tanner says. Word spread quickly, with Winn hosting receptions to acquaint townspeople with the new neighborhood grill and Tanner making the restaurant’s presence known at local events, fairs, and the Mill Valley Film Festival. Tanner enjoyed and encouraged introducing the restaurant person by person, family by family. “Sometimes we forget why we’re here and find there is too much time spent in promoting ourselves rather than celebrating the community.”

The locals have made good on their “if you build it, we will come” promise. A growing number of regulars lounge on soft sofas and comfortable chairs near crackling fireplaces. Two patios lure guests outside for drinks or dining. The bar has become a lively spot for neighbors, travelers, and tourists alike to congregate for conversation, food, or local beer and wine. Happy hours with food and drink specials built a vibrant after-work scene and led to a Sunday all-day happy hour.

Looking at revenue alone, the success is indisputable. In one year, Tanner has seen “a significant increase in profitability.” Figures point to a 51.9 percent increase in revenues, even while the average check has been cut in half. Covers have leapt from 10 to 15 guests for start-of-the-week dinner periods to a range of 100 to 175 now. Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays have gone from 50 covers to 250 to 300 each day.

Winn also says the guest capture rate for dinner periods has increased substantially. Good business has persuaded servers to stick around, so service quality has risen. All of the improvements have collectively driven a rise in banquet and catering bookings.

But Tanner has a different measure of success. “Nothing is more personal in our hotel than sharing a meal with our guests,” he says. “Maybe a guest interacts with us at the front desk or for 30 seconds in the hallway, but I get them for one, two, even three hours.” That interaction is very important to him, so he concentrates on the fundamentals of quality food, beverage, atmosphere, and service. “Nobody comes back to a restaurant because of great marketing; they come back because of their experience there.”

Tanner says he’s pleased with the restaurant’s financial turnaround, but it is clear that his goals are more long-term. Tanner stresses that he and Larkspur place a great deal of importance on their investment in the Tiburon community, and that will ultimately decide Tiburon Grill’s success. “We’ll see where we are in 20 years.”

Denny Lewis is a six-year HOTEL F&B veteran and professional writer based in Arlington, Massachussetts.

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