« September 2006 Table of Contents
One on One: Sara Rowe
VP and partner, Shaw's Crab House, VTK
September 01, 2006
Sara Rowe's determination and grit have gotten her far in
the restaurant industry. In just 14 years, she went from being
a 1992 grad from Western Michigan University to VP and
supervising partner of Shaw's Crab House and VTK (Vong's Thai
Kitchen) in Chicago, both Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises
Rowe's first job after college was as hostess at Vincent's
Family Italian in Nantucket, Mass. After a month in the front
of the house, Rowe finagled her way into the kitchen and
eventually became the first female chef at the family-owned
restaurant. The rest is history.
She went on to receive an associate degree in culinary arts
from the Culinary Institute of America in 1996. A native of
Kalamazoo, Mich., Rowe returned to the Midwest that same year
and attended a management training program with LEYE, starting
as the No. 4 manager at Shaw's.
She was named GM of Shaw's Chicago in June 2000, and was
then promoted to divisional supervisor in 2003, overseeing two
Shaw's and VTK. She was promoted to VP in 2004 and was made a
supervising partner of LEYE earlier this year.
I interviewed Rowe in early August as she eagerly awaited
the birth of her first child that month.
Robinson: What is your main responsibility at Shaw's
Rowe: I'm leader of the division and responsible for where
we go, how we get there and everything in between, from the
growth, brand [execution] and day-to-day operations.
What is a typical day
on the job like for you?
Each day is different, from strategic planning to management
assessments to department reviews, to looking at day-to-day
operations and financials to tasting new food and menu items.
This morning I started at 6:15 and will work until about 6 or
6:30 p.m. Yesterday [Sunday] I was here for an hour and worked
at home for several hours and got myself organized.
I even brought my husband in for dinner Friday night and
assessed the details. I hadn't done that in a while - it was
really beneficial. We implemented a new horseradish crème for
our steaks. It was delicious and well explained by the server.
It went from test kitchen to the table and was delivered really
well. And I was wondering where the parsley was on the mashed
potatoes. I was aware of the two tables around me and the food
they ate and their reactions - and I was pleased.
You're credited with opening the Sushi Bar in Shaws' Blue
Crab Lounge. What motivated you to make this addition?
We first added sushi to the menu in 2000 and added the Sushi
Bar in 2003. What prompted it was the quality and freshness of
our seafood. It really seemed to fit, especially with seasonal
items. And [it helped] that we [process] all of our seafood
onsite. Our standards are so high; No. 1++ tuna is what we
Who purchases the seafood
Steve LaHaie (managing partner) and Yves Roubaud (chef
proprietor) and I approve all menu items to be added or
We are very particular about who we do business with. We
have seafood buyers designated for each [restaurant] who
purchase from designated purveyors that we have long histories
and fond relationships with. Some of these relationships go
back 22 years and have no end
We count on these relationships to make us aware of new
products in the industry, as well as sustainability issues and
concerns. We want to always have the best-quality product and
make sure it is environmentally safe and handled appropriately
from sea to table.
We've been getting king and blue crab and fish from the same
vendors for many, many years. And we continue to add specialty
How many vendors
do you buy from?
Close to 200. The challenge is controlling market costs and
staying close to that cost. Plus [keeping up with] invoicing
and checks and maintaining relationships and keeping them close
to our hearts. [Our vendors] need to care as much as we do
about how the seafood arrives at our back door.
Trident Seafood's king crab is an example. We are a
small-potato account to them. However, we are a legacy account
because of how we market, feature and maintain our king crab.
They love that we advertise Alaska king crab. We call our menu
item what it is. They like the fact that we will pay for the
best and talk about quality [rather than price].
You're responsible for executing Shaws' annual food
festivals: Smelt Fest, Lobster Fest, Royster with the Oyster
and Taste of the Great Lakes. Are these festivals profit
No, they're a congregation builder. Shaw's is like a family.
We have low [employee] turnover and a high regular clientele
following. The brand is borderline iconic.
Because of that, those festivals become very interactive,
like a congregation or a club. They're not used to generate
money as much as to promote Shaw's focus on seasons,
celebration and fun, which is what a dining experience should
Which restaurant concept do you enjoy working with the
I am very much biased to Shaw's; it's where I started and
spend the most time. I'm very, very proud of the brand.
Are the challenges managing VTK the same as those
[The two concepts are] very different; they're not easily
married. We've got a partnership with Jean-George Vongerichten.
[The challenge is in] maintaining his standard and that
connection, since he is two and a half hours away by plane [at
his flagship restaurant, Jean Georges in New York City]. At
we provide a $60 experience for $25. That, in and of
itself, provides challenges.
The restaurant is very neighborhood driven. When you have
that, you want to stay alive and fresh and give your close
following new material. We're constantly keeping it fresh.
It's all in the details. From the very expensive chopsticks
to curries made daily with the freshest ingredients. The food
speaks for itself. It's unbelievably fresh and authentic, but
not at flashy prices.
Who has been your
mentor at LEYE?
Kevin Brown, CEO and founder of Shaw's. He or Richard Melman
[LEYE founder and chairman]. Kevin can motivate me or inspire
me or stimulate thought or elicit a challenge by pushing a
button. I'm a thinker. When he turns me onto to something, it
just continues. It can be very invigorating.
It can be rewarding when he will bring up something and I'm
already aware of it. It's validating to know that what our
small company needs is something I already know.
What do you like best
about working at LEYE?
The entrepreneurial spirit. I like the philosophy "it's up
to you to create your own destiny." I like the fact you reap
the benefits of your hard work. I like the constant challenge
to be innovative, to be proactive, to stay current, to push
forward. There's not a lot of resting on your laurels, and I
What would you change,
if you could?
I'm very happy with the position and my role. I'm looking
forward to seeing more Shaw's sprout up across the country.
We've been looking at growing the brand and having a few
more Shaw's strategically placed. Our sushi provides a definite
twist, as has crab, versus other seafood concepts across the
We're actively pursuing [expansion] now.
Editor Fiona Robinson can be