Consistency, dedicated workers, quality product and a good value are required to make a restaurant work. But for restaurant owner J.B. Blau it all comes back to putting the customer on the pedestal, and on the Vineyard, that means putting the year-round population first.
“It’s all about providing year-round . . . we all live here and we shouldn’t just be afforded the opportunities for four months,” Mr. Blau said, sitting at one of his restaurants this week. “There is a huge market out there that’s looking for real food, year-round.”
Mr. Blau, 40, owns Mexican restaurants Sharky’s Cantina, with locations in Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, and the new seafood restaurant Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Company located in Oak Bluffs. It would seem he’s discovered the perfect balance of filling the demand for a year-round dining option while slowly and steadily expanding his reach and audience.
His approach to business is inclusive with a goal to make everyone feel as if they are a part of something bigger. He considers his restaurants to be community centers and a part of that is giving back to the community he serves. Mr. Blau considers it an obligation.
“When you come down here everybody knows everybody, it’s a community, we’re not strangers,” he said. “We feel it’s our obligation to work with the local groups and local people. It’s us. The nice thing about the restaurant is it only gets its identity when it’s filled with people. The people become the restaurant.”
People skills have always been a gift of Mr. Blau’s. He grew up six blocks away from Fenway Park in Boston but fell in love with the small town feel while attending Colby College in Waterville, Maine. It was there he learned how to form relationships with customers when he ran an advertising program through the school that brought businesses to campus.
Growing up, Mr. Blau had been a frequent summer visitor to the Vineyard, but it was a three-day trip to the Island after college that convinced him this was the place to call home. He opened retail store Jaba’s Gallery in Oak Bluffs, followed by a location in Vineyard Haven.
But there was something missing from the food puzzle on the Vineyard. It was more than just missing his daily dose of burritos in Boston, it was a desire for a quality year-round option. In 2004 Sharky’s Cantina was born. The Chowder Company was a “big step” outside of his comfort zone, but again it was based on the year-round perspective, he said, and the seafood and chowder house opened in 2011. This summer he’ll open a chowder shack on Main street in Vineyard Haven.
With success comes greater responsibilities, Mr. Blau believes, and Sharky’s hosts dine-to-donate evenings on a regular basis where Island charities and organizations can host fund-raising dinners at the restaurant and proceeds from the evening go directly back to the organization. The dinners are also a pick-me-up for off-season business, Mr. Blau said, and take on a help us, help you mentality.
The restaurant donated $20,000 last year through the donation evenings, and Mr. Blau expects that number to continue to grow. Giving back to the community is the fun and easy part, Mr. Blau said, and he credits his mother with instilling that feeling of responsibility.
“My mom has always been a huge activist and she’s really charitable. Out here [on the Vineyard] it’s really great,” he said. “This community is amazing; when someone falls down everybody’s there to pick them up. And to be a part of that is really special and an honor.
“We wouldn’t have it any other way. Or my mom would hit me,” he added with a smile.
Mr. Blau gives the illusion of being in five places at once. Whether it’s in one of his restaurants, through texts where he gives away free food on a regular basis in e-mail blasts or through Facebook promotions, he listens to everybody, including his friends, guests, and wife, Heidi, whom he calls the brain behind everything.
“You have to listen to people, you can’t listen to everybody but you have to listen to the aggregate,” he said.
His staff also plays a major role in running a tip-top operation, Mr. Blau said.
“The biggest thing for us is customer service. We’re obsessed with it. It’s the biggest challenge,” he said. “In this business, eating is very personal. It’s a very emotional thing and this is the hardest business in the sense you have to constantly take care of people during this emotional time with food and drink.”
Mr. Blau is the first to admit there are areas where he can improve and surrounds himself with staff and colleagues from whom he can learn.
“You have to surround yourself with people who are better than you, that’s what we live by,” he said. “Every server that works for me is a better server than I am. Every bartender is a better bartender than I am. Every cook is a better cook than I am. I’m technically one of the least talented people in this operation. I’m putting all the pieces together and that’s my job. Without them I would just be a knucklehead with good ideas, but I would have no company.”
Between the three restaurants Mr. Blau employs 60 people with year-round jobs and 150 in the summer. That too is a big responsibility, he said, but something he takes pride in.
For Mr. Blau success isn’t measured in the number of meals he serves a year, which these days is around 200,000, but in longevity.
“This business is not about being popular this year or next year,” he said. “The restaurants I grew up going to, some of them are still in business after 35 years, and those are the ones I model after.”