Try telling someone in the restaurant industry, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” That’s like saying, “It’s not you, it’s me,” during a breakup or consoling a football player, “You tried your best,” after losing the Super Bowl. Anybody who has cooked on the line or poured their bank account into a lease understands the stakes of this livelihood. It’s why, in the interminable discussion over why young restaurants fail so often, personal sentiment might just be the most overlooked factor of them all.
Thankfully, Jennifer Delcham is a businessperson first, restaurateur second. “The difficult part of changing a plan is hubris,” she says. “It’s more fun to be right than wrong when you make decisions.”
So many operators, especially those opening their first restaurant, will suffer through the reality, no matter the cracks, until it breaks. Great food, stellar reviews, and happy customers don’t always add up to profitability. When Jennifer and Parnell Delcham opened Ways & Means Oyster House in October 2014 in Orange, California, local media and guests showered the concept with praise, with the OC Register naming it one of “The Top 10 New Restaurants” that year.
The accolades didn’t change one fact, however: the restaurant’s books, unfortunately, told a much different story. “I think we were able to identify the ways that we had failed the restaurant and the concept, but we could also make the decision to move forward without just chalking it up to a failure,” Jennifer says.
Parnell has opened more than 100 restaurants in his career (“They just keep piling up,” he says), while Jennifer has joined him for “seven or eight.” Given that this wasn’t their first and only brand, and they had enough experience to predict the future, they were, objectively, able to cut bait before the ship went under. They also understood that it wasn’t the brand’s fault.
After about six months—the timeframe Jennifer says will tell the temperature of a new restaurant—the pair started to reroute their plans, literally and figuratively. Instead of scrapping Ways & Means on the whole, they decided to pick it up and move. In January 2016, the restaurant reopened in Huntington Beach, also known as Surf City USA. In Orange, they realized that locals weren’t driving enough of their business. Instead, a lot of customers were actually driving from the coastal cities of Orange County to sample the seafood-forward menu.
That wasn’t a problem in Huntington Beach. The new Pacific City unit faced the Ocean and was already embedded in the coastal culture. “If you look at the view—the view, man—from our patio, it’s pretty ridiculous. We thought, opportunities like this just don’t come up very often,” Jennifer says.
And, even better, the location found them. They were in negotiations with a different shopping center before the space came available and a phone call was made.
Turn the page and there’s nothing sentimental about these current numbers: So far, the new location is averaging around 2,200 covers a week. The previous one? That’s about the traffic they produced each month.
“At Huntington Beach we went back to who we were and how we run restaurants,” Parnell says. “This is how we wanted our service to be executed and the environment we wanted to introduce to our guests.”
But this whole process was not as simple as pinning a spot on the map. During those waning months in Orange, they began rethinking the concept’s vitals. Again, this was more about retracing steps than forging new ones. The menu shifted focus to small plates, craft cocktails, and, overall, a more causal atmosphere. The fine-dining feel morphed into coastal chic.
“It kind of took us back. When we went to Orange we compromised a lot of the things we did and did very well and we’re very successful doing,” Parnell explains. “For instance, we were always very successful in promoting active, energy-filled, loud environments. We were always successful where the beverage program was a big definition of the brand we were developing. We’re usually at center stage competing for business against big cities and big environments. Orange was kind of the smaller pond. We were the big fish and we compromised ourselves in everything we did, from service to the menu and everything else.”
To say Ways & Means has resonated would be an understatement. In fact, they recently announced that the concept is headed to the Middle East and North Africa through a partnership with the Trilogy Brands Group. Part of what made this jump possible was the restaurant’s ability to effectively identify itself. They’ve evolved into a lifestyle brand, with a Home Store that offers nautical and beach-inspired décor and kitchen gifts. They also have a collection of private-label products including oysters, wine, rum, and beer. Additionally, there are Ways & Means wines exclusive to the brand, developed in partnership with Tate Dog wines. Even more, they have a partnership with Tom Berry to harvest branded oysters out of White Stone, Virginia, and a connection with Papa’s Pilar Rum to produce their own 24-year-aged rum. Not to mention, a beach house and yacht club are in the works.
So yes, the bold move to regroup and relocate has paid off. “We knew what we were capable of based on past experience and we felt like we knew what the brand was capable of, and there was a lot of integrity and hope and promise for Ways and Means based on how people responded to it,” Jennifer says. “We just had to make it happen.”
“We’re having a blast,” she continues. “At the end of the day that’s what we always try to remind ourselves. If you’re in the hospitality industry, and you’re not having fun with it, you might as well go do something else, because you’re not going to make the most money and you have to fight for your margin every single day. But if you’re in a business where your entire purpose is to make people smile and you’re not smiling yourself, than you have a huge disconnect there. We’re definitely having fun.”