Restaurateurs pride themselves on their unique recipes for success, which may include concept, ambiance and décor, price, service and menu selections.
For Audel Ventura, proprietor-chef of 354 Steakhouse in Cliffside Park, NJ, the key elements of his success are a hardy handshake and hug with every patron that visits his restaurant. Ventura believes his enthusiastically personal approach is more important than pricing in growing his business.
“A big part of my success has been treating my customers like family. I come out to greet them, shake their hands, give them a hug and a high five,” Ventura said during a recent interview in his restaurant. “When I have a chance, I walk around the tables and talk with the patrons even if my English isn’t good.”
Beyond being personable, Ventura also prides himself with knowing the foodservice business, which he learned in
the school of hard knocks. Ever since he arrived in the United States from El Salvador as a teenager in the mid-1980s, Ventura worked in foodservice. First in a bakery and later as a dishwasher, bus boy and then as a cook at J.D. Steak Pit in nearby Fort Lee. He opened 354 Steakhouse, a 24-table restaurant, in 2007 and later a Cuban concept in West New York.
Ventura noted that his only formal training was certificate program in food safety with the Bergen County Board of Health. He has tasked himself with instilling his back and front of the house employees with his foodservice skills as well as an acute sense of customer service. In his own words, nothing keeps him up a night, worrying about the business. He makes sure the employees get it right before he goes home.
“If you arrange and organize everything in advance, you don’t have any worries. My employees know how to treat customers right. They work to satisfy customers with whatever we offer on the menu. We make anything they want, anyway they want it. It’s worked for me,” Ventura said.
As an independent operator, Ventura sets the tone of his restaurant. He admits that chains have a lot of money but they don’t care about their patrons like a proprietor-chef does. “I care about customers because I want them to come back. It’s my life,” he said.
Ventura’s marketing thrust is centered on a website, https://www.354steakhouse.com/, Facebook, Instagram as well as satisfied patrons who spread the word.
Regarding competition, Ventura said he’s not fazed by it. “I don’t compete with anybody. I go on my own. I know my menu selections and prices, and the customers can be their own judges,” he observed confidently. “I don’t react to their marketing because once I start to compete like that, then I’ll have problems.”
Ventura doesn’t offer signature selections only steaks, ribs, fish, chicken, pasta and freshly ground beef for hamburgers. He pointed out that if a customer isn’t satisfied with any item, he will correct it or prepare another dish – no questions asked.
With customers nowadays altering their dining out behavior, Ventura has adapted by pursuing takeout business. He is building a standalone takeout kitchen a few feet away from his restaurant that will cater to patrons that don’t want to prepare meals at home but also don’t want to eat at a restaurant. Anyone ordering online will receive a 10% discount and this arrangement will also relieve pressure on the main kitchen during peak times, he added.
Ventura trains his kitchen staff, many of who have been with him since he first opened the doors to his establishment, to meet his exacting expectations. They are now capable of carefully cutting and trimming portions to optimize size and control waste. “I know the business so no one can lie to me,” he claimed.
Seasonal price fluctuations such as the recent $100 tab per case of avocadoes or high cost for skirt steaks in the summer have forced him to make creative adjustments. He explained that he can match variations on specials but not with regular menu items. Printing new menus every month can be an expensive proposition and would confuse patrons. “I check prices every week but I don’t raise prices more than one or twice a year. I have to stay in line with other restaurants,” he said.
Ventura’s prime vendors include DiCarlo Foods of Holtsville, NY, Gargiulo Produce, Hillside, NJ, and Golden Meats, Oradell, NJ, and he fills in with dry goods from Restaurant Depot. The distributors’ sales reps have been helpful with new product suggestions but he favors what has worked well with his patrons.
Ventura observed that business in 2017 has been good and he expects it to continue next year. After three decades in foodservice, he said he’s not put off by a slow summer: “I know restaurant diners, menu selections and customer service, and I know that they’ll return.”