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14 Questions with The Cafe's Sal Rubino

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Between the Grisanti restaurants, Rubinos, and now at The Cafe, Sal Rubino has 32 years of experience managing restaurants. Here, The Cafe's owner/operator talks at length about what it takes to succeed in the business, the status of fine dining, the future of Louisville's restaurant scene, hiring staff that's in recovery and that it's his wife's cooking that keeps the guests happy.

So you're originally from New York. What got you to Louisville in the first place?

I left New York when I graduated high school and moved to Miami, Florida to study and that's where I met my wife. We met at Florida International University in Miami, which was, at the time, one of the most prominent restaurant schools in the country. So, I really was up for exploring the country and I hadn't been anywhere west of New Jersey so it was kind of exciting for me to discover Louisville. So we got married in 1981 and we stayed here in Lousiville ever since, raised our family here.

What did you do when you first got here?

I came and worked for the Grisanti Company. I started working as a waiter at Casa Grisanti's and then moved up to captain and then I became maitre d' and assistant manager at Sixth Avenue, which was their seafood address—that's what they called it. It was fresh seafood. So I went from being a captain at Casa's to assistant manager at Sixth Avenue to general manager at Mama Grisanti's, all within one year. So in 1983 I became general manager at Grisanti's and I was there for about two years, I guess, and then Vincenzo Gabrielli announced that he was leaving the company and going to open up his own restaurant so there was this void opened up at Casa's, and they brought me down there to be general manager at Casa Grisanti. And I was general manager at Casa Grisanti from '85 to '88.

And where was that located?

It was at 1000 E. Liberty St., basically at the corner of Liberty and Baxter. It's now something else. It's New Directions Housing. The Grisanti family donated the building to New Direction Housing—it's a non-profit. So they ended up closing in 1991, Casa Grasanti closed in '91, three years after my departure, which I'm sure has nothing to do with my departure. In 1988 I opened up Rubino's, which was my first restaurant. It was called, initially, Rubino's Seashells.

Shells was kind of a knockoff, it was a model of the seafood restaurant you would go to when you were visiting a shore location, somewhere like Cape Cod, Massachusetts or Bar Harbor, Maine and you go to the fisherman on the wharf and say, "Where do you guys eat?" and they point you down the end of the wharf and back behind the fish house there is this restaurant and everything is low cost. We had $10 lobsters and Monday night was 10 cent shrimp night and Sunday was 25 cent oyster night.

How did you keep the costs so low, being in the middle of the country?

We were not very profitable. We really struggled. The model was built around a high food cost and a low labor cost and high sales. We made it up in volume. We did couple the seafood menu with pasta menu and that really was the secret. We offered things like fettuccine alfredo and you can have fettuccine alfredo with shrimp, fettuccine alfredo with lobster. We also had marinara sauces, so it was kind of an Italian seaood mix. So, of course, pasta is a low cost item and has high margins so it kind of balanced out. We still, at the end of the day, had a 40 percent food cost which is high for the industry. Most people shoot for high 20s, low 30s for food cost.

Percent of what the plate would go for?

Overall food cost of. Like if you sold a plate for $10, you don't want to have more than $4 in it. Industry average would be $3 in it. So, by contrast, steak restaurants have high food costs too. They make it up in their side dishes: potatoes, green beans and things like that.

But we had that business until 1996 so it was just short of ten years and we opened up a second location. That location was our first when we opened it and that was at Dupont Circle, Calistoga was the most recent restaurant there, there were several restaurants since, but Calistoga was the most recent—right across from Wild Eggs.

And then in 1991, we opened up our second Rubino's location in Middletown on Shelbyville Road right behind, there's a Dairy Queen there, and it was an old Kroger's store. And we took one-third of that Kroger's store and finished it into a restaurant and we were there, again in '96 we sold the restaurants.

My wife and I got to a point, we were much younger then, and we were operating dinner house restaurants and we had this vision of having a small regional chain and it took a toll on our lives, on our marriage. We had to make a decision and we chose our life and our marriage over the business. We did a lot of soul searching and counseling and all of that stuff that went along with it, but in the end we realized it would be a lot better if we didn't operate a restaurant at night.

At first we said maybe we wouldn't be in the restaurant business. But we found this opportunity to open up a restaurant at the Louisville Antique Mall, which was just gonna be lunch and we were operating seven days a week. But we were open at 11 a.m. and closed at 3 p.m. and we served lunch. And we started out very small with just six tables, we had about twelve seats. She was in the kitchen and I was out front.

I may have not mentioned, but we met in school and we were in the restaurant-management program, but her emphasis was the culinary side. She always loved cooking. I always loved the front of the house and the marketing side of business. And, so, we were sort of a good fit, a good team. So when we started over, per se, we didn't take on any partners, no investors, it was just the two of us. The people at the Louisville Antique Mall helped us get things going because they had an interest in having a restaurant there.

And so, Sandy was in the kitchen and I was out front. I think our first day we might have did $50 worth of business. But, over time, the food proved to be good and we had an attention to detail and hospitality and we felt like we had something going there. So, overtime we started to grow. We added tables and chairs and everything was done, but we bootstrapped the whole thing. We borrowed a little money from the bank, but we really pieced it together day by day. And if you look around our dining room today and you look at the mismatched chairs and the decor package it was all kind of laying on the side of the street.

Works out well, mixed chairs are in style right now.

You see what young people were doing for their weddings and things. It is very much the flavor of the Cafe, this kind of piecing together of decor pieces and that's what we did. Seventeen years ago we did that and it was sort of a budgetary constraint that caused us to do that, but it happens to be in vogue right now. So, we're very pleased with the way that kind of turned out.

Over time, weeks lead to months, we started adding staff—a cook here, a server here and there. Today we employ more than 30 people. We survived at the Antique Mall for five years and when our lease ran out, the people that own the Antique Mall decided to move out of the Antique Mall and they chose a building on East Broadway and they offered for us to come with them, but we decided it might be in our best interest if we could own our space and control our end destiny rather than no telling what would happen. Our lease was up there and we had to move and we thought,well shoot, the thing hit the fan and we we're like "wow, we'll we don't want to be out of business. We want to be in business." Our business was at the peak of its game. So fortunately we found this space, which just happened to be two blocks away from the Antique Mall's new location. And it was across the street Louisville Stoneware and we thought that was a good kind of synergy going on there. I remember my accountant and my attorney at the time both said, which thankfully they're both still my accountant and my attorney, both thought I was crazy when I bought this building because it was just a dilapidated, blighted area and the building had just been bought by the bank.

What was it previously?

It was a manufacturing facility. It was called Rocky Manufacturing and if you look up you see these beams and hoists and joists and stuff. They had this huge joist that would lift up thousands of pounds of steel onto conveyers and things like that. There were big garage door here and another garage door here where trucks would come in, they'd offload them and then they'd drive out the other end. It had been vacant for a number of years. In fact, the last thing it was being used for was the Kentucky Derby Festival. The
Kentucky Derby Festival was using it to store floats for the Pegasus Parade. Because this is right where the Pegasus Parade starts. So they had to find new places to store the floats, but that worked out well.

Has the neighborhood developed like you thought it would?

Well, it seems like it's beginning to. Right down the street, what used to be the Swan Dive became Hammerheads and that's really taken off. It's been a great restaurant. And I think that overall the Coach Lamp Restaurant has seen an increase in its volume and Louisville Stoneware has seen an increase in their volume. We're hoping that there may be some potential in the building that's across the way from us that has been vacant, that possibly some entrepreneur might see some value in that and put something there, because that would really complete the whole neighborhood package. Some of the housing along the streets has changed ownership and some of the younger couples have been coming in. But the city, thankfully, has invested in kind of cleaning up the green space. Right over here is Bear Grass Creek. A lot of people see that and think of it as a drainage ditch or whatever, but it's actually Bear Grass Creek, just on the other side of the railroad tracks. So there is some potential there with the beautification of Bear Grass Creek and to make it park-like. The city has invested in some improvement of the landscaping. So that's been good. I've been thankful for that.

Two of the things you mentioned stand out as the keys for success in the restaurant business: one is not taking on any partners and the other is having control of the building. What else do you think is key?

You know, our belief, we have a package that we believe in very firmly. If you've eaten here you might have seen the t-shirts that the servers wear says "More" on it. And then underneath the word more is a bunch of small words. But the thing that we believe in most importantly is: first, have exceptional quality product, you have to have a good product.

My wife and I like to eat out, but, honestly, there is a lot of fine dining restaurants, but our price point is $10 to $12 a person and to find a restaurant in Louisville where you can have a meal for $10 $12 a person and feel like you're getting a really good quality meal is very challenging for us. Of course, you can go the high end places and there are plenty of options. So that's the second component: we're an excellent value.

And thirdly, to provide excellent service. Those three components, there's more of which I'll get to, but the three essential components are exceptional quality, excellent value, and exceptional service. In other words, we want people to leave here saying to themselves, "Wow that was great. We gotta come back." I'm sure you've covered food and restaurants for a long time in your career and you've probably heard a lot that restaurants rely on word-of-mouth advertising. They don't spend a lot of money on advertising. Well if you explore further and find out, ok what do you do to generate word-of-mouth advertising? The average restaurateur doesn't have a clue. Especially the people you are referring to that don't last more than a few years. What we do is we intentionally package everything we do to stimulate word of mouth advertising. We want to stimulate favorable word-of-mouth advertising. Everything we do is deliberate. There is no accident in what we do about the presentation of the plate, the quality of the food. Now that's not to say that we're perfect. Because we're not. Nobody's perfect. We make mistakes just like everybody else. And there's people who walk out of our door, unfortunately, unhappy. If I know about it I'm going to stop that. I don't want an unhappy guest walking out of my door having paid for their food. So I train to let my staff to let me know if there's ever a problem I need to know before they get up out of their chair because I don't want them to pay. And oftentimes I get into a discussion with the guest and they say "Well oh no we didn't want that." And I say "That's all I can do. It's the only thing I can do because I want you to come back. If I let you pay for something you weren't happy about, I've failed. And I don't want to fail in this business. I want to succeed." So the only thing I can do once it's gotten to that point, hopefully we catch it early enough, that if they didn't like something they got: "Let me get you something you're gonna like. That's fine. You didn't like that. Maybe you feel like it didn't match your taste or your expectations. Let me have that back. Let me bring you something that you will like. Let me understand your taste profile that you're interested in." Sometimes people will order our tuna expecting a tuna steak and it comes out as tuna salad. That's what it is. It's a tunafish salad. It's not albacore grilled with, it's not ahi, but it is what it is. Now if it comes to the plate and you look at it and say "I didn't know it was tuna salad. That's what I ate when I was in third grade. I don't want that." "Well, I'm sorry that there was a misunderstanding. Maybe you''ll like our wild-caught salmon filet." "Oh, you have that." "Yeah, that's our special. Let me bring that to you. And that's served on a bed of grains and it's served with balsamic." "Wow, you have that! Let me try that." So, we try to have things for varying tastes, but sometimes the server might not understand what the guest's expectation is and we don't want them to leave unhappy because they were served a scoop of tunafish. Let's bring them something that they are really going to enjoy.

What do you do to stimulate positive word of mouth? Obviously that's taking a negative situation and rectifying it so they are happy with it. What about from the get-go? You obviously don't want to have that situation you described in the first place so what do you do to avoid that?

So what we do is we have a training program. We have a set of standards called our hospitality standards. These were designed when I was at Grisanti and Vincenzo Gabrielli was involved in that process and they made use of the hospitality standards. But hospitality standards was something that was initiated by the National Restaurant Association 30 years ago, maybe 25 years ago back in the eighties and I participated in that. As the general manager at Casa Grisanti's and the management team of the Grisanti Company I participated in that. And bought into it.

Plus, when I was in restaurant management school in Miami, Florida I studied under a fellow by the name Mike Hurst who was a past president of the National Restaurant Association. He was a restaurateur. He owned several restaurants in South Florida. He's deceased now. But he was one of my professors and he touted hospitality and stimulating word-of-mouth advertising, so it came back from that. So these hospitality standards are designed from that and they are all designed to train the guest-contact employee to provide service that exceeds the guests expectation from the inside out.

So we use things like eye contact and a sincere smile when we deal with guests. We identify their special needs when we are waiting on our guest. Things of that nature. Then we have a system of how to make sure the right food gets to the right customer. And then we train out kitchen staff on quality and we have standards like, if in doubt throw it out. If you have a product that you think is not up to our quality standard, just throw it. It's not worth it serving that to a customer.

I'll give you an example. Every morning I go to the produce terminal which is over on Produce Lane and I visit companies like Horton, a fruit company, Paul's Fruit Company, there's Stanley Brothers. I go to each one of them to find the very best tomatoes. I'll find our customers talk about them on Facebook or different places that, throughout the year, they come here and marvel at the fact that we have fantastic-tasting tomatoes, fantastic-looking tomatoes. Now there's exceptions. Sometimes it's difficult to get them and we might have some that are underripe and we try not to serve them when they are underripe, but we work very hard at having the best quality of produce. We don't do a whole lot of, say for example, farm-to-table here. Our price point doesn't really allow for that, but during the summer I'll often go to the farmers market on Bardstown Road and talk with the farmers there to get certain things like tomatoes or other products. If there are fresh, locally grown apples. We use a lot of Gala apples in our kitchen. We use Gala apples in our green salad is served with sliced apples. So, if we can find some good, locally grown apples in Southern Indiana, we'll buy those. But, by and large, it is just seeking out the best quality product, whether it's from Kentucky, Indiana, or California, Florida, Georgia or wherever. But we always look for the highest quality and train our staff to ensure quality.

So quality in service and quality of food, and quality of service goes beyond just being attentive to your guest needs, but also making sure they don't wait very long for their food. A long ticket time here begins at 15 minutes. It might go to 20 minutes. When it gets to that time that is when a manager is alerted, "Can you visit table 22 and apologize to them? The food is almost ready." I'll get over there or one of my assistant managers will get over there and try to see if there is something we can do for them to make sure that they are happy. But having those hospitality standards from the beginning, establishing a system where everybody works together as a team. We have a team system where we have servers, but, in addition to the servers, who are assigned a certain number of tables anywhere from four to seven tables maybe, we have service assistants. They are involved in greeting and seating guests, bussing tables, running food, expediting the food out of the kitchen. So that there is this team working together to facilitate the hospitality service standards.

Talking about your team, I read online that a lot of your staff are people getting second chance...

Well the second-chance philosophy that has come to The Cafe, as much as I like to say that it was deliberate, was never deliberate. Both my wife and I are Christian. We don't wear that on our sleeve or anything like that. We're very private in our faith walk. But in the early years of any restaurant it is a struggle. And you face many struggles in the restaurant business, as you've already indicated. The fact that we've been in business for 17 years is something to be recognized. But, early on, particularly being located on the second floor of an antique mall in Germantown next to a railroad track was not the beaten path. So we did not have the typical candidates walking in our door looking for jobs. So we had to get creative.

I guess I can say that our introduction to the opportunity to hire people in recovery programs came from a guy named Ron McKiernan who is, God Rest his Soul, he passed away a couple of years ago. He was in the business. He had a private enterprise that worked with people in recovery, recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. And he worked with people voluntarily and also court-ordered. And one of his things were finding them jobs and his office was across the street from The Cafe, from the Antique Mall there. And so he woud frequent The Cafe and have lunch and one day he stopped me and said "Looks like you could use some help." I said, "Yeah, we can use some help." I've got a guy. He's just out of a prison, a recovering alcoholic. Would you be interested in using him? Maybe he could wash dishes for you. I said, "Sure, you know, I'll talk with him."

And so I had gotten to know Ron pretty well and he seemed like a straight up guy and that lead to another guy who came in. The second guy happened to be one of those kids that got a 30 on his ACT and he was a full-ride scholarship to an Ivy League school and he just happened to be an alcoholic. He was a kid, right out of high school and lost everything because he made bad decisions. We hired him and put him on dishwasher and he's made his way up to salad cook and up to making sandwiches and he remained in recovery, went back to school and paid for his education and now he's an engineer. He graduated from Speed School. So it's kind of cool to see that happen.

So that lead to another and another and then one day we were approached by the Kentucky Refugee Ministry and we were asked if we would be interested in hiring a refugee from Cuba. We said, "Yeah, that would be great." We hired one of them and lead to another. So these sources of employees, not all of them worked out. Sometimes people didn't work out. Sometimes they were not the right fit. But what we did find is those that did work out tended to be very thankful to have been given a second chance.

And we saw their potential in that and we saw that inside they were good people and because they had made bad choices in the past and maybe because they came from a foreign land and they had this disadvantage that they carried with them a certain degree of humility and a certain degree of spirit to want to succeed that it, for my wife and I, it brought us great joy. And we realized that that was really a blessing that we were receiving from God for having participated in this process and at that point is when it became more of a deliberate effort to say, "Hey these people were blessing us by showing how thankful they are for their job and how hard they work and showing up to work."

A lot of times in the restaurant business you find, again, its like a fifty-fifty thing when you hire somebody. You can interview somebody for half-an-hour and think that you've gotten a good candidate and then rubber meets the road when they come to work. I don't know what it's like in advertising or in law firms or whatever it might be the same exact thing. But for us, we find that we're sort of maybe not on the bottom tier of the human resource pool, but pretty close to the bottom and we offer entry-level positions. And so for entry-level candidates, we find that through these two sources of employees, through the refugee minister's program, whether it's the Catholic Charities or the Kentucky Refugees or through AA-sponsored groups or people in recovery, we do find it to be much more successful when you work through an agency, because there is another layer of accountability there. Someone walks in off the street and says "You know, I heard you give people second chances. I'm an alcoholic and I really want to make my life." I go "Who's your sponsor? Are you working with an agency?" If they don't have some kind of other support center I find that it's not very lucrative for us. Right now we're kind of working with a group called Teen Challenge. I don't know if you are familiar with Teen Challenge. They are a faith-based group that works with young women in recovery. They work with young men too, but locally they have a women's shelter. It is right her on East Broadway and we've hired a few girls from that program and it seems to be working very well. So, that's kind of the full story there.

This is probably a bad segue, but speaking of second chances, I read that you guys were honoring gift cards from Lynn's Paradise Cafe (told you that was going to be a bad segue). Did you have many people turn them in? There were a lot of stories in the news about Lynn's gift cards.

We received, I would say in all, probably less than $200 in gift cards. So that means we redeemed $200 worth of food or less for the redemption of those cards. But, we received a whole lot more of recognition from the public. So we're very thankful.

We're neighbors of Lynn. Lynn and I go back a long ways. She opened her first restaurant on Frankfort Ave right around the same time the we opened our first Rubino's restaurant. We opened in February of '88 in Dupont Circle, she opened up right around the same time on Frankfort Avenue. We were both involved in the restaurant association, so we sat on similar committee boards and things of that nature, Taste of Louisville and things like that. It's like we were kindred spirits.So we remained friends. We ate in her restaurant and I think she's been in here a few times over the years.

So when I heard of her closing the restaurant, I was initially surprised. Then I was saddened, because I always believe in having viable restaurants operate in the same proximity. That's why I'm so thankful to have Hammerheads and the Coach Lamp down the street. And now we have Wiltshire Pantry express up here. That's a good thing, because it creates synergy in the neighborhood. It's just like East Market Street and all the restaurants in NuLu. It's a very favorable thing. So when I heard that Lynn's was closing, I was very disappointed and saddened by that. I know she has good reason for her decisions, But I also felt like it was an opportunity to reach out to those people when I heard about the gift card thing. I said, Maybe this is a good way to let people know there's still some value in them. I think we have them about two months to redeem them. It was the right thing to do.

What are some of the biggest changes you've seen, with 32 years in the restaurant industry here in Louisville?

The biggest change is the farm-to-table movement. I can remember when I was at Grisanti's back in the early 80s, the prediction that changes in the restaurant coming, that there were changes coming The threat was that fine dining was going to go away. That was the threat that was on the doorstep. That fine dining was going to go away because of the cost of food going up with the cost of gas and all the different things. that people were not going to continue to spend money in fine dining and that fine-dining establishments were going to go away. I can remember being at a board table with Michael Grisanti, Vinenczo Gabrielli, Frank Yang, Dominic Serratore, Dean Corbett, Tim Corine, people in that Grisanti organization and leadership talking about what the face of the restaurant industry was going to be like.

Really, what came out of that was the celebrity chef. Back then, the closest there was to a celebrity chef was Wolfgang Puck. They thought maybe there might be one or to or three celebrity chefs. Who though there could be celebrity chefs within a community? That Dean Corbetts could arise and Edward Lees and guys like this would arise to be...you know, you would have celebrity chefs in every community. No one would have thought of that.

And then the whole farm-to-table movement come about—and the fact that farmers here in Kentucky have taken the leadership in the nation. I don't even know how much the average Louisvillian is aware of how the farmers, these microfarmers in Kentucky have taken a leadership to the point where people come from Vermont to intern under these farmers. There's so much cool stuff that's going on in our community. And I'm so thankful for that, to create those different layers of dining experience like Harvest and Game and some of my favorite places to go to.

That's the greatest thing about being a breakfast and lunch place is that I can go out to dinner to see my friends at their restaurant and enjoy their foods.

There was a joke that we used to say back in the day, some of the fine dining places were jokes on rich people. Because you'd go in and there'd be this little piece of protein with decoratively arranged vegetables. And you pay $20, and if you could afford that, you're rich. And so the common person would say, that's a joke on rich people. Today, it's evolving into much more, to get something that has been put on the plate by the guy that raised it. He's invested his time and expertise to bring you something that has no hormones—and I'm a novice, so I speak very much out of school when it comes to that. I; not going to try to address that. But the point is, that's the added value that you're getting. I had a plate of roasted beets over at Harvest that were to die for.

Where do you think it's going and what do you think the future holds for Louisville's culinary scene?

I think that we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg. I think that there's so many great, talented young people in this city that have a yearning to take it to the next level. I'm 57 years old, so I'm not the person that could be the visionary, cutting edge anymore. I leave that to Chase [Muccrino] and Adam [Burress] over at Game Hammerheads, or Ivor [Chodkowski] at Harvest. They have the pules on the market place, what people are looking for in fine dining.

There's two things that are happening, if you go to other cities, you see more of this. I just came back from Canton, Ohio, which you wouldn't think of being a restaurant town necessarily. But there's several concepts up there that are developing. One is called piada, which is an Italian kind of quick-service. Nobody's doing it here. What I stated to say, there's two things that are happening. There's this quick-service trend, like we see in Qdoba and Chipotle. That's a trend: these are restaurants that are providing a higher-quality of quick-service food.

Hands down, to me, the biggest concern that America has today, when it comes to food service, is obesity. Obviously, parents have the first responsibility. It's too easy to blame it on restaurants, schools. Parents have the responsibility to learn about nutrition and start with their children and education and teach them how to control obesity.

Having alternatives to quick service, that's really where opportunity lies. We're not going to change the lifestyle of Americans. We've been moving faster. We've got cell phones. I can remember the day cell phones were only for the richest. Now, you look at a 12-year-old kid who's got an iPhone. It leads to the convenience lifestyle of the typical American. I see opportunities, not necessarily responsibility but opportunities for creative restaurants like this piada in Ohio that I discovered. I'd love to see what a quick-service farm-to-table would look like.

Anything else I should ask?

There's not too many people that survive their marriage and working together for 17 years. The opposite is probably more true, where they end up divorced or separated and one of them keeps the restaurant and the other one goes and does something else. The fact that we [Sal and wife, chef/owner Cindy] are still together is notable. It's really her restaurant. I tell people, I handle the hospitality side. But people come here for the food. We go out places and I'm the face of the restaurant, I'm the face of The Cafe (it's an ugly damn face). People will stop us and say, "We love your restaurant." They recognize me, because she[s back in the kitchen. She's very humble, she's not outspoken at all. I always say, "She's the chef. It's her restaurant, it's her recipes."
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[Photos: Whitney Harrod Morris]

Coach Lamp Restaurant and Pub

751 Vine St., Louisville, KY 40204 502-583-9165 Visit Website

Hammerheads

921 Swan Street, Louisville, KY 40203 502-365-1112 Visit Website

Game

2295 Lexington Road, Louisville, KY 40206 502-365-1112

Harvest

624 E Market St, Louisville, KY 40202 502-384-9090

Lynn's Paradise Cafe

984 Barret Avenue, Louisville, KY 40204 502-583-3447 Visit Website