Thriving Despite a Catastrophic Opening
Eighteen months in, The Sea By Alexander’s Steakhouse in Palo Alto, California, is thriving. Already Michelin-rated, the restaurant is scoring high marks for its service and its cuisine—a Herculean effort, considering the restaurant almost didn’t make it.
Grand openings are always chaotic, but for the upscale The Sea, it was somewhat catastrophic. Days before the restaurant’s soft opening, founding chef and chief operating officer Jeffrey Stout was fired.
“I’ve opened six or seven restaurants, and quite often you have to postpone the opening because something isn’t quite right,” says Tim Halstead, general manager of The Sea By Alexander’s Steakhouse.
Stout left eight days days before the soft opening, and 15 days before the true opening, on Oct. 25, 2012. The chef de cuisine then quit, after being told someone else was coming in as executive chef.
Chef Yu Min Lin, who had serendipitously returned from a sojourn in Taiwan, came on board. A trained sushi chef, he has worked as chef de cuisine at Providence in Los Angeles, and also at the French Laundry in Yountville and Manresa in Los Gatos. Chef Lin insisted on menuing fish that is fresh and wild caught, declining to serve anything farmed or frozen. Much of the product purchased by the former chef was thrown out.
The restaurant opened in November, but closed Sundays for the first six weeks. For the first two months, its kitchen was severely understaffed. “We were only able to seat 60 people a night, instead of the 140 when filled to capacity, and that doesn’t include outdoor seating,” Halstead says.
One patron gave the restaurant a bad Yelp review because he couldn’t get the 7:30 reservation he wanted. When he arrived at the spot, and saw the restaurant half-filled, he publicly lashed out on the review site. Little did he know that the empty seats were the result of a kitchen that didn’t have enough line cooks to meet the needs of a restaurant filled to capacity.
“Kitchen staff are hard to come by in November and December, the area’s busy season,” Halstead notes. “Everyone who wants a job in a kitchen has one.”
Not only did The Sea lose revenue from the empty seats, it also missed the word-of-mouth marketing opportunity that a new restaurant enjoys. “Those first three-to-five months you get a slew of people, because you’ew new—you don’t even have to take out advertising,” Halstead says. “We missed out on all of that.”
It was a balancing act for the first six months of the restaurant, to the point that Halstead doesn’t consider November 2012 the true opening date. “As far as I am concerned, we opened January 2013.”
A year and a half later, The Sea has made a 180-degree revolution. It is Michelin-rated and earning raves for the food, including the concept’s signature Hamachi Shots, Truffle Fries, and Wagyu Beef options, as well as items exclusive to the location, such as Fried Clam Chowder, Wild King Salmon with radish, chantrelles, bacon, and haricot verts, and Lobster Risotto.
The Sea By Alexander’s Steakhouse in Palo Alto is the concept’s third location. Alexander’s Steakhouse is also in Cupertino and San Francisco, and the restaurant group is expanding this summer with Alexander’s Patisserie in Mountain View.
By Joann Whitcher