Tuesday , December 11, 2018

Palate Pleasing Palm

When General Manager Joey Profeta greets you at The Palm in Phillips Place, he isn’t just welcoming you into his business, he’s welcoming you into his family.


A 20-year veteran of The Palm, Profeta knows many of his customers by name, knows about their family, and knows what they like to eat and drink. It’s all part of the culture of a family-owned business started in New York City in 1926 by two Italian immigrants—Pio Bozzi and John Ganzi. Now, almost 90 years later, the company they started extends from coast to coast and abroad.


But while the scope of The Palm has grown since 1926, the key values that have contributed to the company’s success haven’t changed—a commitment to outstanding food, exemplary service, and a culture built on hospitality, generosity, and a sense of family.


Third Generation Family Business


As the story goes, John and Pio wanted to name their new restaurant after their hometown of Parma, Italy. But when they went to the city offices to obtain their business license, a city licensing clerk misunderstood their Italian accents and mistakenly issued the license as “The Palm.”


Because The Palm was located near the headquarters of newspaper cartoon distributor King Features Syndicate, it was frequented by many of the artists. So in trade for their meals, the artists would draw their creations on the walls, and the walls of that original location still feature the faces of Popeye, Batman, Beetle Bailey, and the characters from “A Family Circus.”


The tradition of decorating the walls with caricatures has continued over the years. Each new restaurant gets 200 to 300 likenesses of local notables on the walls and new caricatures of regular customers and local celebrities are added as time goes by to keep the walls updated and current. Many of the caricatures are personally autographed.


Ironically, while The Palm is today best known for its steaks, the original Palm didn’t even have steak on the menu. Primarily a traditional Italian restaurant, if a customer asked for steak, John Ganzi would run to a nearby butcher to buy a steak to cook to order. In time, steaks did become a regular menu item.


In the 1940s, Walter Ganzi and Bruno Bozzi took over the restaurant from their fathers; and in the early 1960s, their sons, Wally Ganzi and Bruce Bozzi Sr. began working at The Palm. In the late 1960s, Walter and Bruno retired from the business, handing the leadership over to Wally and Bruce.


When George H.W. Bush was in New York in the early 1970s as ambassador to the United Nations, he and Wally became friends. At Bush’s urging, The Palm opened their second location in Washington, D.C., in December 1972, beginning over 35 years of expansion. Today, The Palm operates 23 locations in the United States and abroad.


In 2011, the Palm Restaurant Group undertook a brand refresh which included tableware, uniforms, signage, and an updated visual identity manifested in a new website and a new ad campaign. People did not know the chain of eateries were family-owned—they had been communicating a very corporate vibe that didn’t jibe with the restaurant’s history or roots.


A number of menu changes were made to coincide with the brand refresh. Nova Scotia lobster became a staple as well as a selection of salads. The wedge salad became signature. The shrimp served on a bed of lettuce—deemed unappealing—hanging off the side of a bowl with ice, and some dry ice added for smokiness—visually impactful.


Menus emphasize “family recipes” and there is a greater focus on making an emotional connection with loyal customers and taking much greater advantage of a rick family history. So To date, the refresh seems successful—a sign that the rewards can be rich for investment in thoughtful design.


Building Relationships


The Palm’s growth led to Charlotte in late December 1997, when they opened at the new Phillips Place shopping and entertainment complex on Fairview Road near SouthPark Mall. In the almost 17 years since, The Palm has established itself as a Charlotte landmark and one of the city’s most successful fine dining establishments.


“The Palm is all I know,” says Profeta, who has managed the Charlotte Palm for almost 10 years. “My career started in the kitchens. I’m also Italian-American, so this place certainly has a special place in my heart. I love The Palm. I love the family. I love the culture. I love the business.”


A native of Philadelphia and a 1995 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Profeta started his career right after graduation as a sous chef (second in command in the kitchen) at The Palm in Philadelphia. After a summer at a seasonal location in East Hampton, N.Y., Profeta was ready for a change of scenery and took a job in 1997 as a sous chef at The Palm in Denver.


In 1999, he was promoted to executive chef in Denver, and then in 2004, he made the jump from the kitchen to the dining room when he was named assistant general manager in Denver.


“I always said that being a chef is a very young man’s game, and after almost 10 years of that hot and sweaty work it was time for me to take a look at what was next,” says Profeta. “I really enjoyed the business end—the hospitality, the guests, and the people. So from that standpoint, it was a very easy transition to the dining room.”


Profeta had been in Denver for only about six months when the opportunity arose to move to Charlotte as general manager. He and his wife Libby moved to the Queen City in 2005.


“Fortunately, having that experience in the kitchen allowed me enough time to figure out what I was doing in the front of the house,” says Profeta. “There aren’t a lot of people in this business that have experience in both the kitchen and the dining room.”


“I’ve also been more than blessed with the team here,” continues Profeta. “The people that work for The Palm are truly amazing. I just started my 10th year at this location and all of my chefs and managers are the same except for one. My executive chef has been here about 12-13 years. My assistant general manager has been with The Palm for 12 years. Our entire morning kitchen crew has been here 15-plus years. I would bet that half of our hourly staff has been here longer than me. That’s simply unheard of in this business.”


While Profeta says their goal is to serve great food and provide exceptional service, he adds you could also make that same statement about many other fine dining steakhouses in Charlotte. So what sets The Palm apart from its competitors?


“I truly believe that the only thing that separates us from any other restaurant is our ability to build relationships,” offers Profeta. “I work at that; I take pride in that; and I enjoy that. I want to get to know you, your family, where you work, how many kids you have, your favorite table, and your favorite drink. I want you to become an extension of my family.”


Helping Profeta and his team accomplish those goals are internal information systems that keep track of customer likes, dislikes and preferences. The information is provided to servers as well as management to help the teams provide Palm customers with the best, most personalized experience possible.


The Palm also has one of the most successful loyalty reward programs in the restaurant business, their 837 Club. Profeta says he often sees patrons arguing over who gets to pay the bill, since if you pay the bill you get the 837 Club points added to your account.


The caricatures themselves are another way The Palm rewards the loyalty of their best customers, by offering the opportunity to have their likeness placed on the wall. While some patrons decline the offer, most accept and often ask to be seated near their picture when dining, especially when they are entertaining.


The Charlotte Palm also benefits from its longevity, arriving on the scene before many of its current competitors like Del Frisco’s and Ruth Chris. Because of the customer loyalty that has been built over those years, Profeta says a new generation of Charlotte diners is discovering The Palm.


“We often hear people say their father introduced them to The Palm in New York City 30 years ago,” he says. “Now they are continuing that tradition with their own kids. You see a local businessman and his family here, but what you forget was there was a generation before that where it all started.”


A Changing Landscape


In recent years Charlotte has seen an abundance of new restaurant choices arrive on the scene—not just steakhouses—but a whole new wave of dining choices. Profeta says while that has made it tougher to compete for customers’ dining dollars, he feels the improved culinary landscape is an overall positive for the community.


He believes the arrival and maturation of Johnson & Wales University and its College of Culinary Arts has contributed to the improved local culinary scene. Johnson & Wales students and graduates have also provided The Palm with an expanded pool of candidates for staffing.


With the price of prime beef on the rise due to supply constraints, every restaurant is trying to find other things to put on the menu. And while there is a trend towards more seafood as customers try to make healthier choices, the vast majority of The Palm’s customers still want a big steak, so they must find the right balance on price.


“We certainly aren’t the cheapest in town, but we don’t want to be the most expensive in town either,” says Profeta. “We also don’t want to change the quality, and we still will always serve a huge steak.”


Since the Great Recession of 2008-2009, Profeta acknowledges that business dining and entertainment practices have changed and will probably never be the same again.


“I don’t think there are many employees that still have the freedom of the unlimited expense account,” admits Profeta. “But I actually think that makes for a stronger, more sustainable business. I would rather have them come in here and feel good about what they spent and come back again in a month, as opposed to only being able to come once a year.”


Instead of expanding to new cities, in recent years, The Palm has turned its attention more toward its existing locations. Should an older facility be renovated, or should it be relocated to a new site altogether? In Houston, a 40-year-old location was closed for a three-month renovation, while the Boston location was relocated, and the West Hollywood Palm was recently relocated to Beverly Hills.


Technology is also changing the way restaurants do business, particularly with the advent of Web-based reservation systems like Open Table. Profeta says he is amazed how many reservations are booked on the Web via Open Table or at ThePalm.com.


“Open Table really helps us promote our business,” says Profeta. “People can jump on the Web and search for what’s open in the next hour in Charlotte. We’ve learned you need to be accessible and you really want to keep your name out there on Open Table as much as possible.”


But he says managing the reliability of that online reservation can be a challenge. While people who have called to make a reservation will usually call back to advise of a change in plans or a reduction in the number of diners, he says those who reserve on the Web seem to be less likely to advise of changes, making it more difficult for the restaurant to adapt to the change and plan accordingly.


Profeta also thinks it won’t be too many years before servers will be using handheld devices to take orders and automatically send that order back to the kitchen. Upcoming rules that will require all credit card swipes to be done in the presence of the customer will likely mandate some sort of mobile terminal that allows the server to process such transactions at the customer’s table.


While the restaurant landscape is always evolving, Profeta says treating his employees and customers like family will never change. Whether it’s a “family meal” for all employees prior to the start of the evening shift, or a free turkey for each team member to take home at Thanksgiving, he says preserving The Palm’s culture is a top priority.


“I’ll never take my eye off of that prize, because I think that is what has allowed us to stay so competitive for so long,” he concludes. “There are so many restaurants that people pass by when they choose to go to The Palm, so building relationships is something that we absolutely must continue to do better than anybody else.”


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