[Photo: Nikki Mayeux]
Superbly camouflaged among a dining room forest of verdant chairs in his green seersucker suit, Max Ortiz, general manager and co-owner of Root, moves across the restaurant's floor with the purpose and intensity of a prowling jungle cat, a metaphor that suddenly becomes all the more apt when one imagines Ortiz weaving alertly through a hungry late-night crowd well after neighboring restaurants have shuttered their windows and re-set their tables. With 15 years of experience in the industry, Ortiz, along with noted hot chef and co-owner Philip Lopez, knows exactly what he's doing, and wastes few words explaining Root's strategy for capitalizing on its popularity as a destination for restaurant workers throughout New Orleans?basically, keep improving. Sensitive to the whims of social media, Ortiz explains that one of his main goals as GM is to make sure patrons are posting and tweeting good things about Root even before they get up from their tables, a strategy that, in wake of a spring of positive press, seems to be paying dividends.
Root has had a lot positive buzz recently. Has business been booming as a result?
Yeah, business definitely picked up after the initial review from the Times-Picayune. There was a noticeable jump when it came out. It was pretty exciting. I was actually at the Flora-Bama for a buddy's bachelor party, and I drove back on Friday when the review came out because my phone was going nuts from all the new reservations. We were using Urban Spoon as a reservation system at the time, and I would get an email notification every time someone made a web reservation. The phone was just going off and off, so I figured it was time to get back to work.
You guys have also been a pretty big hit with chefs and other service industry people. Does that increase the pressure to be on top of your game every night?
Not really because, from the get-go, when Chef [Philip Lopez] talked about opening this place, we wanted it to be a late-night spot and we wanted to focus on the service industry. Being in this business for about 15 years now, I can tell you when I get off of work, I'm always hungry and I want to get something to drink. We can cater to that crowd. There are so many good restaurants in this area?you have Herbsaint, Cochon, La Boca, and Rio Mario, all within walking distance of here. And it doesn't hurt that Red Eye and the Republic are within walking distance. So there's always people walking around late at night wanting to get something to eat, and we figured, why not target that audience? If you were in Chicago, New York, and Miami and you wanted something to eat, you could make a reservation for one in the morning. Nowhere in this city was doing that, so we figured we might as well be the first ones to fill that void for the late-night dining crowd. And you get people who come into town to visit and a lot of times the flight won't get in till 11:30, that gets you in the hotel room at 12:15/12:30, they're hungry, they want something to eat, but half the time they're out of luck. They're stuck eating out of the vending machine. We figured we'll go ahead and try to cater to that crowd as much as possible.
That's a pretty big void in a city known for its nightlife.
Exactly, that's what I mean. I grew up here and you can walk around with a cocktail at any point of any day and no one looks at you differently at all, but for some reason, you can't go get something to eat late at night. I've been to Camellia Grill and Trolley Stop Café as much as the next guy. I lived off of those places in college, but I feel like for upper echelon food and more quality there's nothing, there's a void. Hopefully more people will start following our lead and open up some more restaurants for late night dining.
Has competition with all these other Warehouse District restaurants helped or hindered your business?
It's competitive, but on the same time I think competition makes everyone better and I love the fact that we're surrounded by so many great restaurants. I've spent more money at La Boca in the past three years than anybody, and I love having them down here. It definitely keeps us on our toes, and I'm not limiting it to them?Cochon, Cochon Butcher, Herbsaint, all those guys are in our area so we have to be at our best at all times to stay with them. You don't want to fall behind anybody, I think competition is a good thing for us. I don't want to be the only restaurant on the block. I like it where there are many options. People have options, so if they choose us then we're obviously doing something right.
Have you noticed people coming in from all over town and sort of making a point of going to Root as a destination restaurant?
We get a lot of people who live in the area. I live a block and a half away, and a lot of my neighbors and a lot of people who live in the area come to the restaurant and check us out, but we know these people who are old regulars from August when we were there, or other places we've all worked. We notice some of those regulars are starting to migrate over here. There are definitely people coming from the North Shore, and some coming from Baton Rouge or Lafayette, so we're getting a good crowd. It's a good mix. The convention crowds get us at lunch time. If there's a big convention in town in the first couple halls?A, B or C?they'll get us and we'll get mobbed. It's like 80 people all at once, but it's mainly a lunch crowd with conventions. Nighttime is predominately locals, which is what we want. We want to cater to the locals first and foremost, have them coming back. The convention guys are in town for a week and then they're gone, so we want to make sure we have the local support more than anything else.
What's your busiest time? Can I even hope to get a table as a 7:00 pm walk-in on Friday or Saturday night?
With Fridays and Saturdays, it's pretty tough to just walk in. During the week between 7 and 9 is a pretty tough set of tickets too, even with it being summertime like it is now. We thought it would slow down because, traditionally in restaurants, especially in this area, everything slows down because it's so hot?tourism slows down. But June was one of our best months so far and we didn't notice any drop off and hopefully July will be the same.
What are you looking for when you hire waitstaff?
As far as waitstaff, knowledge and desire for more knowledge are the most important traits we look for. A lot of these guys we've worked with in the past, so they were hand-selected to come work here. They need to have a thirst for more knowledge. If people are looking just to show up, take an order, plug it in to the computer and then collect their money at the end of the night, it's not going to work out here. There's a very select breed of server that can work here. It's not for everyone. We place such a demand on the servers as far as food knowledge, wine knowledge, beer knowledge and cocktail knowledge that people can fall behind fast and it can be intimidating for new people. Chef's always working on new dishes, and we have a brand new amuse every night. We do a second amuse every night, pre-desserts, everything. The pressure's always on. You just have to have people who are willing to put in the work. This is a place where you have to put in work when you're not at work. I think a lot of our guys go home and Google terms they're not familiar with. They'll go do some research on styles of cuisine to make sure they're on top of it. This is a very, very high-maintenance place to work and you have to be on your toes at all times. I don't want someone working for me if they're not going to give it 110% when they're here. It's not fair to Chef, it's not fair to me.
So have you refined your front-of-house service?
I don't think you ever really truly get it right. You can always be better than you were the day before, and that's the focus here. I don't want any type of complacency to set in with anyone, whether it's me, my managers, bartenders, servers or food runners?it doesn't matter. Every day you have to be just searching to get better. The second you feel like you've arrived, that's when you're going to start slipping. That's when someone else will just jump in and take your customer away from you. Nowadays, there are so many restaurants, so many options to choose from. I feel that if people have a sub-par dining experience, that might be it. They'll just say, "You know what, that wasn't that good. We're not going back." You always have to be better than you were the day before.
Especially with the glut of social media. Word spreads pretty quickly.
It's definitely not like it was when I started doing this back in the '90s. Nowadays, someone can send out a tweet or put a status update on Facebook and say, "Just had a horrible experience at this restaurant, definitely don't go check it out," and then someone retweets it or you get twenty comments on it saying, "Thanks for the update, I guess I won't check it out now, I was thinking about it." Back in the day, it took so much longer for word of mouth to travel, but now, it's instantaneous. Somebody could be just sitting here at the table and send out a tweet and 500 people see it, so before they even leave the restaurant and you have a chance to redeem yourself, game, set, match?you're done.
I imagine, though, that it cuts the other way as well.
Oh definitely?that's the upside. We don't pay for advertising. We don't go through the Gambit, we don't go through any of those other places. We're strictly social media and word of mouth, so I think that works to our advantage for the most part. The best thing is seeing people taking pictures of the food and sending them through Facebook or Twitter. It's really rewarding to see that because that means we're doing something right. There's that "wow" factor to it, and people want to show other people what they're eating. I check Twitter and Facebook every day. I go check out the message boards and just try to keep tabs on what's going on to see if anyone has any comments about their experience here. It's just constant research about what's going on.
Any downsides to the late hours?
To be honest with you, I love it. We're here to challenge ourselves every day, and part of that is doing something that no one else does: two o'clock in the morning. We are very determined to never close early. Nothing makes me angrier than going to a restaurant and they say they're open until 11, and you show up at 10:20 and they say, "Oh, well, we were slow so we closed early tonight." I hate that, so we will never do that. Obviously with a late-night crowd certain challenges present themselves?people come in from other places and have a few drinks in them, so it can be a fun crowd. We can kind of let loose a little bit the later it gets. We'll change the music up a little bit, make it a little livelier. We're always here to have a good time with the guests. We want everyone that walks in here to walk out happier than when they came in.
Every guest is unique, so that's the biggest challenge, just being able to read what they're looking for and tailor the experience to make sure they have a good time. It's challenging, but we wouldn't have done it if we didn't like it and believe in it. Chef and I are night owls, we're creatures of the night, so it works out for us. We figure we're going to be here anyway. I live a block and a half away, so a lot of the time at the end of the shift when I'm done for the night I want to hang out for a little longer, and inevitably people come in that we know and we have a couple drinks with them and just have a good time. It's a really fun environment, especially late-night when we see the place full and it's not noisy but there's a good vibe about it. It's just a lot of fun.
Anything to add?
We're just trying to get better and better every day, and fine tune the service as much as possible. We have very specific goals in mind for what we want to accomplish, and so far we've been fortunate enough to check them off one by one, but we've got some high hopes and big dreams for the coming year, so hopefully things will work out. It's very exciting.