Juliet owner: ‘Fine dining was something of a trap’


Highlights

What was originally Juliet Ristorante is now known as Juliet Italian Kitchen.

The conversion, which forced the restaurant to close for two weeks, had a total cost of around $100,000.

Dan Wilkins is willing to admit he made a mistake. A very costly one, too.

The owner of what was originally Juliet Ristorante – but is now known as Juliet Italian Kitchen – opened a fine-dining restaurant on a stretch of Austin’s Barton Springs Road known for its casual quirkiness.

After 20 months in operation, Wilkins and his team decided they needed to make a pivot to reach a broader crowd, thus the name change. The menu was tweaked, as well, as was the décor to a lesser degree.

The conversion, which forced the restaurant to close for two weeks, had a total cost of around $100,000, Wilkins said.

“Our number of guests had just sort of reached a plateau and we couldn’t get beyond that,” he said. “Ultimately we decided that fine dining was something of a trap.”

Wilkins talked with the American-Statesman about the change and how it has been received by customers, new and old.

American-Statesman: As you worked to reshape the restaurant’s identity, what kind of research did you do?

Wilkins: We didn’t want to just be a special event or special occasion restaurant. We’d decided we wanted to do upscale casual, so we went to New York City, touring Italian eateries in Midtown.

There are a few holdovers, but the menu got a pretty extensive refresh, with dishes such as a 17-layer lasagna. Why was that?

A menu is like a restaurant’s resume. Our food was so complex and our Ristorante name was a mismatch for this street. It was hard to describe many of our dishes in a single sentence. People were saying, “What is this? What is this?” We set out to write a new menu built around classic Italian dishes – red-sauce Italian comfort dishes – testing them out initially as special features. We’d typically sell out of those special features by 8 or 8:30 p.m. That told us we were onto something. At most, we kept 10 percent of the old menu. We continue to make tweaks as needed.

What changes did you make to the décor?

We largely built on top of what was already done. We didn’t have to undo a lot. That’s why our turnaround was so quick. We were able to keep all our employees on the payroll during the switchover. Our décor before was award-winning, but it was starkly elegant. It was like walking into an Italian restaurant from the 1950s. Now, we’re a lot less elegant and a lot more friendly.

What other adjustments did you make?

We’ve teamed with a food delivery service and people love that. The previous menu was built in such a way that it couldn’t really be transported. We also teamed with (radio station) 98.9 KUTX for an occasional outdoor jazz series.

Tell us about your customer base. How has it changed?

We’ve really promoted the idea that we’re a family place. We’re seeing a lot more people in the 25-35 demographic. More families. More groups of older guests with their friends, too. We’re younger, older and more family-oriented. We used to see about 60 percent of our diners make reservations in advance. Now we’re seeing a lot more walk-ins.

What kind of customer reaction have you seen to the changes?

The response has been good. Our numbers have been great. At first, there was a little resistance to the changes, but we still have the same crowd. We kept all the regulars. They’ve transitioned over to the new menu.

How’d you get involved in the restaurant industry?

I came out of the tech industry and was really looking for something to throw myself into. I’ve always had an interest in the hospitality industry. Italian food, in particular … I fell in love with it.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Business

Regulators crack down on crypto firm using Obama clip filmed in Austin
Regulators crack down on crypto firm using Obama clip filmed in Austin

Cryptocurrency investments have lost much of their luster this year, but that doesn’t appear to have made some promoters any less brazen as they attempt to capitalize on the once-hot sector. Belize-based DGBK Ltd. — which has been marketing its crypto-related offerings using an unrelated 33-second video snippet of former President Barack...
Rebuilding South Congress: A status report on cranes, crews and ch-ch-changes
Rebuilding South Congress: A status report on cranes, crews and ch-ch-changes

Up and down South Congress Avenue, from just south of Riverside Drive to Milton Street, the signs of change are everywhere. A number of projects that started construction in the past year or so are well underway and new ones are being added to the mix on one of Austin's signature streets. The newcomers will include the new flagship store for Kendra...
Austin’s economy topped U.S. metro areas in growth in 2017
Austin’s economy topped U.S. metro areas in growth in 2017

If it hasn’t been obvious from the construction cranes, real estate prices and traffic congestion, some new federal data illustrates the magnitude of the Austin area’s economic boom. The local economy grew by 6.9 percent in 2017, making the Austin-Round Rock region the fastest-growing large metro area in the country last year in terms of...
These are the 5 most popular Austin neighborhoods to rent an apartment
These are the 5 most popular Austin neighborhoods to rent an apartment

Looking to move into a new ‘hood?  According to Apartment Guide, the five most popular Austin neighborhoods to rent an apartments are -- in order -- downtown, Riverside, Mueller, Clarksville and South Lamar. One of these things is not like the others (that is to say, one of the neighborhoods is actually below the average cost for...
TexHahn Media makes another deal, buying White Lion Interactive
TexHahn Media makes another deal, buying White Lion Interactive

A Central Texas advertising, marketing and interactive firm has made its second acquisition in less than a month. TexHahn Media said Tuesday that it bought Austin-based White Lion Interactive. Financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed. White Lion, which had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, was acquired in a competitive auction conducted...
More Stories