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Peter Karpinski joined Sage Hospitality in 2005, charged with founding, creating, and launching what has become Sage Restaurant Group. He has overseen the launch of ten award-winning Sage Restaurant Group concepts, including Temple in Providence, The Corner Office and Second Home Kitchen + Bar in Denver, Mercat a la Planxa in Chicago, Urban Farmer, the Original and Departure in Portland, Braddock’s in Pittsburgh, Toasted Oak Grill & Market in the Detroit area and highly anticipated, Kachina Southwestern Grill in Westminster, Colorado set to open in September 2012.
Sage Restaurant Group is a team of passionate, industry-leading restaurateurs who excel in the realm of F&B operations by creating and operating successful concepts that are distinctly branded, innovative, and highly designed.
Our team creates unexpected, playful, and locally-focused food and beverage experiences that connect with the people who live and work in the communities we serve. Whether joining us for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or lingering over drinks, Sage Restaurant Group’s clientele are hungry for life and eager to savor new experiences in which food is an entrée to adventure.
MO: What initially attracted you the hospitality industry?
Peter: I simply have a love and passion for this business, and I think it is something that we can be really great at. We love making people happy and creating experiences for them that they feel are worth spending their hard earned money on.
Although I did not come from a family in the hospitality industry, I found myself washing dishes at a diner when I was 14, and have basically been in the business, in some form or fashion, ever since. During that period I juggled a few jobs at once – a paper route, cleaning fish tanks, mowing lawns, and washing dishes. The dishwashing job was by far the hardest, and I remember getting really beat down verbally by the cooks and the wait staff, but for some reason found it the most rewarding experience and stuck with it for a while. I used to close the restaurant after finishing up my duties at 2 or 3 AM, and my dad would always be parked out in the lot, patiently waiting to drive me home. In New York at that time, if you were under 16 years old and wanted to have a job like that, you had to get a note from your school guidance counselor stating that your grades were above par.
MO: Where does your passion for creating such distinct dining experiences come from?
Peter: That is a great question – and the first thoughts that come to my mind are memories relating to great flavors in my mouth, trying new things, good times with friends and family, laughs, and tears. It really has nothing to do with how fancy or nice the restaurants were. In fact, growing up with three siblings, my parents probably couldn’t afford to take us to out nice restaurants and knew they wouldn’t enjoy the experience (nor would others around us) acting up the way we usually did. There were a couple restaurants I remember – the Hollywood, Balloons, the Hoffbrau, Curley’s, Lum’s, and Connie’s. My parents would know just about everyone who worked or was dining in these restaurants when we walked in, and we would spend 25 or 20 minutes saying our hello’s before sitting down. A small diner called Hunter’s Dinerant was a late-night joint I would go to with friends and order chocolate milkshakes and cheeseburgers. I got the inspiration for our restaurant The Original Dinerant from Hunter’s. Connie’s Tex-Mex still serves the best Chicken Flautas Con Mole this side of the border. I believe that Balloons is still open and has the best Veal Parmesan I’ve ever tasted, as well as a really amazing salad with house pickled beets. Curley’s is a 3rd generation, family owned and run operation, and the generation running it now were childhood friends of mine. They have this unbelievable fried chicken that they deep fry in a pressure cooker with a proprietary spice blend that makes my mouth salivate just thinking about. I remember my grandmother taking me to a sushi restaurant in D.C. when I was in grade school and having sashimi for the first time. And I remember my dad taking me to a 24-hour diner early very early every Sunday morning for breakfast after I was done delivering newspapers.
Fast forward to 2005, and I was at a point in my career where I was trying to find a hotel company that was interested in taking the risk to do what most hotels had been struggling with for so long – having really great independent, community-focused restaurants while at the same time really understanding and taking care of the F&B needs for the rest of the hotel operations. I met the founders and partners of Sage Hospitality, who had the vision and appetite to do that within their business, and we formed a partnership. Stemming from my early experiences in the hotel business, I always felt like many of those organizations could do it as well as or better than pure restaurant companies, if they were truly committed to doing so.
MO: You’re well known for your bold leadership. What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken and how did it turn out?
Peter: Looking back, I think the biggest risks I have taken within organizations revolve around sticking my neck out for younger managers or employees, and personally taking a stake in their long-term success or failure. Most often these individuals either made an immature mistake, or for whatever reason had hidden talents or agilities that went unrecognized by others. Sometimes they might not have been the most obvious cultural fit, but I felt that they could either be a secret ingredient in the gumbo or had long term potential as a leader or a content specific expert. Luckily for me, all of those individuals were able to persevere and grow.
MO: Your philosophy is that “we can truly make the cities we are in better places to live and work.” How is Sage Restaurant Group working to achieve this impressive goal?
Peter: What sets us apart is that we are an organization with very talented F&B experts, that not only understand independent restaurants and what it takes to be successful and competitive in that sector, but also understand and appreciate what needs to be done to serve the rest of the hotels F&B needs. Our restaurants are their own brands that stand alone in the marketplaces they are in. They are highly designed and branded, and are completely their own unique experience.
Our culture is very transparent and inclusive. Everyone respects and understands each other’s talents and weaknesses, and we work together as team to be stronger. We like to have fun, while at the same time work hard and are committed to excellence. We often say “love what you do and love who you do it with, and “life is not a sprint, it is a marathon”. The idea of life fulfillment is very important to us. We are very focused on constant innovation, and embrace change. We don’t take things personally, we encourage risk taking, and thrive on the processes that we find ourselves going through that leads us to an end-product or goal. We try to hire and build long-term relationships with proven and up and coming interior designers, architects, and brand creative collateral companies. We involve all of those folks from the very beginning and fold them right into our inner-circle, treating them like they are equal members on our team, and are part of our family.
Corporate Citizenship is a concept that we internalize. Our leaders are required to be on at least two Boards, one within our industry as well as one that is a non-profit they personally care and get passionate about. I think that most of our employees are involved at different levels on that front as well, and that even if we didn’t require it, they would still do it because that is the type of person we attract and how we normally go about things.
MO: Do you feel that social media has influenced the relationships that you have with your customers and how you communicate with them?
Peter: Social media allows us to tap into our single best source for spreading the word about our restaurants – through our guests. Most folks trust their friends and family more than advertisements. Collectively, they’re a huge, untapped marketing force. Through our social media platforms, most notably Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and our company blog, we have created a platform that turns restaurant guests into engaged brand advocates to boost brand awareness and potentially earn new customers. Essentially, these tools help our restaurants get our guests buzzing right from their table, in real-time. We love to see “live” updates and photos of dishes and cocktails that guests are currently enjoying. We also incentivize our guests from time to time through these channels which helps us nurture that relationship.
MO: I read that you have a gift for creating unique opportunities out of untapped potential and unidentified niches. Can you provide an example of this vision and how it’s translated into your business model?
Peter: I think Departure in Portland would be a good example. It was a huge risk for us and for our partners to build that restaurant on the roof of the Meyer & Frank building. It was also a significant capital investment for us that hinged upon being so good and unlike anything else in the marketplace that people would go out of their way to go there. When I decided to build two large outside decks in that space, in a city that is known for rainy days more than anything else, people thought I was crazy. I was very nervous about whether Portland would embrace us since we are not from there, but we have done very well so far, and I am very proud that we brought that experience to that marketplace. I think we have added value and enhanced all of downtown Portland with Departure.
MO: Can you talk a little about your progressive approach for building credibility with your investors and providing value to our consumers?
Peter: At the end of the day we are in the business of making money, and getting our investors solid returns. For each of our deals, we ask “can we provide a customer experience so good that they capture significant local market share in an ultra-competitive sector, and also deliver a solid return to shareholders?” We take a long-view lens on the business and set that expectation with our investors up front. We are completely transparent in everything we do, and collaborate with our investors for knowledge and support when necessary. We don’t try to squeeze out the best quarterly earnings, but rather try to build our businesses to be in a position to become institutionalized in the markets they are in.
In the world of operations, you are only as good as your results. And with investor partners, getting consistent results over time is the best way to build credibility and trust. By definition, your customers will be getting solid value, since businesses of this nature don’t last if your customers don’t chose you on a repeat basis. They will quickly and easily take their business elsewhere if they aren’t getting value they believe in.