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Peter Garland: The Mayor of Canon Drive

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As I interviewed Peter Garland, restaurateur and owner of Porta Via (PortaViaBH.com), the number of people who walked by him exchanging pleasantries amazed me. He knew everyone’s name. They all seemed to like him. They all enjoyed eating at Porta Via, and Peter knew just what they preferred. This, amongst a host of reasons, explains why during an economical low point, Peter is still in business.

Peter begins by telling me he always appreciated eating at nice places with his family. Terrific food and even better service was noticed. This was one of the reasons he wanted to have his own restaurant. He had a marketing and PR background, but ultimately the luxuries he enjoyed as a youngster dining out with his family made an indelible impression on him.

eMinutes: Would you say the marketing and PR background you had, since you didn’t have a restaurant background, was helpful with the restaurant?

PG: I think so. I think all experiences are helpful. Like when people say to me, “Did you go to college or culinary school for this? Did you study accounting?” I think experiences [in general] are very helpful. So I certainly learned as a youngster because I worked through out high school and I always had summer jobs in college. I always had a very strong work ethic. So I think in any job that’s really helpful to know – that you’re going to have to put in a lot of hours and it’s difficult work. And the restaurant business is certainly that. It can be very blue collar. You know people are like, “It’s glamorous!” But there are a lot of hours.

eMinutes: It’s a show and there’s a frenetic backstage, I am sure.

PG: Yeah. Exactly. So it’s like – hey if the dishwasher doesn’t show up, you might be the dishwasher, you know. Whatever it may be.

And college certainly taught me a lot. You know I have had a lot of people work for me over the years here at Porta Via, and I’ve seen a big difference between people who have some sort of a formal education and the ones that don’t. You know, it’s not to say that the ones who do are smarter than the ones who don’t, but they seem to have an ability to be better problem solvers. So I think that having some sort of formal college education experience has given me the ability to problem solve. And when you are a business owner and entrepreneur, you just need to be able to problem solve.

eMinutes: Possibly that’s because when you are in college, you have to manage your time and meet deadlines in order to get to the next semester and stay afloat. The time management aspect of it…

PG: Yes. Maybe that’s the difference between those that have some sort of formal education and those who don’t. But I’ve always been a problem solver, and that’s helpful when you’re a manager or own a business.

eMinutes: If someone said to you, “Hey, I’d like to open a restaurant”, aside from all of the technical info you might share with them, what’s the best advice?

PG: I think expectations. Knowing that it’s not what things appear to be, you know. It’s a great lifestyle if you could succeed, but it is a lifestyle. It’s a lot of work. It’s not just a job. It’s something that you live and breathe pretty much all the time. And then if you are successful, know that we don’t work on a terribly large profit margin. It’s labor intensive. There are a lot of expenses involved. So one should know—hey, if you do make it, this is what you can expect to make.

You know because many people go into business thinking they’re going into it to make money. But you probably should go into it because you love it and have a passion for it. And if you love it and you work hard because you have a passion for it, you’ll probably end up working harder, and then maybe you’ll get lucky and get a break, make some money. But expectations are very important. They ought to have the right expectations. Speak to somebody that’s been doing it.

eMinutes: Did Porta Via have a turning point and do you recall when that was? Maybe a time it went from doing okay and making a profit, and then suddenly – BAM, now people know who you are?

PG: Well, yeah. It takes time. You know, you open a new restaurant and everybody wants to go to it and see it. The first year, it’s funny. Because the first year in the restaurant business, I don’t want to say it’s easy, but people come, you know?

eMinutes: They’re curious.

PG: Yes. They’re curious. It’s easy to get them to come the first time. But the difficult thing is building a clientele, building a team, and once you get past that, the restaurant takes on a life of its own, you know. A life that you hope is bigger than the owner, bigger than the chef, bigger than just one server. And that’s how you’re able to succeed through it all.

[Peter excuses himself for a moment to discuss with a passing customer how he might always look to improve his bagels and why this particular customer prefers bagels. It’s been the topic of conversation with a few of the customers today with whom Peter shakes hands, laughs with, and waves hello.]

PG: So that first year you hope not to make too many mistakes so they’ll want to come back. You hope they like you. A lot of it has to do with how hard you work and the genuine effort you put into it. So if you do make mistakes, because we’re all human and everyone makes mistakes, [they’ll still come back]. But you hope that the clientele is such that they want to see you succeed and that they’ll give you another chance. Like if the food took too long, there’s going to be mistakes in the first six months or what have you. So you earn their respect. I think that first three years were very challenging and fast moving and quickly evolving. And then at some point in the first three years, I think I realized, “Oh, this is the direction I want to take the restaurant”

And when you start in business, you certainly need to have a goal and know conceptually what you want, but you also have to be willing to change. Because no matter how much planning you’ve done in the past, there’s going to be mistakes and you can’t be stubborn or hardheaded not to be able to listen, if necessary. At the same time, you have to be able to have enough confidence in yourself to say, “Hey this is what I want to do” and keep on pushing forth.

But when I opened the restaurant in 1994, it was 900 square feet and I ended up expanding the restaurant in 1999. The space to the south of me became available. And at that point, I refined the concept, which was always to be a neighborhood restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and if I got more space (as I did in 1999), dinner.

eMinutes: You didn’t serve dinner before?

PG: No. Because it was very tiny – it was only 900 square feet. I had like five tables and a counter. So that’s all it was. And so I got the space to the south and that allowed me to expand the restaurant into 1500 square feet and apply for a liquor license.

eMinutes: So you weren’t even serving liquor before that?

PG: No. I didn’t have beer, wine, or liquor. I had one bathroom for the employees. I mean I didn’t even have bathroom facilities. But I was able to get space and get a liquor license so I expanded the seating. I was able to go from seating 12 people to seating 27 people.

eMinutes: WITH liquor, which is a very big difference.

PG: A very big difference! And then it became a little café. I always called it a café. And we served dinner. So we then served breakfast, lunch and dinner, and also food to-go and catering. And then more years passed. Then in 2007, the property owner to the north offered me the space. And I was able to expand the restaurant again. So I had a new dining room. And now I’m in 2,700 square feet. And I’ll be expanding into another 1,200 square feet. So I’m just in the process of doing that job.

The concept here is going to be an extension of what Porto Via represents – you know breakfast, lunch and dinner, a neighborhood restaurant that serves a wonderful organic cuisine, seasonal menu. And what we’re doing in this room to the north, is building a great bar area. So there will be a bar area that includes TVs, flat screens to watch sporting events, and we’ll have a wood burning oven in there. There will be a “Small Bites” menu that will include gourmet pizzas and organic vegetables from the wood-burning oven.

It’ll be high energy, but not a club by any stretch of the imagination. Because we’re in Beverly Hills, the clientele is 25 – 65, and we want everyone to feel comfortable. But it’s certainly a great place to go for an afternoon cocktail after work.

eMinutes: After work, if guests have a date and it goes well, then they can dine in the restaurant.

PG: Exactly. They can dine, they can have a drink or dessert in the bar area, and we’re going to expand our outdoor patio, as well.

eMinutes: Applying for permits right now, then?

PG: I am applying for permits. But the city is really great to me. I’ve been very involved with this community for a long time, they appreciate the job that I’ve done here and they’re fair.

eMinutes: Can you talk to me a little bit about forming your corporation? When did you do it and why did you do it? Was it overwhelming?

PG: Well I really didn’t know much about it. It was in 1994 and I started the company. I believe it was my accountant that told me I needed to do that. So we formed a corporation and obviously the corporation is supposed to limit my liability.

I was thinking of at one time changing it over to LLC because people talk about LLC’s. I don’t really know the difference between an LLC and an INC. [From what I understand] attorneys supposedly love LLCs more than INCs, generally speaking. Maybe that’s only some attorneys. I don’t have any partners here, and an INC works well and my accountant said I should keep it that way. And I guess you end up paying more money on an LLC because I guess you pay taxes on your gross sales. I’m not so sure about all of that.

eMinutes: Was there anyone that you remember being an inspiration to you from years ago? Maybe the person didn’t work in your field. Maybe it was a boss at your first job, even if it was a carwash. Have you watched someone and said, “Yes. I like the way that person works.”

PG: Well, my parents. My dad was an auctioneer and a liquidator and my mom owned a retail-clothing store in Beverly Hills. So I guess I learned from them. They were my inspiration because I would spend a lot of time with both of my parents. My mom’s store was open for 30 years or so in Beverly Hills. So as a kids, we would go and fold sweaters. So I learned about sales and customer service through my parents. My dad being an auctioneer and my mom having a retail store… I learned from them.

eMinutes: Sounds like they had a solid work ethic.

PG: Yeah, they always worked. Always involved us in their work.

eMinutes: What was your first job?

PG: (smiling) My first job was working at Gelson’s market, Century City. It was the supermarket.

eMinutes: So you worked in high school?

PG: I lied and told the manager I was sixteen. I think I was like fifteen and a half. So I got a job as a bagger and it was great. Back then they had baggers. Since I grew up in Beverly Hills and my mom owned a store in Beverly Hills, I knew everybody and they knew me. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was just a great job because I would see all these parents that I knew and they would treat me really well. And I would help them out with their groceries and they would tip me. I always had a couple bucks in my pocket. So that was a great job.

And I would meet people that were older—college kids, you know. So I think it was just great exposure. I think that working in high school is really cool.

eMinutes: I agree.

PG: Right?

eMinutes: Absolutely. Why did you work? Did your parents make you get a job or did you get it because you wanted to?

PG: I don’t know. I worked because that’s what we did. Yeah, I worked there and at this other place – it was a great concept from so many years ago. I think it was Johnson’s Yogurt or something. It was a yogurt shop and this was probably around 1982 or something like that. It was a longtime ago. And obviously now we have Pinkberry and stuff, but this was…

eMinutes: Ahead of its time?

PG: Yes. This owner served yogurt and really wonderful tuna sandwiches, and really healthy breads and things like that. And it was kinda cool for a time like that, because it was a health food restaurant.

eMinutes: And what do you recall was your worst job?

PG: I had so many jobs. I mean I worked in a bookstore – I can’t remember.
I don’t think I ever had a worst job. I don’t remember ever being mistreated.

eMinutes: Back to Porta Via. I understand you do a lot of the purchasing hands on, from the picking of the fruit to the meat and such. But also you run the floor and you are busy in the back-of-house. How do you structure your day? How do you balance your time?

PG: It’s interesting because I opened a bar in West Hollywood in 2002 and I sold it in 2007. But in any event, what happened was when I opened the new business, I was forced to become a better manager, and that was a big part of my learning experience on how to manage time. Because I was between two places, I had to learn to trust other people and learn to communicate with my employees better. So that’s been helpful. So now learning from that, I have a pretty good schedule.

I get here roughly at nine o’clock. I take my kids to school in the morning. And I spend the mornings in the office doing some work, generally speaking. And in the afternoon I’m here on the floor for the lunch rush. And then in the afternoons I take meetings: staff meetings, meetings with my chef, the manager. And then the evenings, usually I’m here on the floor. I mean you try to be on the floor during those times. During the breakfast hours, I can pop in but I don’t necessarily have to be so hands on. But during the lunch hour I try to be. And during the dinner hour.

eMinutes: Looking back over your career, with the other bar you owned and with Porto Via, what would you say was one of your biggest setbacks?

PG: One of the biggest setbacks was around 2002 or so. The city of Beverly Hills was remodeling the streets and they had a whole urban development plan for the streetlights and the trees, you know. So in short, the entire sidewalk was under construction for like eight months.

So you couldn’t get to the restaurant. I mean, you could get there, but this restaurant is a real outdoor kind of place. And what makes it so much fun is seeing all the people walking up and down the street. So that was a pretty dark period. Sales went down like 70 percent or something. I can’t remember exactly, but it was pretty awful. I was not having a good time.

eMinutes: There was nothing you could do about that?

PG: Nothing I could do about it. It wasn’t anything that I did or the staff did. It was that the city needed to do this work and we still had to pay rent. I mean the landlord still had to pay his mortgage. So there was nothing anybody could do. So that was very difficult.

eMinutes: Did anything good come out of that?

Well, they enlarged the sidewalks. So at the end of the day, is it better? Um, it’s okay. I might have chosen different streetlights and different trees.

eMinutes: But as far as structuring and the back-of-house work – were you able to use that time that you would have normally spent with lunch and dinner rushes to work in those areas?

PG: Well we certainly needed the revenue, so that wasn’t helpful. But you know, it did cause me to do [some things] – because business was so difficult and our revenues dropped tremendously. So during those six or eight months, when business is difficult, you end up having to sharpen your pencil and get sharper. So it did cause me to make some difficult decisions in running the business.

It caused me to look at my staff and to be more objective. Sometimes I can be a loyal person to a fault. That’s just my personality. I like to keep people around and I get comfortable with them. So I ended up making some very good strategic decisions because business was difficult. So that was good.

eMinutes: What are some of the more difficult aspects of running the business for you specifically? I mean for me, it would be staying organized. Not lack of ideas, but organization.

PG: Okay. Well then in that case, organization is difficult. However, I hired somebody recently in January of 2008 to help me in the office and she’s been tremendously helpful. Because when you have your own business, you have to be organized, no matter how good you may be at selling. So I looked at myself closely over the last ten years and saw what am I good at, what I need help with, you know. So I hired a woman that is very organized.

I’m not very big on titles, but if she had a title it would be “Operations Manager.” She assists me in book keeping, communication, human resources, and stuff like that. And another thing that’s been difficult for me is the accounting. It’s very hard. Getting the right bookkeepers to do it, and doing it properly, you know?

eMinutes: Staying on top of P & L reports …

PG: Yes! Or even just getting the reports done and the reports being accurate! So I did hire a very good accountant about a year ago that’s been very helpful. So you have to be careful when you’re an entrepreneur to hire the right people to do that. It’s difficult to do yourself. You can’t spend all that time.

eMinutes: But they are an extension of you. Because you can’t be here 24 hours.

PG: Right. You have to get the right people to do it and you have to do it right.

[Peter greets at least the tenth person to walk by]
LW: Wow. You are like the mayor around here.

PG: (smiling) Well you have all of this great clientele. We have these terrific people that come in every day.

eMinutes: I wonder if there are any benefits in this recession? Have you found any upside at all?

PG: No. Not at all. Because if people don’t have a job, they’re not spending money. They’re not shopping or eating out as much. We’re very lucky here at the restaurant because we have been in business a long time and we have a great clientele so they’re still having business lunches. Dinner business has been the most challenging meal, period.

eMinutes: I wonder if that’s because during the day, lunch is a necessity whereas at night, you make a choice to go out to dinner.

PG: Yes. And we’re in Beverly Hills. Most of these people still have jobs. So if you’re a lawyer or an agent, or a doctor or a real estate professional, you might not be making as much money as you were making last year or the year before and such, but at least you’re still showing up to work and you’re going to a restaurant because you may be meeting a client for lunch or you’re meeting a friend. So our lunch meal period has really done very well. We haven’t seen a dip in that. We have seen a dip in our dinner business. Thankfully we’re in Beverly Hills where our clientele is – well the dip isn’t as bad as it’s been in other areas. Our business is down six percent in sales from the same periods last year.

eMinutes: That’s not that bad.

PG: No, it’s not. So that does make me feel good, you know. When the space to the north of me became available, I thought, “Wow this may not be a great time to be expanding and spending the money to remodel this place.”

eMinutes: Well, on the bright side you could remodel for less money right now.

PG: That’s true. There are some perks. Hopefully by next year things will be on a rebound.

eMinutes: Any advice that you wish someone gave you about structuring your company or about opening a restaurant that you didn’t get?

PG: I jut wish that I had a better accountant when I started my business. And a better bookkeeper. I wish I had chosen better professionals.

eMinutes: But these are things you didn’t even know until you had the better accountant, right?

PG: Right. I didn’t know. When I first started I did it myself and I learned. But then I trusted somebody else to do it and it wasn’t done properly. And so in hindsight, the next time around, it would be (focusing on) gathering those key personnel, which is very important. It really is. You see your business better, and then you can make better decisions, you know?

eMinutes: I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “Don’t sweat the small stuff”. What don’t you sweat that you think other restaurant owners might? And what do you sweat? Aside from this vile recession…

PG: Well, again I’m 14 years in the business, so I don’t get too worked up over the recession. I get nervous but you’re constantly nervous anyway.

eMinutes: But you’ve been through this.

PG: We’ve been through difficult times. We’re hopeful that things are going to turn around. But you have battles every day in life and you have to fight the battles you need to fight and let the others go.

For example if a customer comes in and doesn’t like what they were served, I tell my employees don’t take it personally. Just find out if they want something else. We want them to walk away happy. It’s no big deal, you know? We just want people to have a good experience. Especially now because we are in a recession and things are difficult for all of us.

And people sometimes come in here and beat us up. So I just remind my staff that we don’t have to go home with any of these people. We just have to do the very best job that we can do and be kind to them and hopefully they’ll walk away with a good experience. Because that’s what you want. It’s difficult out here now. We need everyone to walk away having a good experience. You know, liking the waiter, liking the busboy.

eMinutes: Because your staff is an extension of you in the front-of-house when you’re not here, what is it you try to instill in them? Aside from requesting good customer service, and that sort of thing.

PG: Well since I spend so much time here, I think I set the tone of the restaurant, which is we’re here to do a job and we’re lucky that people are coming in here now. We’re lucky they’re coming back. We’re lucky that we still have a job here. It doesn’t matter if you’re the dishwasher, or the hostess, or the waiters, or me– the owner. So I try to instill in them this place includes all of us. We’re a family here and we need to work as a family.

I try to remind my staff– Hey guys, keep focused. Let’s be on top of the restaurant. Make sure it’s clean and organized and we’re prepared so people walk away having a good experience.

eMinutes: And that’s just attention to detail, which it seems you picked up having nice dinners out with your family in your early years. Noticing you like the music at certain levels, or the lights at a particular brightness, etc.

PG: Yeah I see everything. As a matter of fact, yesterday there was an older gentleman here having dinner with his wife. I’ve seen him in here several times. And he came up to me. And I don’t really know him but I’ve seen him a lot. And he said how much he enjoys when he comes in the restaurant, how good the services is, and how much he enjoys it here. The food is always consistent and that he sees that I’m always looking around, helping the waiters out, and have a watchful eye and he appreciates that. He brought it to my attention that it’s good to see.

eMinutes: That’s a great compliment.

PG: Actually I got two of those compliments yesterday! But for me, it’s my job. I don’t have an ego. When people say that, it’s my job.

eMinutes: It’s nice for them to notice it, though.

PG: It’s our job. That’s what I tell all the people who work here. We work in a restaurant. We have to do that. It’s our job to help customers. I’m not the type of owner who’s going to be in the corner booth just hanging out. I will rarely ever have a meal during the meal period because that’s the time we’re working.

eMinutes: When do you close?

PG: We close at 10.


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