Steele Platt opened the first Yard House restaurant in Long Beach, CA, in late 1996. He sold the beer-centric concept—now a 42-unit chain–to Darden Restaurants last year for $585 million. Platt, who will deliver the keynote address at the Cheers Beverage Conference in Dallas Feb 12, talks with Cheers about his early days in the business, the Yard House story and what makes a restaurant successful.
CHEERS: You started your restaurant career in the trenches as a dishwasher and held most or all of the front-line service positions. Do you think that’s important to launching/running your own place?
STEELE PLATT: I knew I wanted to own a restaurant/bar at the age of 17. With that in mind, when I worked in different restaurants while I was attending college, I focused on watching what made guests happy. As a food server, I could really see what made the guest tick–what their likes and dislikes were. As the owner of a restaurant, you must know what keeps your customers coming back. Working in the positions I did were important in understanding this approach.
CHEERS: When you launched the Yard House in late 1996, the interest in craft beer had subsided from its height in the early ‘90s. Did you have any idea then it would rebound and take off the way it has today?
PLATT: I owned a bar in Denver called The Boiler Room in 1989 where I offered 20 beers on tap, which at the time was considered a large offering. (I also had 80 different bottles of beer on the menu.) In 1996, the microbrew explosion was in full effect and I thought it would be great to offer as many beer selections as I could on draft. I wanted 400 handles, but there was not enough room so I settled on 250 beers on draft.
I think the transition from “microbrews” to “craft” beers is just another morph: Craft beers are a close derivative of microbrews. Craft beers have deeper personalities–edgy flavors, experimentation–compared to the era of microbrews. I feel there are stronger and devote followers of craft beers–much more today then when microbrews started to evolve. I have always believed that draft beer was popular–in the past, the present and the future.
CHEERS: What, if anything, was easier than expected in launching/growing Yard House, and what was harder than you thought it would be?
PLATT: First off, there is nothing easy about building and owning a restaurant–nothing. I started Yard House with no money but with a strong conviction that my idea–centered around a large selection of draft beers–would be popular. What was hard was matching the concept with the people who could execute it and operate it. Most important, it takes a personal daily commitment never to give up and to maintain the mindset of success without allowing others to talk you out of it.
CHEERS: How did you keep the Yard House brand integrity and culture intact when rolling out the concept in multiple markets?
PLATT: The second Yard House opened three years after the first one and the third and fourth ones two years later. During that time, the culture of the company was created, founded on honesty and integrity and putting the Yard House brand at the top, while respecting all employees as equal participants in the success of the brand.
The technical side included creating policies and procedures that were developed over time. From there, management must uphold those policies and procedures to the highest degree. During our growth phase, it was important to have the best managers and trainers in the new markets to teach and implement the Yard House philosophy and maintain it.
CHEERS: Why was/is music so important to the Yard House concept?
PLATT: I personally picked all the songs for every playlist each day. I felt classic rock-and-roll music was central to the success of the Yard House and that specific songs should be played at specific times of the day–lunch, happy hour, dinner, late night. Certain song titles and artists sound better played together; some song titles should be played at lunch and not at dinner. Atmosphere and energy is derived from music, and it quickly became Yard House’s atmosphere.
CHEERS: What advice would you give an entrepreneur launching a restaurant concept today?
PLATT: My advice would be to make sure your idea is unique and that it’s an idea that the public likes and will support. Sometimes I see entrepreneurs in the restaurant business only focus on what they think is a good idea, and that is a mistake. Then there is the obvious: money, good people, great location, a great chef–and 100% commitment to succeeding.
CHEERS: After 35 years in the business, are you done with restaurants/working, or is there another concept in you?
PLATT: For now I am fully retired. It is time for me to be a customer and not an operator. But I know there will be a day in the not-too-distant future when my interest will return. I am one of the lucky ones who had a hard-line conviction on what I thought would make a really cool restaurant/bar and now get to watch it expand all over the U.S. I have to make sure next time I create a new concept that it will at least match or top the idea of Yard House–which may be very difficult to do.