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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.



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