Daily Blender Exclusive: Hill Country COO John Shaw

Hill Country's John Shaw
Hill Country’s John Shaw

In a year of restaurant failures and falls, few have maintained their steady climb to greatness. Offering a unique dining experience with spectacular food and service, New York’s Hill Country is one of those few who have continued their ascension without interruption.

Sticking with hearty BBQ favorites and all the fixin’s, Hill Country has become a popular destination for celebrities and locals alike. As COO and Operating Partner, John Shaw has been imperative to that growth. With his original start in film, Shaw has developed a solid background in the restaurant industry, working previously with restaurateur Danny Meyer and the Union Square Hospitality Group, among others, before joining CEO Marc Glosserman in the launch of Hill Country in 2007.

After experiencing the restaurant for myself on a recent visit to New York, I had a few questions for the budding restaurateur, from the development of such a winning location to where Hill Country is going next.

Bring Me the Brisket!

Q: How did you get your start in the restaurant industry?

A: I’ve always had a passion for food and hospitality – my grandmother Juliette, about whom I wrote a screenplay entitled “Tasting Juliet,” was my first mentor. She was a consummate chef and hostess, and her kitchen was a magical place.

I worked in restaurants to support myself during college and film school, serving and bartending, and, because I was a relatively responsible worker, would get asked to be a manager wherever I worked. I had some close calls in Hollywood, I sold a script, had some pretty good jobs, but the restaurant business offered a quicker path to success so I jumped on the opportunities that came my way.

Directing a movie and creating and running a restaurant are very similar – it’s a living, breathing work of art, created from a scripted concept. Its live theatre, entertainment, lights and music, and choreography, and lots of design and things to look at, and of course to smell and taste – it actually engages all five senses instead of just two – there are lines to memorize, a feeling to cultivate, lots of complicated equipment, expertise, teamwork. And when its working and the team is in the flow, it’s a thrilling feeling.

Q: What are some of the great lessons you’ve learned along the way?

A: Excellence means everything is important, from mopping the floors to smoking the meats to greeting the guests to high level strategic planning. You must be committed to creating constant and ongoing positive change, to continuously questioning your assumptions and trying new solutions to old problems. There are so many minor catastrophes in the restaurant business – many moving parts, lots of equipment and computer systems and plumbing and electrical to break down, tons of human error and performance issues, lots of things going wrong, bad decisions, and you have to be willing to keep picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and trying to do better tomorrow. Complacency is death in the restaurant business.

Q: What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of managing a restaurant?

A: Maintaining excellence with the large quantity of people that are required to run a big restaurant. We have over a hundred employees, many of whom are young, part-time workers or folks who don’t make a big living – keeping our team motivated, trained, and committed to excellence on a daily basis is a big challenge. It’s an every day, attention to detail, incremental progress, lots of moving parts kind of business.

Q: Are there any fellow restaurateurs you admire?

A: Danny Meyer is my most significant mentor – his philosophy of Enlightened Hospitality, how he walks the walk of doing good as he does well, his level of consistent excellence. I worked for him and learned a ton, and included him and his organization as a role model in our employee manual.

Q: With so many stellar restaurants in New York, what do you think really sets Hill Country apart?

A: Authenticity in terms of food, hospitality and design, excellence in food quality, disarmingly warm hospitality, and a strong value proposition – plentiful, high quality barbecue, sides, and desserts. It’s a fun, hi-energy environment with free live music for a fair and affordable price.

Hill Country has a life of its own that’s larger than my partner and I could have imagined.  We struck a chord at exactly the right time – had we opened a year later things would have been very different, and the value aspect of our business was prescient for these times.

Q: Has social media had an affect on your restaurant growth?

A: We have recently begun a campaign to leverage social media, and it’s definitely helping us. We’ve recently discovered we are super hot on foursquare – a new social media outlet based on GPS.  We are open minded and eager to try new things and learn the state of the art in all facets of our business, and to a large extent, social media is the cutting edge marketing vehicle du jour. We combine it with a full branding and marketing strategy including email blasts, website programs, lots of promotions such as Monday Night All You Can Eat as part of our Recession Specials, marketing collateral, special events, etc.  This past fall, we hosted Down South Up North with Paula Deen as part of the New York City Wine and Food Festival – that was a big thrill for us.

Q: Any plans for more Hill Country locations?

A: This coming spring we are opening a new concept – Hill Country Chicken, which is an updated version of the classic Texas fried chicken joint – featuring home made pies and ice cream and hand cut fries on the corner of 25th and Broadway. In the fall, we are opening Hill Country Barbecue Market Washington DC in a 13,000 sf space right in the Penn Quarter, two blocks from the Verizon Center.  We’re very excited and very busy!

~Jennifer Heigl

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