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Douglas Keane: “I screwed up.”

Thursday, June 9th, 2011 | Posted by

(Jeff Kan Lee / The Press Democrat)

Douglas Keane doesn’t want to pull any punches. No kid gloves. No minced words. Just the facts.

The cold hard facts that shortly after opening Shimo Modern Steak, the all-star chef was smacked with a sinking realization: “I screwed up.”

The problem wasn’t the food. By all accounts it was excellent. Rather, the problem was all the empty seats.

“We were too expensive,” admits Keane. “We scared people off.”

Of the seven steaks, the cheapest cut was $23. And the prices rose sharply from there. Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Cyrus, his two-star Michelin restaurant. But that upscale approach doesn’t always work, and he’ll be the first to admit it.

“I misread the market. I assumed people would recognize the quality and be okay with a $50 cut of meat, but I was way off base. Maybe that would have flown five years ago, but it’s just not realistic in today’s economy.”

The first ominous sign took the shape of hate mail. Days before the restaurant opened, Keane’s wife, Lael, found an anonymous note in the menu box that griped about the prices, boasted of a large organized boycott and rooted for Shimo’s demise.

“It broke our hearts,” she recalls. “I grew up here. We live here. This is our community.”

“I have a pretty disturbing sense of humor,” Keane adds, “but this was out of bounds. For starters, how could you wish us to fail without even trying our food? It’s not like you had a bad steak. We weren’t even open yet.

“But more importantly, between our three restaurants, we employ around 120 people, most of whom live, eat, shop and pay taxes here. If I fail, it affects the lives of lots of locals and their families. That’s just stupid and petty.”

But the hate mail served a purpose.

“Sometimes, you learn more from the jerks than you do from the good people. Good people, like my friends, were afraid to tell me it was too expensive. When I finally asked them why they weren’t coming in, they said they loved the meat when it was free at the soft opening, but couldn’t afford to come back. This was my Eureka moment, when I really started listening to the community.”

Knowing he couldn’t succeed without strong local support, he shifted gears and made sweeping changes. Changes that instantly made Shimo more affordable and consequently, popular.

The first big step was the noodle bar. For just $7.95, you can get a bowl of ramen or soba noodles with a few simple veggies, and your choice of four broths. Or for a few extra bucks, you can build your own soup, with add-ons like asparagus, slow cooked egg and prime rib tonkatsu.

The new direction extends well beyond the noodle bar; the entire menu has been revamped.

Keane dropped most of the thick cut steaks – like the $195 48-ounce Porterhouse for four – in favor of more affordable cuts and portions. And he added more under-$20 dishes, like the melts-in-your-mouth, “forty two hour short rib” ($18). The result is that the average check, with booze, is around $35. About half what it used to be.

“The response has been extremely positive. Whereas people used to glance at the prices in the menu box and move along, a lot more of them dine with us now,” he says.

But perhaps Keane’s boldest move has more to do with wine than food.

“My mom went door-to-door to all the local wineries, talking about the new menu. And one thing she kept hearing was, ‘Can you do something for us with corkage?’ I realized that in times like these, we all have to help each other out. And I had a crazy idea: Let’s ditch the wine list and waive the corkage fees.”

Yes, you read that right. Douglas Keane is phasing out Shimo’s wine list, and the irony isn’t lost on him.

“I’ll probably be the first restaurant in wine country without a wine list,” he jokes, “but it makes sense. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

Asked how he would like to be photographed for the story, Keane says, “That’s a very good question,” the gears in his mind clearly turning. Finally, he flashes a mischievous smile that suggests another crazy thought.

“How about a picture of me scratching my head in an empty restaurant? You know, me a few months ago.”

His smirk quickly bubbles over into full-out laughter, making it hard not to root for the guy. It would have been easy for a man so accustomed to acclaim to get down on himself and dwell on the details of his first professional misstep. Instead, he listened to his community, took the feedback to heart and made the adjustments he thinks will set Shimo on a path to success.

  • http://www.todbrilliant.com Tod Brilliant

    I’ve been crazy busy the past couple of months, but have been meaning to try Shimo. Thanks for the reminder, Scott… now on my list for this week. And thanks for kicking so much ass in and for our town, Doug.

  • Mike

    Hilarious! Awesome move on Douglas Keane’s part. I’m so there!

  • http://www.todbrilliant.com Tod Brilliant

    I must add that Douglas’ idea for a portrait completely blows this tepid effort out of the water. Douglas Keane for PD photo director!!!

  • http://shanaray.com Shana ray

    Not living in Healdsburg anymore, I don’t make it out to restaurants as much as I did, so I have yet to try this place. Knowing they have a noodle bar has intrigued me! I will definitely make it a point to stop by… With a bottle of wine in hand.

  • Smurf

    Douglas, another idea is to participate in Maverick Deals on the radio stations. I know that is how I am always lured in to try a new resto….half price! Then, once I’m there, and I like it, I am more likely to come back. But trying a place at full price in this economy is something I am not likely to do. I hope to see you on maverick deals soon!

  • hannon sutro

    Well maybe now we can have a decent dinner for two for less than a 100 bucks and not be talked down to.
    Better luck this time, glad you figured it out. We like to support local businesses but your first try was too decadent.

  • http://www.todbrilliant.com Tod Brilliant

    Shana – I used to say as a joke “Why can’t HB have a noodle bar?” As if. Only the best major metros have noodle bars. Until now. Ten times awesome. From “oh crap another stuffy HB place for snotty foodies” to “Holy crikey, my town just got better because we can go out and have affordable great food.” That’s a seismic shift in a tiny town.

    • http://shanaray.com Shana ray

      Cannot wait to try.

  • Beedobaby

    I got an idea – bring in your wine, your steak and your own veggies and I’ll whip the whole thing up for you for one set-fee!

  • Dar

    Good work Doug! My wife and I were always wondering how you would split a steak for four when some people in the party may want it cooked differently (rare vs. medium, etc.). We’ll definitely be stopping by sometime in the very near future with our own bottle of wine!

  • Zack Debarco

    The corkage issue is one near and dear to me & several others who have dined at CYRUS and other restaurants where despite buying some good wine from the house & know the owners well, still get charged for each bottle brought in. We had a large party at CYRUS, brought in only one bottle while buying 3 from the house and still got charged corkage despite the relationship.
    Needless to say, we have never been back and the “good will” that was lost can never be replaced.

  • Lisa

    We’d only eaten at Shimo once. It was over $200 for two and we brought our own wine. We had no intention of going back because of the cost (and we’ve eaten at Cyrus more than once). Sounds like it’s worth a return trip soon. Thanks for listening to the community!

  • Native HB

    Good people, like my friends, were afraid to tell me it was too expensive. — ha ha ha — as opposed the bad people? I’d like to try it but after the rudeness that is Cyrus and the lameness that is the HB Grill, I don’t need those people doing me any more favors.

  • Tom

    Instead of high priced megaportion of meat, how about an appropriately priced 4oz steak?

    • MartinS

      The portions were not megasized – everything was meant to be split, but it was still overpriced. I ate there once and a 12 oz (I think) bone-in fillet was $52. The other pricier cuts were meant for 3 or 4 people. Can you think of a single time that you and the rest of the table want to eat the exact same meal? We loved our meal, but it was just awkward.

  • GreggP

    I had one of the BEST meals this year at Shimo.

    The food, service and overall quality of the entire experience made me want to go back. Expensive yes BUT worth every penny.

    I look forward to the new plan,, I like less expensive as well.

  • Jenifer Levini

    Excellent Mea culpa. I hope that people forgive him. For some reason we allow ourselves to make mistakes but expect perfection from restaurateurs.

  • MartinS

    If I want decadence, I’ll happily shell out for Cyrus.

    This is great news. My partner and I ate at Shimo once, but the prices were just out of reach for us and we’re DINKs (Double Income No Kids). Looks like it’s time for a return visit.

  • SusanP

    I didn’t know anything about the original prices, but have to compliment Douglas Keane for being so honest about his mistake. Also, the lure of a noodles bar got my attention, as I just got back from visitng family in Hawaii where noodles from many cultures are a way of life. I plan to try Shimo soon. Good luck.

  • Polish Princess

    Why doesn’t the story mention the noodle bar part of the menu?

    • http://www.scottkeneally.com Scott Keneally

      Doesn’t it?…

      The first big step was the noodle bar. For just $7.95, you can get a bowl of ramen or soba noodles with a few simple veggies, and your choice of four broths. Or for a few extra bucks, you can build your own soup, with add-ons like asparagus, slow cooked egg and prime rib tonkatsu.

      The new direction extends well beyond the noodle bar; the entire menu has been revamped.

  • http://www.geekgirl415.com denise

    Thanks Mr. Keane! Thanks for taking an objective look at your business model and being cool enough to poke some fun at yourself. We love to walk downtown to eat but we never had a desire to pay $$$ for steak – no matter how awesome. We will definitely try Shimo out now- my tail is wagging thinking of the noodle bar! You’re keeping it real, and that is what will fill your restaurant with the locals.
    PS/ the “Shimo” light shining down onto the sidewalk at your door is brilliant- love that!

  • Gabby

    There’s a group of us who have wanted to go here, but the prices were just too high. Look for us soon!!

  • igor

    Yes, I drove by many a Saturday evening to see the place entirely empty. Maybe this will be a lesson to those in utopia that everything has a limit. But, I never want to see a business fail…and yet sometimes I see it as arrogance coming into the business plan. Glad someone recognizes their mistake and makes amends for a change.

  • Scott

    It’s still an expensive meal, much more than the $35.00 listed in the article, but the food was excellent and the level of service was superb. I will certainly be going back.

  • Al Sloppy

    Anyone who brings in a bottle of wine to a restaurant really has no idea of what it is like to run a business, especially a restaurant. The margins in a restaurant are razor thin, especially if you are using quality products. By taking way a source of revenue from a restauranteur you are driving up the price of food and bottles on the list and in this case making it superfluous to have a list. On more than one occasion I have dined in wine country restaurants and seen people with big parties bring in more bottles than guests at the table-shameful.

  • KC Mosso

    The noodles are delicious. The staff was awesome. I was full and satisfied for $20. I’ll be back to expand my palate. Nice work Doug!

  • http://www.ayearinwine.com Mike Dunne

    If Shimo is the first restaurant in wine country to not have a wine list, it likely will be the last. And once that concept loses its novelty and PR appeal, Douglas Keane again will offer a wine list. And not only because there’s so much profit built into a wine list. I figure that many guests, especially those from beyond wine country, like to eat in the region’s more acclaimed restaurants because they can count on interesting and adventurous wines served by people who are proud and smart. It’s part of what’s meant by hospitality. To expect guests to shop for wines before going out to eat denies them a well-rounded meal. But for those few who keep a deep and exhilarating home cellar, bravo for dispensing with corkage.

  • http://shanaray.com Shana Ray

    Remember… they still have cocktails!

  • Milton Bradley

    I admire his forthrightness and admit that he’s won me over to root for his success.

  • snafu

    Healdsburg ‘used’ to be affordable! Not any more. What with all its turned up nose eateries, hotels, shops, and residents from out of town have turned this ‘once’ quaint town into a stay away destination for the practical visitor.

    Bring back the Country atmosphere!

  • Kendall

    Smart move.
    I’d looked at the menu right after opening and thought “Is this becoming Vegas?”.
    I think they call it cognitive dissonance.
    Well done in taking an honest temperature check of the market (albeit a tardy one!),
    and recognizing that what people here are clamoring for (and what the town is devoid of) is honest food at rational prices.
    You’ll now get repeat business, which you wouldn’t have gotten before.
    Can’t wait to visit.

  • Steak Porterhouse

    “I screwed up” — 241 Healdsburg Ave should have stayed; “Cena Luna” That place was amazing.
    This idea of a modern steak house in H-burg was a bold but, stupid idea.

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