Lindsey Schwartz Oversees a Sizzling Steakhouse Business

The Schwartz Bros. Restaurants CEO cut his teeth in his family's now-flourishing business
  • The Schwartz Bros. Restaurants CEO cut his teeth in his family's now-flourishing business
Lindsey Schwartz, president and CEO of Schwartz Bros. Restaurants, even as a kid thought working in the restaurant business "was the coolest thing in the world."

Lindsey Schwartz remembers when Bellevue was considered the middle of nowhere. Schwartz began working in The Butcher restaurant, which was founded in 1970 by his father, Bill, and uncle, John. He started as a dishwasher and prep cook when he was in junior high school.

“There wasn’t much going on in Bellevue back in the 1970s,” Schwartz recalls. “My dad thought, ‘Why don’t we put a restaurant here and then at least people have something to do?’”

The restaurant started almost by accident. His father’s uncle was Jack Benaroya, who had a small real estate development firm. His father suggested putting a restaurant in one of Jack’s developments and it “took off from day one,” Schwartz recalls. “They were busy beyond expectations.”

Since 2003 Schwartz has been chief executive officer and president of the family business, Schwartz Bros. Restaurants — which operates four Daniel’s Broiler restaurants — and Schwartz Bros. Bakery. The company has about 500 employees.

I basically begged my dad and uncle to let me come to work for them because I was only three when they opened the first restaurant in 1970, and I remember going in with my dad on weekends when the restaurant was under construction and when it just opened. It just seemed like the coolest thing in the world.

I’ve been a busser, sandwich-maker, burger cook. We had a concept called Benji’s fish and chips. I fried fish and french fries.

I think for sure I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and I thought the restaurant business was really fun and exciting.

My uncle used to say there’s 1,000 details you’ve got to get right to be successful. As a kid I thought he just kind of made up that number, but I’ve come to appreciate there really are 1,000, and you have to get them all right to be successful.

You’re only as good as the last experience somebody has with you. Maybe they’ve had good experiences for the last 10, 20 or 30 years, but it takes just one bad experience and they move on. You’ve got to find a way to make every experience a great one.

The state of Washington is one of six or seven states that doesn’t have a tip credit, meaning even if somebody is making tips, you still pay them the minimum wage. So now we charge a service charge instead of tips. That’s the only way that we can make it pencil out because it’s just not sustainable to keep paying higher and higher minimum wages.

Under a tip model, every time the minimum wage goes up, the front-of-house employees get a raise and menu prices go up. Employees are getting tipped at a higher percent, and the restaurant’s not capturing enough money to pay the back of the house, which doesn’t get tips.

It’s complicated, and restaurants are struggling to figure out how to make it work. You’ll see more and more going out of business.

Realistically, you can’t pay somebody in Bellevue less than you’re paying somebody in Seattle because why would anybody work in Bellevue if all they have to do is drive across the bridge and get a job for more dollars?

The steakhouse business is the definition of a meat and potatoes business. We’re not trying to be fancy. That’s what I like about steakhouses. People have different expectations when they come to a steakhouse. They know what they like.

The 8-ounce filet mignon is the No. 1 seller on the menu. It has been for as long as I can remember.

Trends do change, even in the meat and potatoes business. We’re just constantly out there. The internet is great for that. We used to take trips to Vegas, New York or Chicago to see things. We still do some of that, but now it’s easy to go online and download menus. You can certainly follow what the trends are.

We’re not going to stop serving steaks and try to replace it with something else, but we are going to try to find the style of beef that fits in with whatever the current trends are.

Fortunately, the vast majority of [social media reviews] are positive, but we literally serve over 1,000 people per day, so even if you had one-tenth of 1 percent [writing a bad review], you’d get one bad one a day. And we respond to those. Sometimes that makes a difference and sometimes it doesn’t matter, and there’s nothing you can do.

We’re super thoughtful and conservative about our expansion. I mean, the first Daniel’s opened in 1980. The next one opened in 1989 and the third one opened in 2000. The one in the new Hyatt Regency opened in 2018. We don’t grow very fast.

You don’t have much of a margin for error. It’s such a small-margin business, and if you’re off just a little bit, it can be the difference between being profitable and not profitable. Restaurants are very capital-intensive.

I'm not sure that when some of this legislation gets passed that the intention was to have as much of an impact on our kinds of businesses as it does.

I’m not the guy who’s making everything happen. I’m playing my role in this period of time, and I have two brothers who are also involved, Danny and Derek. And what’s super cool is my sister’s two sons are both working at Daniel’s Bellevue, so they’re now the third generation.

We have more than a hundred employees who’ve been with us for over 15 years. That’s rare in this industry.

I’m a sushi guy. I go to Sushi Kashiba in the Market. I like Wild Ginger a lot. I probably sit down and have a meal once a week in our restaurants.

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