What This Restaurant Can Teach You About Management

The co-owners of OX and SuperBite in Portland have a nontraditional approach to running restaurants, from outsourcing logistics to using an experimental staffing policy—but it leaves them more time to work on what they do best: food.
Writer & Editor, caracannella.com
July 20, 2016

It was the middle of dinner service soon after the Portland, Oregon restaurant OX opened in 2012, and the dining room was full. Outside the restaurant's large windows and exposed brick walls, it was pouring rain, with streets and gutters backed up.

Greg Denton cooked on the line, focused on an onslaught of orders. Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton, his wife, co-chef and co-owner, organized the open kitchen's moving parts by expediting dishes. Servers arrived at tables with food hot from OX's 48-inch grill—the focal point of the dining room, flanked by six counter-style seats for diners who like being blasted with heat and mesmerized by fire.

The grill, modeled after Argentinian parrillas the Dentons discovered while traveling, burns through 250 pounds of wood during every dinner service as cooks raise and lower food via adjustable cranks. At the busiest point of that rainy night, as music bounced off wooden floors to fill the room, Gabi and Greg learned that the basement (also the restaurant's office and food prep and storage space) was six inches underwater.

"The last thing you want guests to know is what's happening downstairs, and the last thing you want to do is remove yourself from the line," recalls Gabi, a finalist this year, along with her husband, for the James Beard Foundation's Best Northwest Restaurant and Chef award.

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OX chefs and co-owners Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton

For most chef-owners, she says, "It would be mayhem in your head, trying to decide, 'Who do I call? Roto-Rooter? A different company?'" Fortunately, when flooding hit, she and Greg knew exactly who to contact: ChefStable Group, which partners with West coast chefs to design, build and operate restaurants. 

Within ten minutes, a guy with rolled-up pants was in their basement fixing the problem, and the Dentons kept doing what they do best: cooking and running the kitchen.

Since founding OX and launching three new Portland spots, including two bars and their new restaurant, SuperBite, they have worked with Portland native and ChefStable founder Kurt Huffman, whose team manages their accounting, invoicing, investor relationships, point-of-sale technology, construction project management, and insurance and legal issues.

While the Dentons—who met while cooking at Napa Valley's Terra restaurant—are majority owners of all four spots and oversee a team of about 60 part-time and full-time employees, they pay a management fee and share a percentage of ownership with ChefStable.

Of their growth-enabling relationship with Huffman, Greg says, "He takes passionate chefs and lets us go with ideas. As long as the food is delicious, and he believes in what we're doing, he gives us a lot of freedom and control. At the same time, in order for things to work, we have to be okay with giving away some control. Chefs in general are control freaks, and that's the rub. You have to be willing to focus on what's important, and sometimes that means delegating."

Frequently, according to the Dentons, if restaurants aren't working, chefs will go down with the ship, even if that means putting their house on the line or using money from their kid's college fund. Huffman, on the other hand, is realistic and helps them make sound long-term decisions.

In order for things to work, we have to be okay with giving away some control. Chefs in general are control freaks, and that's the rub. You have to be willing to focus on what's important, and sometimes that means delegating.

—Greg Denton, co-owner, OX Restaurant

Outsourcing certain logistics to ChefStable allows them to focus most of their energy on menu development and related projects—like traveling to promote their recent cookbook, Around the Fire: Recipes for Inspired Grilling and Seasonal Feasting from OX Restaurant, co-written with Stacy Adimando—but the Dentons continue to be challenged and driven by business ownership.

"What we do is so risky," says Gabi. "You're gambling on yourself, and there's no guarantee. We know that every day our restaurants make money is a gift, and not all restaurants have that good fortune."

It's possible that the Dentons create their own luck, as the saying goes, through proactive and strategic decision-making. They control costs by maximizing every ounce of food that comes into their kitchens, grinding trimmed pork fat into house-made sausages and adding smoked bone marrow drippings to beef empanadas.

Adjacent to both restaurants, they've opened bars with cocktails and light snacks—Kask at SuperBite and The Whey Bar at OX—to keep guests on the property as they wait for a table.

And since last summer, they've increased revenue by opening seven days a week, rather than six. Greg pushed for the decision, while Gabi fought it. "I liked being closed one day a week," she says. "I loved what it did for morale and the idea of our people and our equipment getting a break."

But by adding 50 or so days of revenue per calendar year, they can now afford to close for holidays—also good for morale—or occasional vacations, and Gabi has since come around to the idea.

"We know it's a tough business, but we want to be sure that our employees' personal lives are in check and that they're happy," says Greg. "If they're not happy, they leave, and then we have to find someone to fill their shoes, which costs more money. Sometimes I have to remind our cooks to take vacations."

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After opening OX in 2012, the couple opened SuperBite in 2016.

At their newly opened restaurant SuperBite, they hope to retain culinary talent by experimenting with a "whole house" approach to staffing, rather than adhering to the traditional front-of-house versus back-of-house dichotomy and its much-publicized wage disparity.

With their new hybrid "cook-server" position, cooks earn more than average by receiving a percentage of servers' pooled tips. In cutting out food runner and busser positions, the Dentons invested more heavily in kitchen labor and transferred those duties—polishing silverware, running food from the kitchen, clearing and resetting tables—to cooks. Hustling in and out of the dining room, they're free to engage with guests while fellow cooks continue to execute on the line.

"In most of a cook's lifetime in a closed kitchen, you don't get to hear those accolades or field questions about dishes, and that's one of our greatest joys," says Gabi. "We like that this system shares that with the cooks. They get to present food they just made and hear the 'oohs' and 'aahs' and see eyes rolling back with delight."

In their own evolution from line cook to sous chef to chef, the Dentons will eventually remove themselves from the day-to-day physical grind of prepping and cooking. "I'm 40 years old and had back surgery last year," says Greg. "Once you're in your 40s or 50s, there's no way you can't be tired."

Their focus, increasingly, is on the bigger picture of keeping their family of restaurants and bars viable. "You do that by delegating, hiring the right people, and always critiquing your own work and others'," says Greg. With that approach, come rain or shine, the show can always go on.

Photos from top: Dina Avila / Courtesy of OX, Evan Sung / Courtesy of OX, Courtesy of OX
Writer & Editor, caracannella.com