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.
Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Keene and Christina, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.
Behind the Review, episode 36 transcript
Getting back in touch with customers
EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every week I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur … and the reviewer … about the story and business lessons behind it. Lets see what’s behind this week’s review.
CHRISTINA: When I first saw where the location was and the graphic design. It was almost like it was mysterious. And you couldn’t really tell that it was a restaurant. It was just something that you were like, oh, this is kind of like a little secret special place.
And then you go down the stairs, it’s so interesting. It’s like you go to this little secret place and, when you walk in, it’s dark and it’s mysterious. 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.
EMILY: That’s Christina telling me about Tortoise Supper Club—a family owned restaurant near the heart of downtown Chicago, right by the Chicago river….Let’s hear Christina’s review.
CHRISTINA: Just had another outstanding meal at this place; it’s impeccably elegant and the food is always great. Tortoise Club is the kind of place that allows you to wear a tuxedo or gala dress on a week night and you’ll look like you fit right in. Having said that, plenty of patrons were casually dressed too. The interior design is so powerful that you feel like you’re in a movie set; it’s an experience in itself. No detail is spared, from lovely tufted leather banquettes to plaid covered walls, brass sconces, a red lacquered room.. even little tiny ceiling fans for your comfort that you will really have to look for to see. No detail was overlooked.
The restaurant is tucked into a lower level space just north of Marina City and easily missed if you blink, so pay attention! I’ve been here a few times and have experienced a wide range of dishes. The steaks are top notch.. this place is the new Lawry’s and pays direct homage to that great steak institution. Last night I started out with a lovely tomato soup, followed by the salmon. My date had the sea bass which was exquisite with its coconut rice and silky sauce. The salmon was perfect and so healthy that I justified cherry pie for dessert. 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. He also had an extensive knowledge of the wine list and cared enough to let me try a couple before making my final choice. So nice that they also had a loaf of bread and a candle on the tables, little touches that, when added up with everything else, show an immense sensitivity to the senses on every level and adding to a truly superior experience. It is also worth noting that the music was quiet enough to be in the background and in no way interfered with conversations, yet was pleasant to the ear, something increasingly scarce in restaurants today.
As I write this review I’m already pining to go back. Don’t miss the chance to experience this truly exceptional and novel place, which I hope will be around for years to come.
Last note: there is outdoor seating as well.
EMILY: Having been to Tortoise Supper Club myself, I can vouch for the incredibly thoughtful decor, design, and layout. And Christina is right, the food is fantastic, but the team that works at Tortoise really makes the experience. All of these things are curated by an expert in the industry. Let’s hear from owner and founder Keene on how Tortoise Supper Club came to be.
KEENE: It’s actually a pretty good story in that I did have another restaurant company. It was a very casual stir fry chain that I grew from inception to 15 restaurants. I then sold, merged the company with another company, and stepped aside. And after I did that, my wife and I, and then my six year old son at the time, literally got in the car and we drove around the country with no agenda. It literally was the most freeing, brilliant year of my life. And we would stop in these towns. We literally spent the entire year with no agenda, which was fabulous.
But during that time, it allowed me to clear my head from the previous experience, which was fantastic. And what do I want to do next? And what I learned about myself in that year was that I’m a restaurateur. I love being in restaurants. And so by the time I had 15 restaurants of the successful stir fry chain, I wasn’t a restaurateur anymore. I was a company leader, a company administrator, you know, that kind of thing. But I wasn’t a restaurateur anymore.
So what I decided that I wanted to do was to start a restaurant that was a family owned restaurant and Tortoise Club became that. 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. So we really kind of took, what do we love? And then understanding what I wanted to do professionally with my next career and married those together. And the goal was not to do a bunch of these. The goal really was to do one Tortoise Supper Club and really have it be a family owned operation.
EMILY: Having the experience of starting and growing a fast casual chain from conception to 15 locations will give you chops in the industry. Keene learned alot about process, scale, and growth. But he also learned a lot about himself. He didn’t get fulfillment and joy out of having as many locations as possible. He got joy out of being in his restaurant. Talking to the customers, engaging with his staff members, who are like his family. Guest interaction is what he truly loves.
KEENE: Well, one of the things that’s interesting that I think is important for all of us, regardless of what business you’re in. You know, when we had the 15 restaurants, I allowed myself, a little bit, to lose touch with the guests. And I don’t care what business you’re in, whether it’s Yelp, your business, which is a huge company, or whether you’re a small hardware store down the street, or if you’re a national tire company, you have to stay in touch with your guests. And if you lose that, you potentially lose everything that is special about whatever it is you’re offering.
And that happened to me. And so it was fun for me to get back into a single unit restaurant and literally be in touch with the guests every day. You know, and one of the great stories, Ray Kroc, you know, McDonald’s guy. There was a documentary done about him and the startup of McDonald’s. I mean, he was in those restaurants all the time, behind the grill, in the dining rooms of a McDonald’s. I don’t know if I call them dining rooms, but whenever they are. He’d be out in the parking lot talking to guests and be scraping gum off the parking lot pavement. And even as that thing got bigger, he did his best to stay in touch with his guests.
EMILY: And beyond the simple act of shaking hands and getting to know your customers, a good place to start is knowing yourself. Who are you? What is your business’s identity? What core demographic do you serve?
KEENE: I think most importantly for any business and certainly for us was to understand. To completely understand who we are and what we could be good at and what we are is an experience. It’s a white tablecloth restaurant, even though it is high end, it’s still lively. It’s energetic. It’s fun. It’s not stiff, but it’s an experience where you come in and have a drink in the bar before you retire to your white tablecloth dining experience with the classically French trained chef from scratch kitchen, you know, have a great meal in the dining room with a very personable server.
And then after dinner, you maybe go back to the lounge and have a nightcap and listen to some live jazz. We understood we’re an experience. So literally when the COVID thing happened and every restaurant, practically, is pivoting towards carry out to go and trying to figure out different strategies and different initiatives they can do to basically survive.
We ultimately elected not to do any of that because that’s not who we are. Our food, while fantastic, by the time it traveled, would be very different from being served in the dining room of our restaurant. You don’t get the music, you don’t get the bar, you don’t get the whole experience. So it’s important to understand who you are.
EMILY 6: Every business had to make a decision when the pandemic hit. Would they pivot, or hit pause? For Keene, being an experience meant pause was best.
The search for who they are though began when Keene and his wife first talked about leaving the stir fry chain and transitioning to a supper club. They incorporated the things they loved from their own dining experiences. And who they were began to form. Here’s Keene sharing his description of them today.
KEENE: We describe ourselves as a metropolitan supper club serving steaks chops and fresh seafood. That’s our tagline or elevator pitch. But what it really is, is a supper club really usually has these common elements. Number one, family owned. Number two, it’s usually a white tablecloth restaurant serving steaks, chops, and seafood. And then number three, it normally has an entertainment component to it. And then number four, it’s definitely the kind of place that you have an experience. You go and it’s your evening. So those are the elements that are common to supper clubs.
The supper clubs originated in places like Los Angeles, New York, and Atlantic city. The original supper clubs would have the same kind of ambiance that we would have, and then they would have a 10 o’clock show, a midnight show, a 2:00 AM show and a 4:00 AM show. And people like Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. And Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra, those types of entertainers, started their careers in supper clubs. And people think that we were nightclubs. In most cases, they were not nightclubs, they were supper clubs. So they, those places had a very swanky, sophisticated, kind of urban metropolitan feel to them. And that’s what we’ve strived to do at Tortoise Supper Club.
And our core demographic is 40 to 70 year old people. But having said that, we appeal to a broad range of people, because again, the family owned aspect of who we are, along with how the people that work with us, treat our guests. We want everyone to feel like, okay, even though this is like a white tablecloth restaurant, it’s not stiff, it’s fun. Come in, have a drink, have a full dinner. If you want to come in and have one drink and listen to some jazz, we love having you. If you want to come into the patio and have some oysters and a beverage, fantastic. If you want to come into the dining room and have a full celebratory meal and get dressed to the nines, love to have you. So that’s kind of the thought process behind it. So what we’ve created at Tortoise Supper Club is this kind of urban metropolitan, swanky, sophisticated, but very warm, welcoming, energetic, fun environment. Again, as I say, we have a core demographic as any business does and should. But we found that we appeal to a broader base because there are different ways you can use it and enjoy the restaurant.
EMILY: While Keene’s demographic is broad in some ways, what he’s found to be the key to his success is focus. For him, a focus on the exact customer their business was ‘created for’—the ‘obvious’ customer.
KEENE: One of the things that has helped me tremendously is focus. And there’s a book called Good to Great. And it basically is a book that analyzes a whole bunch of companies, of how they went from good results to fantastic results. And one of the things that struck me very poignantly in that book was, it said, you need to understand who you are and who loves you and who’s not gonna love you. And so once I really completely a hundred percent understood who we are, why are we special, and who loves us? And just focused on that. It helped me bring tremendous balance in life.
So for example, every restaurateur would love their restaurant to get more business at three o’clock on a Monday afternoon. And ain’t gonna happen, you know? Saturday night, now you’ve got plenty of business. And the best thing you can do is to create more. My whole point to this is once I really understood, okay, this is a supper club, family owned, even though we have complaints now and then about the cost of it, the reality is that is the experience that we’re providing, it does cost money. And these are the people that market us. Our core is 40 to 70, but 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. I said, okay, I get it now. This is who we are. This is who we’re marketing to. And all this other stuff is just noise and it’s cluttered. Don’t worry about it. And so that was a big thing for me.
And once I was able to really understand that, it helped me to have more balance in life because I wasn’t worried about so many other things that basically I had no control over and really weren’t going to help us be successful.
EMILY: And Christina is in that target demographic. She truly appreciates everything that Tortoise has to offer and that makes the experience worthy of the time and money.
CHRISTINA: I’m so sick and tired of being in a restaurant where the music is so loud. That is the experience. That’s what they’re giving you. They’re giving you their music. And this is a place where you hear some music in the background that’s pleasant. But you could see this is a place where you can talk to your friends where you can have several people at a table and everybody can talk to each other without screaming. And like I said, it shows my age that that’s how restaurants used to be. And now it’s kind of like, oh, this is a special restaurant now because I can actually talk to my guests, you know, with the person that I’m with.
And you think about how restaurants used to be. What is extraordinary to me is that I think that the Tortoise Club is a better experience than those restaurants were, and that’s really saying a lot. So I recommend it.
EMILY: Another aspect Christina mentioned that elevated her experience during the particular visit that resulted in her finally writing the Yelp review, was the service. Her waiter went above and beyond to describe the dishes and share insights into what went into the incredible offerings they were ordering from. And he enhanced the entire feeling that Christina and her date had about their dinner. Here’s Keene sharing how he curates that staff have an attention to detail.
KEENE: We very much pride ourselves and focus on that we’re a family owned business. And that doesn’t just mean Meghan and I own the business. That means that one of us is always in the restaurant. When we interview somebody, we interview them, not so much for their skillset and their experience as a server, bartender, cook, or whatever, but how they are going to fit into this family of people that we have working together with Meghan and I. And that’s really the most important thing is the hiring process. Because we hire these personalities, you know, 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, becomes a very collaborative place to work. It becomes a very extremely supportive place to work, and we all go through ups and downs in life. And it’s really nice to have your work family there as a support group for you as you go through some of the issues, but that’s how we achieve this very personable service.
A lot of companies and a lot of restaurants talk about hospitality. In my opinion, there’s not that many that execute it well. And as you become larger it becomes extremely difficult to do it. I believe that Lettuce Entertain You has done it. Danny Meyer’s group in New York, I believe has done it very well. But there’s not that many big restaurant companies that do it well, in my opinion. It’s almost impossible to do. Now we can never have the purchasing power that they do. We can never have that marketing power. That’ll never happen in a family owned business, but where we can compete with them and where we can win it with them is impersonable hospitality, because it’s Megan and I in the restaurant doing the hiring, creating this family environment.
And so it’s not so much about the training, it’s all about the interview process. And then making sure we’re selecting the right people and saying, okay, are they going to fit in? And are they going to be as supportive to the next person, that the current group is to each other?
EMILY: It’s about the people. To elaborate on that, here’s Christina sharing what motivates her to review and the importance of the entire experience.
CHRISTINA: With me, when it’s a great expense, I want to be stimulated on several levels. Like I mentioned, we’ve got interior design, we’ve got a great waiter, we’ve got fabulous food, we’ve got comfort. Like, I happened to notice that they actually have these little tiny fans that are keeping me comfortable in the restaurant, wow! Wow, great music in the background of these are all things that when they’re hitting all of these marks. I’m going to step in and I’m going to reward that place because they have taken the time to make sure that when I walk in there that I’m having an extraordinary experience.
EMILY: Something else that Christina does when she shares her experiences at local businesses online is including visuals.
CHRISTINA: I’m not really a technical person, but I do know a little bit about SEO. And I know that when you post pictures for establishments, it improves their SEO.
And, I don’t know the Tortoise Club management, but I sure want them to stay in Chicago. And this is my way of giving them some love. When you post the pictures, you’re helping to promote them. And not to mention, I can talk all I want, but when you have pictures, people can look and they can see those pictures and they can see that this is tangible, that I am real, that I actually went there. They can go to that table where I sat and have the same experiences and the pictures add to the credibility of that. And so whenever I have an extraordinary experience, I pull out my camera. I take some pictures and it’s good for everybody.
EMILY: For Keene, reviews—both positive and negative—are valuable. And both need to be dealt with accordingly.
KEENE: You know, many restaurateurs over the last many years have become negative on reviews. We take the reviews extremely seriously. But sometimes, we, I wouldn’t say take them with a grain of salt, but we do our homework. So if we get just kind of an outrageous review and every now and then you’re going to get a negative review. But if we get something that’s kind of outrageous or really strong, we’ll do a little research into that review to find out, did the guest really dine here? Was the experience that they had if they did dine there, was the experience in line with what they said?
So, we review every review. We have somebody in the office that goes through all of them. And I also then go through every one of them, as well as our chef goes through every one of them, we then respond to every single one, whether it is positive, whether it is negative.
Like I said, when we have the outlandish outrageous ones that we just see unfactual or they’re little elements that seem, maybe this is, you know, where’d this come from, we’ll then research that review and say, okay, did this person really dining here, what happened here? But the reality is, I would say 95% of reviews are legitimate reviews, positive or negative. And I am a believer, most restaurants and most companies have somebody in the office that sends out some kind of message to them.
You as a business owner, in my opinion, would be foolish not to take them seriously because at the end of the day, there are a whole lot of people that use those different sites to make purchasing decisions.
EMILY: Engaging with reviews and validating your customers who share their experiences is important. Keene’s approach is healthy. Use the information you have to be better, but take everything with a grain of salt.
To close us out, here’s Keene giving some advice on entrepreneurship.
KEENE: One of the people I’m reading a lot about now, right, there’s a guy named Seth Goden, who is a very brilliant marketer. One of the things he talks about is actually marketing to a smaller group, used to be in the fifties and sixties with TV and there’s only five channels, or four channels, or three major channels at the time, you could take your Clorox bleach and you could market it to the whole country or the whole world. Those days are over.
And so now, it really is understanding who your core audience is, and then just market it to them as much as you possibly can. And for us going back to the review thing is I feel like so many restaurants, companies, just don’t pay enough attention to their guests and listen to them.
Rich Millman, brilliant restaurateur from Lettuce Entertain You, told me once, listen to your guests. For free, they’re going to tell you how to be successful. And it’s so true. And so I would encourage all of my colleagues and all business owners to listen to your guests, stay in touch with your guests, and understand who your guests are that love you. And if you take care of them, they’ll take care of you.
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