Letting go is key
From Northwoods Commerce magazine
By Timmi Eckes, Living on the Lake editor
On a recent winter morning, a scene familiar to generations of people in Rhinelander is being played out. Wait staff moves among the tables in the Rhinelander Café and Pub as diners converse over breakfast and the smell of coffee wafts through the air. Over the chatter of customers and the clink of silverware on plates, the restaurant’s owner visits with regulars sitting at the counter.
The iconic Pub has been a cornerstone of Rhinelander’s dining scene for more than a century, and considering the restaurant’s long history, the man who currently owns the restaurant, Mark Gutteter, is a relative newcomer. Taking a seat at a table in a quiet corner of the restaurant, Gutteter recalls that when he bought the place in 2006, “The biggest concern was that I would screw up people’s favorite restaurant.”
Fans of the Pub needn’t have feared. Changes have been subtle: an updated menu with an expanded salad selection, for example, and additional pasta dishes are offered. To all outward appearances, the Pub remains as it has been for years, although Gutteter notes that a renovation is in the planning stages. “I think the general consensus is that I’m not going to ruin anything,” he says.
The restaurant business has a reputation for being demanding, and one might naturally wonder how Gutteter – who owns no less than five establishments – handles it all.
The key ingredients, it seems, are experience, great employees and knowing how to get along with people.
As a longtime restaurateur and someone who has been in the business since his youth, Gutteter has a pretty good idea of what works. When talking with him, it’s evident that relationships are crucial to the way he does business – relationships with employees, customers and communities.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, particularly to people who tend to micromanage, one of the ways Gutteter ensures success at his restaurants is by relinquishing a certain amount of control.
“I’m very willing to let go to a certain extent,” says Gutteter, who describes his management style as collaborative. “I’ve worked very closely with my core staff for a long time.”
Hiring great employees, ensuring that they know their jobs, trusting them to do those jobs well and then backing off a little frees Gutteter to focus on the big picture – to work on his business rather than in it, as the saying goes. “I’ve got a management team in each restaurant and they’re responsible for their business.” In addition, a director of operations and a bookkeeper help Gutteter oversee the restaurants. “We’re able to monitor the financial performance on a daily, weekly, monthly basis,” he explains.
Well aware that high-caliber employees are key to success, Gutteter looks for a crucial trait when hiring: “A positive attitude is very important to me,” he says. “The hard skills, we’re able to teach those.”
Gutteter’s own career in the restaurant industry began while he was in his teens. His parents expected him to attend college, and he says he was in and out of college two or three times before earning a degree. A great deal of his business sense and knowledge of the restaurant industry, however, came to him on the job.
Before Gutteter carved his own path as an entrepreneur, he learned about the restaurant business while working for others. For a time, he managed a Burger King restaurant in the Twin Cities. But he knew he was cut out for bigger things and ultimately he decided he wanted to be his own boss. In 1991 he and his wife purchased a small restaurant in Ashland. It was the first of several he would own in northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Many of his employees, incidentally, have been with him for a number of years.
“I think part of it is that I’m able to relate to a lot of people,” he says and launches into a story about his stint with Burger King in the Twin Cities. Some of the employees there were, to put it politely, known to the police. In fact, one of those employees was a car thief. Gutteter had been honored as an exemplary manager at the restaurant and as a reward, the company provided a new car for him to use. The car thief, as it turned out, had a pretty high opinion of Gutteter, assuring him, “Don’t worry, Mark. I would never take your car.”
Relationships with customers are also an important part of Gutteter’s way of doing business. “I love my crew and I love my customers,” he says.
“Customer feedback is always appreciated. We solicit it and we use it to guide us. Even though we’re a large business, we’re still a small business. I would rather make a nickel per customer day after day after day than make a dollar on a customer and only do it one time.
“To be successful in business is very easy,” he continues. “You give the customer what they want, profitably.”
Gutteter also makes an impression in the communities in which he does business. In 2005, he was honored in Ashland as Person of the Year for his involvement with several organizations in that community. “That was a surprise and quite an honor,” he recalls.
“I am, behind the scenes, very supportive of a lot of nonprofit organizations.” His support may take the form of donated or discounted food provided for events, and time that he volunteers. In any case, he’s known for giving back generously to the communities in which his restaurants are located – Ashland, Superior, Ironwood, Mich., and Rhinelander.
“More and more,” he says, “my life is centered in Rhinelander.” When Gutteter moved to this area, he became involved with the chamber of commerce for a couple of years. He then became involved with Downtown Rhinelander Inc. and is finishing up a two-year term as president of that organization.
“I love being in the heart of our downtown,” he says, “and I see there’s an opportunity to enhance the downtown area with this business.”
Words to the wise…
More than two decades of restaurant ownership have taught Mark Gutteter a great deal about how to run a business. Below, he shares some of that knowledge with other entrepreneurs and with those who are thinking of going into business.
• “Be prepared to work hard,” he says. “If you take the plunge to be in business for yourself, put the business first.” That means before everything else. “If you don’t take care of the business, you can’t take care of anyone else.”
• Running a business is much different from being an employee, he notes. A business owner must understand not only customer service, but also accounting, marketing and the many other facets of business ownership.
• Develop a solid business plan and get input on it from someone knowledgeable.
• Learn from others’ mistakes. “Learn as much as you can about the business before you enter it yourself by working for other people,” Gutteter says.
• Set aside some down time. Gutteter now typically puts in 10- to 12-hour days, although he says it doesn’t always seem like work. Still, business ownership requires a lot of energy and a lot of time. “If I’m not on vacation,” he says, “I’m working.” As a longtime business owner, he has found that it’s important to guard against burnout. “Your energy level and your passion for it do ebb and flow over time. You need to take some time off and do some other things outside of work.”
• Finally, an entrepreneur who wants his or her business to be successful must have a passion for it. “If you really love it, that will come through in the product or service that you provide,” Gutteter says. “There’s an incredible opportunity in our country to make your own way and find your own path.”