Dear Greg Koch of Stone Brewing: Quality must extend through every level of an organization

Stone Brewing is a much beloved San Diego-based company that produces highly rated craft beers. In addition, the company operates restaurants dedicated to “slow food” principles. I have now been to their newly opened Liberty Station location three times. This is an open letter to Stone’s CEO Greg Koch regarding my experience.

Dear Greg,

I know that you are someone who, like me, is obsessed with quality. It shows in your product. I’m sure few people realize just how difficult it is to do what you are able to do:

  • To brew a good quality beer is hard enough.
  • Brewing a high quality beer consistently is extremely difficult given the variability of certain key ingredients, such as hops.
  • To consistently brew high quality beer in sufficient quantity to meet public demand and be competitive on cost is near impossible.
  • To build and operate not one, but two high profile restaurants showcasing those beers seems impossible.

And that last point is where the current weak link exists.

I have never been to the Escondido location that has been open for several years. However, I have always heard very positive reviews from random strangers and good friends alike.

The long-anticipated opening of the Liberty Station location appears to have been a huge success. I have had the opportunity to dine there three times now.

Architecture/Ambiance: First rate

I know from talking to an architect that was directly involved in Stone’s Liberty Station facility, that this project has been in planning stages for a very long time.

The transformation of that space from the dilapidated and neglected Naval Training Center to what it is today, cannot be ignored. The environment that you and your team created is breathtaking, and shows what a little creativity, and a lot of money, blood, sweat and tears can make.

From the polished concrete floors, to the Big Ass Fans ™ hanging from the ceilings, and all the water features and sculpted metal artwork in between – Stone’s Liberty Station location must be experienced. Who would have thought that something so base and mundane as a bathroom would become a highlight? Genius.

But that’s where your dream turns into a nightmare

The first time I went to the new location was for the San Diego Green Building Council’s Summer Social. I’m on the marketing committee, and this was a huge event for us. Overall, everyone was fairly pleased.

Except for one detail: Service.

The only complaint I heard from attendees was that it took forever to get a beer. I know that there were a lot of people, but with two bars running exclusively for our event, it shouldn’t have been that hard to make it happen.

Especially considering just how many staff are on hand: The ratio of staff to patrons is unlike anything I have ever seen.

But that was a special event, and having worked at hundreds of events over the years, I know how things go. The service issue was easily overlooked in light of how great everything else was. Besides, the restaurant had just opened and the staff were probably mostly new hires.

Take Two

That experience was so wonderful, I made sure to bring my wife to the restaurant one weekend so we could immerse ourselves. We have three young kids, so when we get a chance to go out just the two of us, it is a rare and special opportunity.

Fortunately, our afternoon visit was exceptional in every way. We were seated inside at the really cool table with the built-in illuminated water feature. Being in a path between the bar and kitchen, we were doted on by several staff.

My food, the steak that tops out the price list, was cooked perfectly. The sides were incredible and everything paired well with the awesome beers.

My wife ordered the lobster roll. It was a disappointment. Especially considering the price.

Well, we figured, next time she should try something else on the menu.

Third time’s a charm?

A couple weekends ago, our kids were out of town, so my wife and I decided to go back to Stone at Liberty Station. What a great way to spend an afternoon/evening together. The weather was still nice, so we opted to sit outside.

Taken from our table in the beautiful courtyard of Stone's Liberty Station restaurant
Taken from our table in the beautiful courtyard of Stone’s Liberty Station restaurant

Once again, I marveled at the shear number of staff. There were wait staff everywhere, bussers, and several hosts/supervisors with tablets and secret-service-style earpieces.

We sat at our table facing the daunting task of choosing beers. The beer choice would also depend on our food choices. We weren’t sure whether we were going to order a few appetizers, or one entree each, or some hybrid.

The paradox of choice strikes again!

Initially, we were relieved that the waiter/waitress hadn’t come to our table yet. We needed all the time we could get.

But after about ten minutes, we were pretty well decided on both our beverage choice and food order.

Just one problem:

There was nobody to take our order!

Ever.

As in, we waited for 20 solid minutes.

Not one waiter, waitress, busboy, busgirl, supervisor, host, assistant manager, manager, bartender, or janitor ever came to our table.

While we had been waiting, my wife told me a story from one of her co-workers, who had visited Stone’s Liberty Station location based on our recommendation.

She and her husband, once seated, waited for half-an-hour before any wait-staff visited their table – even for just an introduction. My wife’s co-worker was so insulted and infuriated she begged her husband to take them somewhere, anywhere else.

While they eventually did receive their order (it took 45 minutes from the time they sat down until they took their first sip of beer), the bad taste from poor service permanently colored their perception of the restaurant.

They have not gone back, and never will.

I have never walked out of a restaurant before

Most of my work over the last 25 years involves service industries. I have had several positions in food service specifically, and am a certified mixologist. I have built and opened a restaurant, and managed a coffee house.

So I know what it is like when a dining establishment is busy. I know what it is like when a customer says, “we’ve been waiting for our food for over 30 minutes – what the hell is going on?”

But enough is enough.

Greg, your team has let you down.

And you are partly to blame.

Quality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder

A lot of the consulting work I do involves quality. Something that a lot of people have a hard time understanding, is that quality can be both objective and subjective. It all depends.

In a seminar that I give on quality assurance, I illustrate that point (ironically enough) with the example of a restaurant.

It goes something like this:

An example of the subjective nature of quality at a restaurant is the way food tastes, ambiance, etc. However, once you step into the kitchen, the standards of quality are objective and clearly defined.

Stone just became the example that I will use from now on.

  • An example of the subjective nature of quality: I found my food to be outstanding, whereas my wife was not impressed at all.
  • An example of the objective nature of quality: No matter how busy a restaurant is, the waiter/waitress should immediately introduce themselves to a recently seated table and take their drink order right away.

Lessons Learned

Greg, I like you. I have a lot of respect for what you are trying to do. San Diego would not be recognized as the epicenter of the craft beer movement if it weren’t for you.

So don’t fuck this up.

Too much money has been put into this investment, and your reputation is on the line.

Your standards for quality are self-evident when it comes to the beer. But your staff does not understand how crucial customer service is.

How about this as a basic checklist to start with:

  • We believe in “slow food” not slow service
  • Our beer comes first – if the customer isn’t taking a sip of our beer within 5 minutes of sitting down, something is wrong
  • Our menu needs to reflect the same care and devotion that we show our beer
  • We can’t control the buying experience when customers purchase our beer at other retail establishments, so our restaurant is the frontline for our customer service
  • If we don’t WOW each and every customer with outstanding service we have failed

Just for the record, my wife and I counted at least 15 staff that walked right past our table and did/said nothing. Not even the most basic acknowledgment of our existence.

We are not alone

Do yourself a favor, Greg. Read through the Yelp reviews.

If that doesn’t turn your stomach, then you aren’t the person I thought you were.

Epilogue

After walking out of Stone, my wife and I went to our favorite local sushi place, Tokyo Sushi Loha. Located in a crappy strip mall on El Cajon Blvd., in the College area, it isn’t what you might expect to be a “quality” establishment. Especially with the outdated interior, incredibly loud music and silly laser lights.

Our beer, crappy as it may be, arrived within 3 minutes of being seated
Our beer, crappy as it may be, arrived within 3 minutes of being seated

Kenny-san, though, isn’t your average sushi restaurant proprietor. The care that he puts into his craft is obsessive.

A team is only as strong as its weakest member.

Kenny expects quality from every person on staff. So while the clientele definitely skews towards rowdy sake-bombing white college kids, I have never had a bad experience there.

Those dots are Sriracha (rooster sauce) and were purely for effect, as was the flower
Those dots are Sriracha (rooster sauce) and were purely for effect, as was the flower

The bathroom at Stone cost more than all the fixtures and furnishings at Tokyo Sushi Loha. I’ll bet Tokyo Sushi’s annual rent is less than Stone’s for one month.

Despite the great difference in budget, number of staff, clientele, etc., Tokyo Sushi Loha beats Stone hands down in quality.

I’d like to help

Greg, I believe in what you are trying to do. So I’m willing to help.

Contact me, and we can talk about ways to close the gap between the level of quality you intend and the quality delivered.

Good luck – you’re going to need it.


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Image courtesy koadmunkee

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