Soon after hanging a shingle outside his commercial real estate office, Randy Gruber got an uncomfortable feeling.
“I felt like a used-car salesman, and didn’t like it,” he recalls.
Daring to reinvent himself after earning a college career that pointed him away from the restaurant biz and family tradition, Gruber returned to his roots.
Following in the footsteps of his famous restauranteur grandfather Walter Shapiro, who cofounded the famous Cooky’s Steak Pubs, an 11-unit restaurant and catering chain begun in 1946 and traded on the NASDAQ, Gruber set out to make his own mark in hospitality.
After working for Lydia Shire in Boston for a year, and then at a San Diego restaurant, he opened the doors in 1999 to cornerstone Del Mar eatery, Americana Restaurant.
In this week’s Q&A with Recipe for Success at Boxerbrand, Gruber explains his trajectory.
Q: What’s a New York boy doing in Del Mar?
I married a South African woman who was raised in La Jolla during her high school years. So, when we decided to move here, we were moving closer to her roots. But, we stopped first in Boston, where I cooked for (famous restauranteur) Lydia Shire for a year, before traveling on to San Diego, where I worked before finding my own place in Del Mar.
My family has been in the restaurant business going way back; I’m fourth generation. I’m the only chef though. But my grandfather Walter Shapiro was a huge restauranteur in New York. He cofounded the Cook’s Steak pubs in Brooklyn, Long Island and Queens, which he grew from a coffee shop luncheonette to a business so large it was traded on the NASDAQ.
I’ve been around the business my whole life, but I never thought it was a field I wanted to enter.
Q: Tell me about Americana Restaurant.
We make everything from scratch, including our own granola!
Americana does a two-tier approach to food service. In the morning, it’s known in its well-heeled community as one of the best spots for a hearty breakfast. We sell a lot of waffles, pancakes and French toast … to everyone from celebrities to jockeys from the nearby race track.
We do a lot more than that by day, including soups, salads, sandwiches, and great mimosas, bloody Mary’s, and a little mixology.
But at night, we change. The lights dim, the linen napkins come out, and we offer an array of fine-dining selections, from lamb chops to duck and tuna.
Americana has 25 employees, more in the summer, and we seat about 130, with half my seating outside. We occupy a pretty property in a small, historic town that reminds me of East Hampton.
Q: What’s your biggest obstacle?
Costs are definitely the biggest obstacle. Our labor costs, because of minimum wage increases, will have the biggest impact on payroll. In California, we’re going up to $15. And once that happens, everyone else will want more. That’s a lot of money, and it’s something all small businesses will struggle with. But, this work is what I do; I don’t know how to do anything else. Somehow we’ll find a way.
Q: What career did you envision for yourself?
I went to Tulane University in New Orleans with the intention of taking premed classes or studying political science of law. I quickly figured out in the science labs that I didn’t want to pursue that. I wound up at one point working at the district attorney’s office for Harry Connick, and I didn’t like that either. But, when I graduated Tulane, I got into commercial office space leasing before deciding to go into the restaurant business.
Q: What’s your secret to your longevity?
I have a passion and commitment to the work and we have good ingredients. For the work part, I’m here almost every day. I live in the same town, so even on my one day off, it’s easy for me to check in to make sure everything is running smoothly. I’m also a member of the community, and find ways to volunteer and give back, because this place has been my home for 18 years.
And we’re always trying provide what our customers want. We just opened the Elixir Local and Organic Juice Bar, which is a wonderful new addition for us, and a way of catering to the desires of our clients. — Americana Restaurant uses Boxerbrand’s Café menu cover line in its table presentation. Thank you!