As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Dahl.
Chef Lisa Dahl is one of the country’s leading female chefs and restaurateurs who has pioneered the culinary scene in Sedona, Ariz. for more than 25 years. Dahl is the executive chef and CEO of five outstanding restaurants in Northern Arizona’s red rock country where she has earned international acclaim for Dahl & Di Luca Ristorante Italiano, Cucina Rustica, Pisa Lisa, Mariposa Latin Inspired Grill, and her newest, most-buzzed-about addition, Butterfly Burger, A Couture Burger Lounge.
After shedding her life in the Bay Area and a career in the fashion industry following the loss of her son Justin, Dahl sought healing and moved to Sedona, a town famous for its spiritual energy and restorative powers. Once settled, she unearthed her long-held passion for cooking, one that she and Justin shared. Honoring Justin’s memory is part of each of her restaurants.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
After the tragic murder of my son Justin, I sought healing and moved to Sedona, a town famous for its metaphysical energy and healing powers. Through my tragedy, I had the realization that if I was going to get back on my feet, I had to do something that brought me back into life’s daily rhythm to fulfill a higher good. Starting my life over again allowed me to reflect deeply on this and unearth a passion I once shared with my son — cooking. By immersing myself in the kitchen and working with my hands to create food that fed my soul, I began feeling the love that I had been missing. I was able to open my first restaurant, Dahl & Di Luca Ristorante Italiano in 1995, which I turned from a small, shuttered drive-through restaurant into one of Sedona’s most cherished fine dining establishments serving classic Italian dishes. As demand grew, I expanded my presence in Sedona by opening Cucina Rustica in 2003, followed by Pisa Lisa in 2013, Mariposa in 2015, and Butterfly Burger 2019.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take-aways’ you learned from that?
Well, it depends on what you call funny but — since I can laugh at it now, going into the restaurant business with my significant other at the time was tragically funny. The stories I could tell you of the day-to-day dramatic, tug-of-war might be humorous but at all costs, I would advise not doing it unless you have an iron-clad relationship. If not, it could be disastrous.
We would have epic fights in the kitchen over any little discussion; where deciding on the special could turn into World War III. One of the most ironic ones was us fighting over hiring our first employees in the kitchen. He wanted to nickel and dime the guy to the point that my mother, who was visiting, finally said: “Damn it, just hire him!” Now that cook is still with me as the chef de cuisine of our first restaurant, which makes him the longest-tenured chef in our company.
We truly could have been an award-winning reality show…lights, camera, action but where were the cameras when we needed them? You couldn’t make this stuff up; the drama was a daily occurrence that was inescapable. I dealt with situations like these and more for 10 years until I finally was able to buy my partner out. When I look back, it’s a miracle I survived this.
We were the stereotypical Lucy and Desi-type couple. We thought running a restaurant together would be romantic. Partnerships can sound good in theory but beware. To avoid the pain and suffering I endured, go it alone and build a strong support team that believes in you to collaborate with.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have been fortunate to have people who have been constant through the years of early struggle but, my boyfriend Scott, who I have now been with for 17 years, saw my ambition. He found an opportunity to confront my partner after witnessing a very troubling episode. Him standing up for me was the support that made the nonsense stop. Scott used his knowledge of technology and media to create a single-minded vision of me as a luxury brand. His vision coupled with my ambition took the company to the next level. I owe him for our brand recognition being where it is today.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When I started my company nearly 25 years ago, its vision and purpose were one and the same. For me, cooking and hospitality go hand in hand. I cooked to bring joy to others and to heal my heart from an unimaginable tragedy. I believe that turning my sorrow into other people’s joyful experiences would all the more be the healing for me.
The quote I live by is, “devoted to excellence, blessed by grace.” I feel that those six little words never lose their meaning. Had I ever been okay with just serving a good meal it never would have sufficed to what I have accomplished as a restauranteur. I want my guests to always feel the urge to return. Before the pandemic officially locked us down, we were on the threshold of serving 500,000 guests in 2020. When I think of how many lives we have touched by my dedication to the consistency of food and service, it staggers my mind.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
After buying out my partner I had to exhibit my strength and conviction to be taken seriously and keep the confidence of my team. Back then, there weren’t many respected women chefs; it was such a man’s world. My partner being a man had some great advantages over me at the time that I had to overcome in the eyes of my male-dominated kitchen staff.
It wasn’t always as easy as it might seem, because majority of the people who worked for me in the kitchen were macho and didn’t speak English, but I always spoke to them from the depth of my heart. They always knew that my being a perfectionist and caring so much that every day we must be the best that we can be was something that made me a leader in their eyes. They respected me for that and to this day that courage and sharing my life experience, laid the very foundation of Dahl Restaurant Group.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
When I opened my woodfired pizzeria, Pisa Lisa, I thought a lot about giving up in the first year. I worked so hard for so many years with my nose to the grindstone that I never realized that there were some members of our small town community who were downright cruel. I will be the first to admit that there were significant things I had to learn early on in the fast-casual sector of the business but, I was truly shocked to hear so many trivial and negative comments in our early days. I was surprised there were naysayers so petty that they resented the fact that I put my own name on the restaurant without knowing the story behind it. At this time, social media review websites were just taking off, and these could make or break a restaurant. We were receiving scathing reviews that made me truly wonder why I opened the restaurant in the first place. I swore, famous last words, that I would never open another restaurant in this town again.
Just when I was considering throwing in the towel, a friend of mine was relentlessly trying to get ahold of me to share a profound dream her son had recently had. Although he had never met my son, he dreamt that he went to Pisa Lisa and a golden-haired man was making the pizza. When the man turned around he felt that it was Justin, my late son. Justin told him with conviction, “Tell my mom that I am with her always and everything will be okay.” That was the turning point for me to stop feeling sorry for myself and pick myself up and make this thing work. I was determined to work there every single day from the kitchen to the front until we shifted our gears. Funny thing, on the eve of our first anniversary the once struggling concept surpassed one-million-dollars in business and was also voted the #1 Pizzeria is Sedona, which in a tourist town with multiple pizza concepts was a huge achievement for us.
Had that spiritual message not come through when it did, I don’t know that I would have had the inner strength needed to turn it around. For the record, we have been #1 every year since. I use that story to remind myself that when times are tough you just have to have thick skin and a strong determination to get through tough times.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most crucial role of a leader is to just be human. If your humanity shines through; people will know that you have conviction for your core values. They want to follow a leader who stands for their beliefs. They need to know that you are one of them, and they expect me to be authentic, approachable, and accessible. If we do not demonstrate conviction and humility during hard times, how can we expect them to be accountable themselves? Everyone that works for me has always known that our very foundation has been built on the love that I have for my son and that they are dedicated to his legacy he has left. There is a higher purpose to these restaurants beyond making money.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate, and engage their team?
The way I have kept morale up and continue to inspire is by being spontaneous, authentic, and real, even in adversity. I am very transparent which makes it easy to read my moods, good, bad, or, indifferent. I share my gratitude for small things as well as grand achievements. They know that I will be honest with them to a fault. I am told by my team that many are inspired by my work ethic, so much so that they try to emulate that in their day.
We are not a typical corporation where the CEO is sitting in an office. They see me daily in our restaurants and I think it has had a huge impact as they know I’m just like them in many ways.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
It’s important that one is not rushed in making decisions and instead, gathers as much information on a subject and discusses it with the core people on the corporate team.
We had to lay off 300 employees, then when we got the PPP loan we had to make a tough decision because many people would not be rehired. We were intent on only being able to bring back the most positive, responsible, and the best team players. It was very uncomfortable being in that position but the process of re-interviewing everyone made us so much stronger in the long run. If ever there has been a time in all these years of being a restaurateur this has made every hurdle in the past seem like child’s play. Being able to communicate the reality and uncertainty of things that you have very little control over is where your humility is all you have to stand on. You have nothing to lose in difficult times when your integrity is wrapped in truth.
To communicate difficult news is the reality of being a business owner, especially in the hospitality industry. Over the years I have found the only right way to do this is to be humble. Gather all of the facts, be clear, and be concise. I can’t tell you how many times I have diffused difficult situations when we have been at fault by just getting the courage to be honest with a guest or employee. There is no need to run or hide when you are coming from the truth.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
A leader can make plans when the future is so unpredictable by strengthening the relationships with all of those you do business with. Not only are restaurants going through these changes but every vendor we work with is struggling as well. By looking for opportunities to pivot your business you can create exciting new endeavors that might not have revealed themselves in comfortable times.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Rely on those whose experience is equal or greater than your own and share collective thoughts of others on your core team. By doing so, you’ll reveal a wealth of strategies other people have used in situations that were beyond their control in the past.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Many owners get caught up in fear or survival mode and forget to use their intuitive processes.
- Many owners continue to do the same old, same old, and don’t identify areas of opportunity that can create alternative revenue streams. It’s easy to get caught up in the negative condition of a situation and although hard at times, I always try to find a positive way to pivot outside of the norm. Accentuating the positive things that make your company and your brand what it’s known for will all the more make you rise above others who don’t have a specific understanding of what their brand is and their customer’s wants.
- During difficult times it’s not always a good idea to reinvent who you are because that can throw off your customer base. They’re looking for the identity and strength of the brand, even if that means that we have to shrink our product lines to streamline efficiency. It makes you look even more focused.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
These are the strategies we use to stay successful in turbulent times by taking an innovative and fresh approach to the way we did business:
- When dining rooms were closed, we pivoted to curbside operations and reduced our menu offerings to get rid of fringe items and focused on commodity items to funnel our cash flow to where it was most needed.
- I worked with our Social Media Director to communicate with our guests where we were while consolidating resources internally.
- I worked with the team around me to shrink labor by consolidating similar jobs to one highly skilled person as opposed to three individual positions. For example, one top-notch salaried Chef versus three hourly line cooks equal a higher efficiency and lower outpour.
- We let go of employees who were marginal and nonperformers in the past and hired with the intention to come back stronger when we opened fully.
- We continued to work on creative projects to provide fiscal stimulus, using negotiation tools to make business decisions in the long run.
- We continued to network and support our community the best way we can.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- When you have five different brands under one umbrella, I have to treat it as if I have five children. No two restaurants are alike so you need to weigh them individually. When Arizona went into lockdown, there were so many decisions to be made. We had to let go of 80% of our employees, which was one of the most difficult things I had to do. To stay afloat, we opened a new business platform called Dahl-to-Door to provide food to those guests that were stuck at home and to help us keep the long-tenured employees working during those times. Our second line of defense was a curbside pickup, using our two casual concept restaurants which helped bring in revenue to keep employees while we figured out our next move.
- I reached a certain point in my business that I knew I needed help, high-level mentoring, and guidance. Growing a business the way that we were was like a snowball effect. We were rapidly growing but that meant the focus was not being put into all the small details. We were at the point where many small businesses fail. They look great from the outside but on the inside, they do not have the business infrastructure to keep going at that pace. I knew I needed financial and operational support.
I couldn’t get rid of the little voice inside of me telling me that despite being told we couldn’t afford to hire these leaders to help us, but I knew we couldn’t afford not to. I pushed ahead with this and found a Human Resources Director and COO who knew the industry and could help us define the infrastructure we needed. An entrepreneur needs to be able to listen to their gut feeling because some advisors, not for ill intent, may have a cautious side that can delay decisions if you don’t know how to still hear your own voice. I never knew what human resources was when I started my little business. Now, who would think we’d grow a company to five brands that would reach a 20-million-dollar apex and still be run like a mom-and-pop.
I now have a great group of collective minds together working in my corporate office including a Marketing/Media Director, Social Media Director, HR Director, COO, and many others that provided the structure I’ve never had before. Previously, I ran my businesses with my ability to generate guest experiences, now we have both which makes us stronger than ever before.
- Many people have passion, but without action, passion is just a word. People will follow you for your passion but they will stick with you when you take actions to show that your labor of love is well-intended. I have always known my limitations and I honestly try to grow every day. You have to be passionate enough about your beliefs and ideas to put yourself out there. People can sense if you are disingenuous. Restaurants and small business owners like me especially are at high risk for this. My passion is what sets me apart. I did not start any of my restaurants with the mission to make a profit. I did it to share my love of cooking with simple ingredients and provide an unforgettable dining experience. People know that about me, which is why they follow me through dining with us or working at our restaurants.
- Now that we have opened our restaurants back up within social distancing guidelines, we’re hiring back a large percentage of our labor force. We’ve taken to using intentional and intensive hiring practices to have a great team to invest in. There is no limit to the investment of time in the interviewing process because the more time you invest the more you have secured success when they begin.
- With over 300 employees, my executive team thought it was ridiculous that I wanted to have a face-to-face interviewing process or at least meet with every person we hire from dishwashers to managers. This step is vital in building a strong family foundation and a sense of unity throughout our workplace culture. I realize if I own a chain of over 500 units this practice would not be possible in this way, but in saying that I would still have a connection through video conferencing, unit visits, and educational videos to keep that strong chef-owner connection going so people will know that we care. We are not a cookie-cutter. There is a unique job for every individual that has a passion for culinary arts. When I meet people I can sometimes find qualities in them that could be a perfect fit for a unique position that benefits everyone. My ability to connect with my employees is the reason I am where I am today.
- You can never underestimate the power of your guests. In any aspect of business, you cannot judge a book by its cover. Everyone has heard this phrase, but in the hospitality industry, you never know who is going to walk through the door. Every encounter leads to the possibility of a guest who will be a faithful patron for years to come.
- The stories I learn from interacting with guests is indescribable as my mission has always been in the hospitality aspect of this business. I have been guided to meet certain people and many times, their words or actions have turned around my thinking. I’ve always felt that I was building my business one guest at a time and now after serving millions of people through my five restaurants, it’s still the excitement that gets me wanting to go into the restaurants every single night.
At Dahl Restaurant Group, it’s our mission to convey in the first 30 seconds a warm and sincere welcome. I disdain, cold and lackluster welcomes because the first impression can make or break the entire guest experience. I grew up in a different kind of service business, my parent’s clothing stores, and let’s face it, hospitality is a service, and if you don’t enjoy it then it will show. We have built an empire that was not the intention to build. It shows you that when you put hospitality at the highest level, one guest at a time, you just might find the secret formula to success. Which goes to show that every encounter matters when it comes to serving people.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote is simple, the golden rule; “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” It provides us the daily opportunity of learning, especially in this particular industry when the lessons can often be painful. Every day we need to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes for another level of understanding, which is easier said than done. There are times when the stresses take over and if we can remember the simplicity of trying to be kind to others when life is hard it will make such a difference.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Facebook: Lisa Dahl, Sedona