Douglas Keane: “I screwed up.”
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.