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The Secret Sauce to Restaurant Success: An Interview with Innovative Dining Group

From bussing tables to reinventing the sushi bar, Lee Maen defines what it means to innovate in an industry that can get a little stale.

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BY Laurel Mintz - 29 Sep 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

After years of bussing tables, taking orders, and wiping tables to pay for college, Lee Maen never imagined he'd ever become a restaurant owner. Now he and his partners own five restaurant concepts with eighteen locations. Innovative Dining Group (IDG)'s restaurants include Sushi Roku (sushi and Japanese), Roku, (teppenyaki), Katana (robatayaki and sushi), BOA Steakhouse (a modern steakhouse concept), and Robata Bar (Japanese pub).

I sat down with Lee to find out to what he attributes all his success.

LM: Why don't we start with an introduction? How long you've been with the company, what's your title, and what do you do there?

IDG: We started IDG (Innovative Dining Group) twenty years ago. I'm one of the founding partners. It's very important that you use the word "partner" or "team" within the story so it doesn't sound like it's just me. Because it's not just me. Our first restaurant was Sushi Roku on Third Street.

LM: What was the inspiration behind that restaurant?

IDG: Before that, right out of college, we were in the nightclub business. And after a brief commercial real estate stint for me, we wanted to build a place to go that didn't already exist. Back then, the sushi bars were mom and pop, strip mall, very traditional - not special in any way, for us - and then there were a few of these "rock and roll, drink sake, and dance on tables..."

LM: Mm-hmm. I think you're talking about Tokyo Dolls, things like that?

IDG: Exactly. Then, there was also one great restaurant, which was Matsuhisa Nobu on Lafayette. That was great food, but kind of scary traditional service. It had boring design, and very expensive for our age range at the time, which was mid to late twenties. It was a hundred bucks a head. We said, " What if we did a sushi bar that we want to go to?" Which, to us meant great design, fun vibe, a bit Americanized service, and have the food be similar quality to Matsuhisa, but at a cheaper price point. That would allow people to come there if they were sushi aficionados, so they could have the best delicasies ever. But also take the novices, who are just graduating from the strip malls and the Tokyo Dolls of the world, and teach them a little bit more, educate them. We were also the first in LA to add a full liquor bar. All the sushi bars back then were just beer, wine, and sake.

LM: That was good, then, for your margins too, I assume?

IDG: Exactly, and also just making it a fun place. We came up with the idea to do this, added in the music, the right staff, the right team, and marketed it that way. It really just took off because it was the first of its kind.

LM: Awesome, what were the clubs that you were in before? I probably snuck into them.

IDG: We owned Gem on Melrose, it's where the Darkroom is now. It was very cool, a little Hollywood, flubbery kind of bar, but we weren't really making any money, because it was hard to make money in a nightclub like that.

LM: Okay, so that was the beginning, and the origin. How big are you guys currently?

IDG: We have 18 restaurants now, six of which are licensing and partnership deals. Of those, two are in the airports here at LAX, and four of them are in the Middle East. The rest of the restaurants are ours, owned and operated. They're in LA, Newport Beach, Vegas, Scottsdale, and we just opened up in Chicago.

LM: Very cool. Why do you think IDG has been so successful? Obviously, you guys have expanded really conservatively in the last twenty years, but efficiently. Do you think it was a "right place, right time" kind of thing?

IDG: We've created concepts that didn't exist. We did that with sushi rolls. We were the first to kind of do that with sushi. Any sushi bar that opens up now is more or less along the lines of what we do. We did the same with BOA; we innovated the modern steakhouse. We wanted a fun place for a twenty or thirty-something. Same thing with Katana. No one had seen robatayaki, this style of charcoal-style cooking from Japan. We were the first ones to do that. We've been innovative, number one, and I don't know how we figured it out, maybe it was the nightclub business. In the nightclub business, you learn a lot about how to turn someone on, capture their attention for a very brief, but important, moment in time. A lot of nightclub owners go on to be restauranteurs or hotel owners. You have Ian Schrager from boutique hotel fame, Andre Balazs, owner of Chateau Marmont, Sean MacPherson, who owns a bunch of hotels in New York - these guys all started in the nightclub business.

LM: Yeah. I actually didn't think about it like that, but you're totally right on.

IDG: What we figured out as our recipe to success was that you're going out to eat. That's number one. So the food's got to be great, right? You can eat at home, and you can eat at a million different restaurants - you're also going out for great service, because people demand that. We pull in atmosphere - but it's not just food, service, and atmosphere - the secret fourth ingredient is a certain energy of the place, a certain vibe, a certain feeling - like a musical, when you walk in, and it's "showtime." The people help make the place - you're curating a party every single night. Those four things, it's very hard to duplicate. It's not that hard to hire a chef that puts out good food. It's not that hard to hire someone that understands service. You can hire a designer, or an architect, and pay a lot of money for a great design, but putting it all together, at the right ratio, at the right price, for the right value, and then adding the right sprinkle of understanding the vibe and setting the stage, that's something that I think is the secret to our success.

LM: It's like a production, from start to finish.

IDG: Total movie. There's all the elements that go into it: there's a director, a producer, a cast, there's the back of the house, and the front of scene is you, the guest.

LM: I like that metaphor. How do you think it is that you capture that? Like you said, it's not hard to do all of these things individually, but how do you catch lightning in a bottle?

IDG: I think it's a good combination of right-brain and left-brain. A lot of chefs are right-brain, and so it's hard for them to be successful themselves in a restaurant, because it's a business, and if you're just business, then you're too corporate, and you don't get it. So we just kind of figured out the importance of both, you know? We've obviously been doing it a long time - but a lot of it is natural. We grew up here. We ARE our customer. We don't do it just for ourselves, it has to be something that other people like. Sushi is pretty big, and steak is pretty big, so as long as we do something that we love, we kind of think other people will as well.

LM: What was your first experience with sushi?

IDG: With my mom, really young, at some Mickey Mouse place. It was the typical California roll.

LM: It was one of my first foods too, my mom was super into it. I guess since we are both from L.A., and it hit here first.

IDG: I remember I went on a date a long, long time ago. She took me to Sushi On Sunset. I was probably 18 or something. You could drink there, back in the day. Danny Partridge was the manager then. She was a little older than me. She knew more about sushi than me, and she had me try some things I hadn't tried yet, and I fell in love with it.

LM: Yeah. It's those experiences. I had my 30th birthday at Katana on the balcony area.

IDG: Right on.

LM: Okay, so we talked about how IDG is successful. You talked about being ahead in the trends. What do you see as next in the food and beverage space?

IDG: Right now, it's in turmoil. It's very difficult out there for so many reasons. There's a huge oversupply of restaurants, because for whatever reasons, everyone has been opening restaurants. There's only so many guests to go around, right? Another thing that's disruptive towards the restaurant industry, is the trend towards Postmates and Uber Eats - all the delivery services. The lack of international travel is disruptive. Food trucks had a big coming years ago - and now it's the food hall, right? There's more of those opening up. I think next, and I don't know when, but hopefully soon - it's going to be back to sit-down restaurants where you get service. Millennials spend their money on experiences, and I think that you can't get that experience in a food truck or a food hall. People want to be taken care of and want to have a shared experience. I think that's going to be the next trend, going back.

Whether that means it's a smaller restaurant or a bigger restaurant, more foody or less foody, whatever, there's a place for all of them - but I think it's going to get back to that. At some point, people are going to get tired of ordering Postmates and sitting and eating at their desk or at home, and they are going to want to go out and experience things. There's a trend away from nightclubs - for various reasons, including social media, to meet people - so that helps restaurants.

LM: If you could describe the IDG brand in a couple of words, what would that be? What is the IDG vibe?

IDG: I think the IDG vibe is sophisticated and stylish, yet approachable. It's energetic. It's got a good energy, it's got a heartbeat. I think you can make it what you want, though. That's the beauty of it. You can go there on a first date and have a romantic night at one of our restaurants, you can also go there for a celebration with a party of ten, you can go there and see celebrities, or you can go there and see locals that live down the street that have been going there for a million years. I think it's memorable because it's real. We spend a lot of money on construction and design. We don't just buy things off the shelf. The place feels like it has longevity, like it's a home. I think our hospitality - while it's not perfect, obviously - we really try to be like "Cheers," where we remember your name.

We definitely want an escape - you're stressed out all day, you're on the streets, driving, at work - we want you to walk into our place and be taken away from it all. While you're with us, you can leave the worries of the day away.

LM: And there you have it ladies and gentlemen, the secrets to sushi (and other restauranter success). Now let's roll!