Truluck’s: Making Good Things Happen to Other People
When one thinks of food in Texas, stone crabs—a brownish crab found in the western North Atlantic—don’t exactly pop in mind. This omission is what drove Stuart Sergeant and Patty Turner to open Truluck’s, a seafood, steak, and crab house restaurant, in Houston. As it turns out, the decision to open a restaurant serving stone crab was a good one. Today they have 11 locations and thousands of devoted diners who crave the meat of the crab’s one large, regenerating claw.
“We started as Truluck's Steak and Stone Crab Restaurant bringing stone crab to Texas, because there weren't stone crab restaurants,” recalls David Tripoli, the chief operating officer of the Truluck's Restaurant Group. “Bringing stone crab to Texas was a big point of difference for us.”
Fresh Crab, Not Frozen
The challenges involved in bringing stone crab to land-locked parts of Texas were harder than you might realize—because stone crab is often shipped frozen, not fresh, and that means its quality takes a major hit. “A frozen stone crab is just not as tasty. It’s almost like sucking on a sponge, all the moisture that comes out of it,” says David. But rather than give up, Truluck’s founders instead decided to buy their own fishery in Florida—one of only 11 licensed in the state to breed this protected species. “That was probably the pivotal shift of Truluck's, because now we controlled our product. Not many restaurants can say that today, they own their own fisheries and can control their product, control the quality and ensure they have stone crab for guests. That really helped launch us. That was a big quality commitment.”
While owning and operating their own fishery certainly gives Truluck’s some advantages when it comes to guaranteeing fresh crab gets to their tables, it doesn’t provide the predictability one might expect. “The crabs are not farm raised,” explains David. “Our boats have to go 35 to 50 miles out into the turquoise water of the Gulf, set their traps, capture the crab, and come in.” But Truluck’s wouldn’t be Truluck’s if it didn’t have a back-up plan. “We've learned to broker crab literally around the world, so we can have fresh seasonal crab when it's available.”
The Truluck’s Constitution
No business can survive on quality product alone. That’s why Truluck’s management team has split its focus between product and service. “Service is a big, big part of Truluck's, so we want to hire hard, train hard, then manage easy. The biggest thing we look for in new employees is the hospitality gene. We're in the hospitality business, and all of our employees know that southern hospitality is truly important. We're there to be on the guests’ side,” says David. Just one look at the recent awards won by the restaurant shows their guests appreciate this focus on both product and service. Truluck’s has won the customer service award for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce six times. The Austin location was also voted by OpenTable as one of the 100 best restaurants in America in 2015 and 2016, an honor David is especially proud of. “That's not done by critics. That's not done by open voting. That's done by OpenTable users that have rated us 95 or better. We're the only restaurant in Austin to receive that award, ever, and we received it the last two years. Those are things that are important to us.”
Truluck’s took a very unique approach to creating their service standards. The management team locked themselves up in a room for several days put together the Truluck's Constitution.
The four days that the management team spent in the room wasn’t easy. “We fought. We fought over words, because words are so important. We wanted to model the Truluck’s constitution off of the Ritz-Carlton’s. We fought over words like values and standards. Most people talk about values and standards and mission statements, but what's really behind that? It sounds like something you hang on a wall, and it gets covered up by the ketchup, and you forget about it. We used words like beliefs and behaviors. Everybody gets to choose their belief. They get to choose their behavior. We want people to be part of the Truluck's group because they chose it. They chose to want to be a part of our group. They chose for this to be the right spot for them,” explains David.
“The very first commitment that we wrote was to take care of the people at Truluck's, which we define as our employees, our purveyors, and our community. If we do that, we know the entity of Truluck's will take care of itself.”
The Roots of Success
Founder Stuart Sergeant wasn’t always in the restaurant business. In fact, he began his career in banking. “People came to him for loans for restaurants and he grew very interested in that. Stuart's a very gregarious, outgoing, extremely southern, hospitable gentleman. The banking business wasn't going to give him the thrill. Our other owner, Patty Turner, is all about focusing in. She keeps us focused on one thing and makes sure we aren’t scattered thinking about how to do a bunch of different things,” says David.
Sometimes, in any industry, success comes more from recognizing what you’re doing wrong than celebrating what you’re doing right. David explains that even Truluck’s owners have had their missteps. “We did a concept called Florida Seafood. That didn't work. The world didn't need another Red Lobster, and we weren't really casual dining operators. I don't know how to make money off of high chairs and saltine crackers. It's not what I do. That wasn't the right concept for us. Fortunately, we took that location and turned it into Truluck's, and it's worked.”
It didn’t turn around overnight. But they kept going, “We knew that if we stuck with it and stuck with quality, that we could win people over. We had to. We had a lease. We had big commitments there. We had people that we were committed to. “
So what’s the big lesson Truluck’s founders and executives discovered from all that? According to David the lesson is that time allows us to grow and mature—like a great bottle of wine or a well-seasoned soup stock. “There's just so much you can learn, and I think part of approaching business is allowing yourself to learn. It's like anything else you go to do. I've got a 13- and 16-year-old at the house, and I'm constantly telling them, it's okay to be a beginner. Be a beginner, because then you'll learn. Good luck actually resides in the hard work, and if you can allow yourself to put your ego aside long enough to be successful, you might have a shot at it. Too many times people get caught up in using ego to compensation for what they lack in knowledge and skills. That isn't going to get you where you need to go, so always be a good student.”
One thing any good student learns, and that Truluck’s holds dear, is the value in its employees. David explains, “What's interesting is that at 211 degrees, water is hot—that's it. At 212 degrees, water boils. When water boils it generates steam, and steam can propel a train. Look at the difference one degree makes, just that one degree. Are you willing to commit to your business and go that extra degree? A lot of it comes from giving. The more you give, the more you receive. It costs us a ton of money for all the programs, staff incentives and cultural celebrations we offer. But you know, it really reduces turnover.”
Thankfully, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to inspiring your staff. David shared with us a site that can help get you started: inspireyourpeople.com. “At Truluck's our mantra, and we try and teach this to everybody, is: Your job may be a bartender, team assistant, a server, and so forth. Whatever your position, you are here to make good things happen for other people. Really believe that coming into your shift every day—that you’re going to make good things happen for other people. Just think about how great we can all work together and the experience we can build for the guest. We talked about the why behind our business—the why of Truluck's is, to be here to make good things happen for other people.”
Discover more about Truluck’s by visiting their website, www.trulucks.com.