How does the owner of a fast casual, stir-fry chain curate a fine-dining experience? After expanding his first restaurant concept into 15 locations, Keene Addington realized he missed forging personal connections with guests—and he missed having dinners that make your whole evening. Channeling these desires into Tortoise Supper Club in Chicago, Addington set about creating something so special it could never be replicated: he and his wife’s own dream dining experience.
“And at the end of the day, Tortoise Supper Club embodies all the things that my wife and I love when we go to a restaurant,” he said.
Following in the tradition of New York and Los Angeles supper clubs that launched the careers of entertainers such as Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Tortoise Supper Club offers a sophisticated, metropolitan experience: steaks, chops, and fresh seafood; live music; and an ambiance that reviewer Christina M. describes as feeling straight out of a movie set.
From the brass scones on the wall to the dimly lit entrance, the supper club stands out not only for it’s aesthetic but it’s service. Each detail appeals to a specific audience—typically, Keene says, people ages 40 to 70 who appreciate fine dining but still like to let loose, connect with their bartender, or bring the whole family for a celebratory meal.
“We want everyone to feel like even though this is like a white tablecloth restaurant, it’s not stiff—it’s fun,” Keene said. “If you want to come in and have one drink and listen to some jazz, we love having you. If you want to come onto the patio and have some oysters and a beverage, fantastic.”
Following his passions helped Keene refine his concept, but he also worked hard to understand his audience and what they value. In this case, that includes an upscale menu, light entertainment, and a personal touch that comes from being family owned. (Either Keene or his wife Meghan can always be found in the restaurant, interacting with guests and staff.)
And as for those who don’t find this combination appealing? Keene advised: Don’t worry about them. “We understand that we’re an experience. Once I was able to really hone in—this is who we are, this is who loves us, and this is who appreciates us—I was able to relax more because I wasn’t trying to be all things to all people.”
Reviewer Christina M., a repeat customer at Tortoise Supper Club, found that her expectations matched Keene’s vision. “It’s like you go to this little secret place, and when you walk in, it’s dark, it’s mysterious,” she wrote in her Yelp review. “It’s got some drama, and you can see a little bit of the rest of the restaurant, but your first impression is that you’re going into a little special cave or something, it’s just unlike other restaurants in that respect.”
She also noted the service, which Keene believes is essential to a family-run operation like Tortoise Supper Club: “The food is the star of the show here, but as an added bonus, our waiter was fantastic. Chimé took the time to describe the dishes in such detail that it was like being read a great story and led to a better understanding of the skill in the kitchen.”
Keene takes his hiring process seriously, evaluating employees for their ability to curate an experience for each guest. “When we interview somebody, we interview them not so much for their skillset and their experience as a server or a bartender or cook, but how are they going to fit into this family of people that we have working together with Meghan and I?” he said. “If those personalities mesh within the family and they get what we’re all striving to do, it becomes a very fun place to work.”
Check out the other key lessons from Keene in this episode:
- Think about your own preferences, and apply them. What do you need or expect from a small business like yours? Chances are if you want those products or services, other people do too.
- Design matters. The layout and decor of your business can help you stand out from the crowd, so think carefully about the image you want to portray.
- Understand what your audience is looking for. It’s important to focus on what you do best, but it’s equally important to know your audience and what they want from you. Who loves you, your product, or your service? Cater to that powerful demographic.
- Stay in touch with your customers. No matter the size of your business, it’s crucial to communicate often with your base and follow up on any new or changing expectations they may have.
- The quality of your staff is just as important as the quality of your product. Your employees often spend more time with your customers than you can, so it’s important for them to represent you and your brand well.
These lessons come from an episode of Behind the Review, Yelp & Entrepreneur Media’s weekly podcast. Listen below to hear from Keene and Christina, or visit the episode page to read more, subscribe to the show, and explore other episodes.
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