Robyn Quattlebaum was polishing the bar at his new restaurant when he flipped on the TV news and was rocked back on his heels.
On a beautiful September day in 2001, Quattlebaum and his wife Michele were just getting ready to throw open the doors of their new restaurant, the Driftaway Café, when their excitement turned to shock, then horror.
“Everybody remembers where they were on Sept. 11. That was the night of our grand opening,” says Quattlebaum. “I spent the night there, getting it ready. And just as the staff was coming in, we put on the TV and learned the news.”
The 29-year veteran of the restaurant business, who at one time owned seven restaurants, was not unused to setbacks and challenges. So, while the magnitude of the 9/11 attack would change the world, the Quattlebaum’s like so many others, would press on.
They rescheduled the grand opening for Sept. 17, and have never looked back.
In this week’s Recipe for Success @ Boxerbrand, Quattlebaum discusses the challenges of social media, employees, as well as rising labor and food costs, and his dedication to a restaurant that thrives a mile from the inter-coastal waterway where he grew up; a place known as the Isle of Hope.
Q: Hope is a theme running through your history.
I grew up on the Isle of Hope, a coastal barrier island where people were quarantined in the 1800s for Yellow Fever and Malaria. It was an island for sick people who hoped to leave one day. And Drift Away Café is in Sandfly, Ga., one of the oldest communities in the country, which dates back to the Civil War, when Lincoln freed the slaves from the nearby Wormsloe Plantation.
Today, Sandfly is a thriving community … and Driftaway Café has become a place where people from all walks of life can feel comfortable grabbing a quick bite to eat, relax, and enjoy themselves.
We have a close-knit group of regulars. I call them the Sandfly Board of Directors.
Q: You’ve said it’s your regulars that keep you going.
I really enjoy my regulars. One member of the Sandfly Board of Directors has dinner and drinks with us every day. I know Ralph will be here every day at 4:45 p.m., and I know what he’ll order for drinks. And we have a regular couple, Jimmy and Angie, who’ve spent $14,000 a year with me. His 70th birthday is coming up, and we’re holding a private party for them.
Q: How do you connect with all your guests?
I’m very involved with Trip Advisor. I answer every single comment, even the bad ones. So many people are food critics now. I had someone complain the other day about a salad that people love. I spend about 90 minutes every day responding to my guests, making sure they’re happy. And I also engage with them through a Loyalty Card Program. I have 3,600 members in my loyalty program, people who’ve agreed to participate in short surveys. I always ask them what they like best, and what they’d like to see improved. Yesterday, I got nine surveys returned to me, commenting on all aspects of our service and food. Their answers help me understand what works, and what needs to be improved.
Q: What are your biggest challenges?
The biggest challenges are absolutely the employees. The restaurant industry is not known for its saints, and in past restaurants, there were issues with theft. But the biggest challenge is just keeping them coming in on time.
The way I overcome these challenges is to pick up any slack myself. I work 70 hours a week. I’m everywhere. I have a rag and Clorox in my hand right now as we speak, as I wipe down the bar.
Another challenge is the costs. I’ve always paid my kitchen staff $15/hour, but I’ve got food coming in the backdoor that’s jumped in price at least 18-percent.
Q: How did Driftaway Café come about?
Before we opened Driftaway Café I tried to get out of the restaurant business. At one time, I owned seven restaurants with two partners. And before that, I worked opening restaurants for Applebee’s and Bennigan’s. But, I wanted to get into a different line of work, and had started a business in the home-automation industry before an App on a phone could accomplish what I was doing. I worked connecting the lighting, HVAC, security, sprinklers, and home systems so they could be controlled from one device. I eventually sold the business and decided to open a restaurant with my wife.
Q: How did you hit upon your relaxed, happy restaurant concept?
When the location became available, a mile from the inter-coastal waterway where I grew up, it seemed perfect for a classic seafood restaurant.
And then one day my wife and I were out boating on the coastal ways. It’s an incredible place. You can boat to a small island and have the whole place to yourself. We had a great time boating around, and I’d packed a mean cooler, and as we were coming back from an awesome day, I turned up the radio. And the song by Dobie Gray came on: “Oh, give me the beat boys, and free my soul, I want to get lost in your rock and roll and drift away…” That was it. I wanted to use that song in my marketing and advertising, and even had a phone call with the Dobie Gray. But he didn’t own the rights so he couldn’t give me permission.
Q: You couldn’t use that song, but music is a big part of the scene.
We have live music every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday night. I’m a stronger believer that there’s no substitute for live music. And my 29-year-old son Austin Quattlebaum now makes a better living playing banjo than he did after graduating with an expensive college degree. His band, Crow and Canyon, was selected from 400 contestants by the State Department to tour around the world playing their music in 12 countries!
I’m so proud of him! And, while Driftaway Café was founded in 2001, a terrible year for all Americans … with the help of family and friends, and with our culinary experience, the Driftaway Café has evolved into an establishment where people from all walks of life walk in, feel comfortable, and take the time to relax and truly dine! — Driftaway Café uses Boxerbrand menu covers in its table presentation. Thank you!