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One on One: Sara Rowe

VP and partner, Shaw's Crab House, VTK

Sara Rowe, VP and supervising partner, Shaw's Crab
    House, VTK Chicago, Schaumburg, Ill.

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 (LEYE) concepts.

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 
and VTK?

 

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 serve.

 

Who purchases the seafood 
for Shaw's?

Steve LaHaie (managing partner) and Yves Roubaud (chef proprietor) and I approve all menu items to be added or purchased.

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 
in sight.

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 vendors all 
the time.

 

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 builders?

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 be about.

 

Which restaurant concept do you enjoy working with the most?

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 
at Shaw's?

[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 VTK, 
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.

How?

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 like that.

 

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 country.

We're actively pursuing [expansion] now.

 

Editor Fiona Robinson can be 
e-mailed at frobinson@divcom.com

 

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