Episode 14: Tony Sawyer with Bob’s Downtown Diner

Transcript:

Welcome to podcast episode number 14 of the Mobile Alabama Business Podcast with Tony Sawyer.  My name is Marcus Neto.  I own Blue Fish, a digital marketing and web design company based on mobile.  I'm the host of Mobile Alabama Business Podcast where we talk to local entrepreneurs and business owners about their businesses and how they got started.  I'd like to thank you for spending time with me today.  

In today's show I sit down with Tony Sawyer of Bob's Downtown Diner.  We talk about what makes Bob's unique, how Tony got started in the food services industry and what he would want as his last meal.  So let's dive right in with Tony Sawyer.

Marcus: Today I'm sitting down with Tony Sawyer.  Tony is the owner of Bob's Downtown Diner. Welcome to the podcast, Tony.

Tony:  Thank you very much. I'm glad to be here.

Marcus:  I've been looking forward for this interview. I am a food nut. I don't like using the term “foodie” because I think there are some negative connotations that come along with that, but I have a deep appreciation for what you do.  In my spare time, I will confess that I love just spending time in the kitchen, experimenting with various recipes and stuff like that, so when I had the chance to eat at your establishment and tasted the food, I was really excited when you came in one day to corner you and get you to agree to come on the podcast...

Tony:  Well I appreciate that.

Marcus:  I think you're doing an awesome job.

Tony:  What was your first impression of the food when you tasted it?

Marcus:  My first impression was I wanted to smack my momma.  

[both laughing]

Tony:  That's good.

Marcus:  No. I joke, but the first thing I had was the Country Fried Steak, which was excellent and we just ate there, and I had the Zydeco pasta, which I immediately made Tad (Ward), one of the guys that works for me, try because the sauce on that was just amazing.  I think you're doing an excellent job, I think a week or so ago I came in and I got one of the rosemary biscuits.

Tony:  Yeah.

Marcus:  Which by the way, if you're listening to this and you haven't been in and you go in, make sure that whatever you get has a biscuit on it, because if I remember correctly, you were given...

Tony:  A Nappy.

Marcus:  Yeah.  Nappy Award for your biscuits.

Tony:  Right.  Nominated for these biscuits.

Marcus:  Nominated.  Rightfully so because they are amazing.  It made me do some research on Google to find biscuit recipes and one of these weekends I intend on sitting down and trying to, not replicate because I don't know that I can do that, but try and get a decent biscuit recipe, you know, something like that.

Tony:  You know biscuits, just like anything else, that if you think that you want something in there and made it into a biscuit, the rosemary or jalapeno or cheddar or something else.  You can just incorporate it there and bake it in the oven and then it comes out and just adds some other flavor to it and just something different that nobody else is doing.

Marcus:  Right. Yeah. The rosemary was a pleasant surprise.  I never had that before, so that was really cool.  Before we get too deep into these, because I wanna dive into that a little bit more, tell us a little bit about yourself.  Are you a native of this area or...?

Tony:  I am not a native of the area. I grew up in St. Augustine, Florida.

Marcus:  Okay.

Tony:  I moved over to Orange Beach/Gulf Shores area in 1995, worked for my father at his restaurant, for 18 years.

Marcus:  You wanna get down from Gulf Shores.

Tony:  King Neptune Restaurant in Gulf Shores.  I went to the school of Hard Knocks.  A lot of people were not familiar with the school Hard Knocks, but that's the way I grew up.

Marcus:  Yup.  

Tony:  Learn it as you go.  Everything that he has ever done is always been from scratch.  He is the king of seafood.  So my recipe book, I guess maybe 300 plus pages of recipes, scratch cooking.  So growing up in the business has made me keep things simple as far as the food goes. If you get back to the roots or in the deep south, so what not Southern cooking.  It's what I grew up on from my grandparents, my father, my mother is just good home cooking food.  If you keep it simple, to me...

Marcus:  It tastes amazing.

Tony:  Right.

Marcus:  Yeah.

Tony:  Yeah.

Marcus:  Who doesn't love country fried steak with mashed potatoes and gravy.

Tony:  Right.

Marcus:  I mean, I can eat that every week.  I won't say everyday, because I'm getting a little old, but I can eat that every week.

Tony:  Yeah.  So do with the tomato, onion gravy, too, which is really good.

Marcus:  Interesting.

Tony:  Yeah.

Marcus:  I know that you care a lot more about the food than your average restaurant, I know that because when I went in the very first time, the person that waited on me said that I will try the pickle beats and I like a good roasted bit but I never had pickled beats before and they were excellent and I asked, did you all make these here?  And she said "yes".  I was like, anybody cares enough to actually go to the process of pickling beats?  Then they really, they're not just in these to turn tables.  They're in these because you actually care about the craft of...

Tony:  Well it's not, you know, pickling beats, what you tasted was basically oil, vinegar, salt pepper, sugar, sugar to dilate and dilute the vinegary taste.

Marcus:  Uhuh.

Tony:  And onions.  Just mix it up, put it in your bits and let them soak.

Marcus:  Yeah. You make it sound so easy. [laughing]

Tony:  It is. It really is.

Marcus:  Sure.

Tony:  Keep it simple. 

Marcus:  Right.

Tony:  Keep things simple when you cook, which your imagination can think up.  If you put it in the ways they don't, as far as food, you've just created something.

Marcus:  Right.

Tony:  That's how the chefs create new recipes and new dishes. I wonder what these would taste like.

Marcus:  Right.

Tony:  When they do it, it's either gonna taste amazing or it's gonna taste like you know...

Marcus:  Doo-doo [laughing]

Tony:  And then if it doesn't taste right you keep going until it tastes...

Marcus:  Yeah.

Tony:  The flavor profiles for what you want.

Marcus:  It's an iterative development process as we would say in the tech world.

Tony:  Yeah.

Marcus:  So you mentioned you went to the school of Hard Knocks.  How long have you been doing this?

Tony:  25 years.  I've been in these business 25 years.

Marcus:  Wow.

Tony:  You know, started out washing dishes, like everybody does in the restaurant business. You got to wash dishes and learn how to cook.  I've been fortunate enough to cook with some of the great chefs down on the gulf coast.  My thought process behind it is, I wanna be as good, if not better, than that person.  

Marcus:  Yeah.

Tony:  And I work for it.  To be the best, you can't settle for anything less than your desire to succeed in life.  Whether it's been a chef or doing what you do.  You’ve just got to push yourself each and everyday to get better and to learn more.  As I was growing up in the school of Hard Knocks, as I call it, I work with a lot of great chefs, younger, older, and I would think, “Man, I can be better than that person.”

Marcus:  Yeah. An old thinking mean that in, well, you know, they're crummy or whatever, it's more like they're awesome.

Tony:  Right.

Marcus:  And I'm gonna work as hard as I need to be, it's a self driven kind of principle versus...

Tony:  Correct.

Marcus:  I'm looking at them on the downturn nose or something along those lines.

Tony:  Right. The three D's: Desire, Dedication, Determination.

Marcus:  Wow.  

Tony:  You know, you've got to have that in order to succeed.  Cause in this business, just like any owner of the business, no matter what it is, you're the judge, jury and executioner.  Right, wrong, or indifferent.  You've got to make those decisions on what you wanna do and how you wanna go about doing things.

Marcus:  Correct me if I'm wrong with that can be, you can use that to drive everything from whether you're gonna send that plate that you just put together out, which may or may not have been your best work, or what you put on the menu and whether that is what the restaurant stands for.

Tony:  Right. Like I tell everybody that works for me, before you send it out, make sure it's picture perfect.  So if you want that to go out, somebody take a picture and put it on social media these days, make it to where it looks good.  Where when you see it in that picture, you go, 'Umm that looks good, man".

Marcus:  Yeah.

Tony:  And you eat. 

Marcus:  You eat with all your senses.

Tony:  Well. Okay. So let's bring that up.

Marcus:  Yeah.

Tony:  How many senses do yo have?  What's the way, how do you eat?

Marcus:  Well immediately I wanna, visually I want to see something that looks good, like you're mentioning.  I don't know how much hearing comes in the play, but if it's steak obviously, the sell the sizzle saying from advertising way back when the steak comes out and it's sizzling, there was some romancing of that but also your nose, you want it to smell good.  Obviously, taste good.

Tony:  Taste good.  So that's the three senses when you eat.

Marcus:  Right.

Tony:  Looks good, it must be good.  If smells good, it's gonna be good.

Marcus:  It's gonna be good.

Tony:  By the time it get's to that third sense, taste buds, guess what?

Marcus:  Yeah. It's a home run.

Tony:  It's gonna taste the way you want it to taste and vice versa if doesn't look good and it doesn't smell good, it's not gonna taste good.

Marcus:  Yeah.

Tony:  I don't know about as far as the hearing part cause I'm not a...

Marcus:  Yeah.

Tony:  My hearing is not that great, so

Marcus:  It may not come into play so much but--

Tony:  But definitely the visual effect has to be there.

Marcus:  Tell us from your perspective, what is unique about your restaurant.  About Bob's?

Tony:  It's definitely a unique restaurant.  One is what the way it looks, old 50's style diner. The look.  You walk inside and you got to checkered floors and a big, it's all bar, there is no tables there.  It's all bar, so that's definitely different than what you run into. The food, it's different because I make it with love.

Marcus:  Yeah.

Tony:  Yeah.  It's the passion that I have and I think that is different than everybody else.  My hamburgers are hand patted, hand formed hamburgers, not hamburger patty that comes in frozen.  Everything I do is made from scratch.  

Marcus:  You using your fresh ingredients than obviously too, if you're not using...

Tony:  Use fresh ingredients, right.

Marcus:  Yeah.

Tony:  If you're come into my house, I'm old featured my house and the way that I see it, restaurants in my house, I live there, put in over a hundred hours a week, so I want it to be the best that I can produce.

Marcus:  So you say you wanna go into the food service industry, boys and girls.  Did you just hear him say “a hundred hours a week”.  

Tony:  Yeah.

Marcus:  You might want to re think it must you're very passionate about what it is that they do there.  Yeah.  I know it's a very hard industry. You have to really want to be in that kitchen.  I mean often times it's hot, it's moving at a blistering pace, there's a certain expectation of minimal movement.  You don't want people wasting a lot of energy making the food and stuff like that.

Tony:  Right.

Marcus:  I think it's pretty neat to watch.

Tony:  A lot of cuts, a lot of burns.

Marcus:  Yeah.

Tony:  You know, grease burns, pan burns, pan’s hot coming a lot.  It's just something you'll get used to.

Marcus:  So, I'll give you just a slight tangent, when I was growing up I actually worked my tail off in a bagel bakery.  I grew up in Washington, in Washington, DC area. There was a place there called the Chesapeake Bagel Bakery.  So I worked my way up to much like you're describing now. I started out washing dishes and learn how to do that correctly and they let me work out front with prepping food for customers and then finally they had me mixing the dough and then from there I worked into the baking position.  Which is you can imagine in a bagel bakery, the baking position is something that is not, you don't just walk in one day and start doing that.

Tony:  Right.

Marcus:  But you mentioned, burning. The ovens for bagels are probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 degrees.  Okay, and the very first thing you do is put the bagels upside down on these metal contraption that has what is the same material that fire hoses are made out of and it's wet, so you put the bagels upside down on that fire hose material and then you stick on into the oven. They go around for two rotations, you reach into the hot oven, grab onto these thing that's been in there for a couple of minutes and flip these bagels over.  But what it does is there's a corn meal residue on the bottom and it gets hot enough to where when you flip the bagels over they don't actually stick to the oven. I can’t tell you how long it took me to get the blisters and the sensitivity warm down on my hands to where that that didn't just like kill me everyday I went in, but I know exactly what you're talking about cause it's not an easy thing. You mentioned to us how you got started in the food services industry but you didn't talk to us about how long Bob's has been around and is this your first restaurant or?

Tony:  It's the first restaurant that I own.  We've been here now for 8 months on the corner of St. Francis and Jackson Street, 263 St. Francis.  Bob's downtown restaurant.  Cute little diner on the corner, you can't miss these.  I've got 2 big american flags hanging on each corner of the building.

Marcus:  There's a picnic table out front.

Tony:  Two picnic tables.  Right.  Hopefully we're gonna add more. The more money that we can save and generate, the more that I'm just gonna buy and freshen up the place.

Marcus:  Yeah.

Tony:  Been there 8 months, home cooked lunch specials from 11-2, 20 items, starting at $5.95 such as chicken livers, over white rice with the chicken onion gravy.  This week we've got Salisbury steak, homemade Salisbury steak with a mushroom aus jus, and do tacos, whether it's a fish taco or shrimp taco.  I do hot dogs, hamburgers, seafood, shrimp, fried shrimp, grilled shrimp.  Thinking about adding boiled shrimp into that. Got some beautiful Ahi tuna in, try to keep that in rotation.  Mahi Mahi, fried, grilled or black and tuna I will not cook over medium.  So if you can come in to the restaurant, yes, well done tuna it's not gonna happen.  

Marcus:  [laughing]  You got standard too.

Tony:  Yeah.  I mean, I just can't destroy that fish that way.

Marcus:  Yeah.

Tony:  Hopefully people that order that know...

Marcus:  Right.

Tony:  The breakfast everyday.  7 am, breakfast.  Bacon, eggs, corned beef, hash and eggs, I do a french cut steak and eggs, I do shrimp and grits, fish and grits, smoked gouda cheese, I use a lot of that. Conecuh sausage.

Marcus:  So I just finished eating at your restaurant and now I'm hungry again.  It's not because you didn't serve us well, but I mentioned that I enjoy cooking and experimenting in the kitchen and stuff like that.  Do you have any advice to somebody like myself that enjoys doing that kind of thing, I mean...

Tony:  Advice that I've got to anybody out there is just to use your imagination.  And if you've eaten something that you want to try to duplicate or if you see, just have fun with it. Enjoy it. Try to use fresh ingredients if you can, if you can't there's nothing wrong with using canned vegetables or something out of the can.  Just drain the juice out of it so you don't have that candy flavor. Just use your imagination. There's millions and millions of recipes out there, from the easiest, simplest recipes to the most difficult, hardest recipes. Just have fun. If you're cooking at home, use a glass of wine and--

Marcus:  That last statement, just have fun, I think cooking should be fun.

Tony:  Yeah. It should be. Yeah.

Marcus:  Especially if it's just for the enjoyment of your family.

Tony:  Right.

Marcus:  Is there an area of the business that you're putting a lot of effort into. You mentioned a couple of things, but if you were to say that there's one area that you're focusing on...

Tony:  Keeping it fresh.  What I mean of keeping it fresh is you get to a point with menus and recipes and food where you might get comfortable.  If something's not working, you got to take it off your menu and try something else. I get out and I ask people all the time, all the guest that come in to the restaurant, how is everything, is there something that you would like to see on the menu. Something that I can may be make that can make to get you back more often? I try to listen to it, I try to make things, add some stuff to the menu now that I hopefully within the next week will be ready to get out so people can enjoy it.  But I'm just trying to keep it simple. Our lunch is, I’ve got to get people in and get them out, breakfast same thing.  I wanna get them in get them out.  

Marcus:  Yeah.

Tony:  People come in to eat.  

Marcus:  You start full of their time.

Tony:  I don't wanna keep them there for an hour.  I wanna get them in, get them out as quick as I can cause I know they have things to do.

Marcus:  Yeah.

Tony:  Especially at lunchtime.  Learning the business as a business owner, it's a snowball rolling downhill.  It just keeps getting bigger and bigger and you gotta learn to balance the two.

Marcus:  So that leads in to my next question.  As an entrepreneur or business owner, what's the one most important thing, what's the piece of wisdom that you would give to somebody that may be listening that hasn't started their own business yet.

Tony:  Just get after it and give it a 110%. There's a lot to learn. Laws, labor laws, tax laws, you gotta pay your taxes no matter who you are, that’s the biggest thing.

Marcus:  [laughing]

Tony:  Paying taxes. It's amazing what kind of taxes they make you pay these days that I never knew about.

Marcus:  Right.

Tony:  I grown up into the desktop, part that I never saw.  Just be ready to give it a 110%.  Work on those 120 hours work weeks. You got to build to last.

Marcus:  I know that you spend quite a bit of time at the restaurant but I find that most business centers have hobbies and even though you may not have that free time right now, I mean, do you still have some hobbies that you do?

Tony:  I do. I enjoy to play golf.  I enjoy fishing. I enjoy spending time with my family.  Every little bit of time that I have I try to spend it with them.  Whether it's watching a movie and falling asleep halfway in between it.

Marcus:  [laughing]  Cause you've been up since 4 o'clock.

Tony:  Yeah.  Right.  4:30 in the morning and that alarm goes off, you gotta get up and go go go.  But yeah, I love to get out and play golf.  I love to go fishing.  Long walks on the beach. [laughing]

Marcus:  That's awesome.  

Tony:  Yeah.  I'll just, something to relax my brain, I guess.

Marcus:  So you mentioned getting up at 4:30 am, give us a look at what an average day looks like for you.

Tony:  Starting when my alarm goes off?

Marcus:  Yup.

Tony:  Oh boy.  Here we go.  I get up, I make me a cup of coffee.

Marcus:  At what time?  4:30?

Tony:  4:30, 4:45 yeah.

Marcus:  Okay.

Tony:  Usually pour a cup of coffee.  Sit and relax for until I finish coffee, 5,10 minutes however long it is. Get dressed, leave work. I'll leave the house, drive from Gulf Shores to the restaurant. From the time I get out of my car, go go go until the time that I get home in the afternoon. My philosophy there at the restaurant is less more often. Cook less product more often then keep it fresher.

Marcus:  Sure. So you drive from Gulf Shores everyday?

Tony:  Gulf Shores, right.

Marcus:  To Downtown.  Wow. That's a hike.  So what time do you, I don't what time you guys close because I've just been going for lunch but...

Tony:  Mainly breakfast and lunch, Sunday to Thursday from 7-3 and then Friday and Saturday I stay until 9 o'clock at night.

Marcus:  Okay.  

Tony:  Try on get people, Friday or Saturday night that haven't eaten with me throughout the week that want to eat, you know, I just installed 2 new air conditioning system today to keep it cooler be it in summer months are upon as it's gonna get hot.

Marcus:  It's like a 105 degrees out there right now.

Tony:  Right.  Once we get our liquor licence we start serving alcoholic beverages, thinking about a game called Wall Ball.  You could just picture where restaurants is, I have one building beside me I have that court yard, as I going to take volleyball net and put it up.

Marcus:  Ohh.

Tony:  Just have people play a little volleyball and use the walls on the two  building to kind of ricochet and kind of like you do rocket--

Marcus:  I remember that from PE class way way way back in the day

Tony:  Make a little fun game.  Maybe a little drinking game...

Marcus:  That's fun. 

Tony:  You know, as you score a point, whoever scores the point, the opponent has to do drink or take shots or something. I don't know. Whatever keep it fun, keep interesting.

Marcus:  That's cool.  So what made you chose downtown? I mean, out of curiosity.

Tony:  Opportunity arose. Sometimes in life when you have an opportunity to start your own business, it may not be what you want, or what your mind is telling you, you want. But if an opportunity comes, especially in this day and age, if you wanna be a business owners there's only one worth thing to do and that's you probably gonna take these out, shoot or get off the pot.

Marcus:  Yeah.  Yeah.  That's fun.

Tony:  Just got to take American dream man, and roll with it.

Marcus:  Yeah absolutely, I mean you're not gonna get anywhere by just expecting everything that be handed to you.  I don't care what anybody says.

Tony:  Right.

Marcus:  That just doesn't happen.  You gotta work for it for sure.  Alright, this isn't in here but I'm gonna ask this question anyway cause I think these will, I'm curious, as what you'd say. Last meal, what would you want it to be?

Tony:  My last meal, what I want it to be?

Marcus:  Yeah.

Tony:  Bone and Rib-eye.

Marcus:  Grilled?

Tony:  Absolutely grilled.  Cooked medium with some crab meat hollandaise on top.  

Marcus:  Wow.

Tony:  Set of roasted garlic, mashed potatoes and a salad with MY blue cheese dressing on it.

Marcus:  I now see, I've got to try your blue cheese.

Tony:  [laughing]

Marcus:  I didn't realize you made your own blue cheese.

Tony:  Yeah.  Everything is made from scratch.  Absolutely almost sauces..

Marcus:  Wow. 

Tony: So that would be my last meal.

Marcus:  That sounds good.

Tony:  And a glass of wine. 

Marcus:  I might join you on that one.

[both laughing]

Tony:  Anyway, Crem Brulee dessert or a cheese cake for dessert.

Marcus:  And to drink?

Tony:  Glass of red wine.

Marcus:  Very cool.  You've already mentioned that but go ahead mention it again, where can people find you?

Tony:  Bob's Downtown Restaurant.  263 St. Francis, corner St. Francis and Jackson.

Marcus:  I think you are west from, ohh, north from Dorfin street but I was thinking west from the Temple if anybody knows where that is.

Tony:  Yeah west of the Scottish Rights Temple and 1 block north of Dauphin Street.

Marcus:  Right.

Tony:  So if you know where Haley's bar is, or Hero or the Spot and Tea, I'm just right around the corner. 

Marcus:  Yeah.  Definitely short walk. On Facebook?

Tony:  Bob's Downtown Diner on Facebook. I've been posting a lot.

Marcus:  Very good. I'm assuming people can see the menu or specials or something like that.

Tony:  Absolutely.  Menus on there. Specials every week.  I've got a dog traugh, so I know people downtown walk their dogs a lot.  I've got to say these, that I've got a pad out from their restaurant with fresh running water.  We'll have water in it, so if you're walking your animal outside, your dogs, just stop them by and give them some fresh water.

Marcus:  Very good.  That's cool.

Tony:  I'm an animal lover so, I just thought about it. That would be a pretty cool idea.

Marcus:  That is cool.

Tony:  We have a dog trough.

Marcus:  Well I wanna thank you again for coming on the podcast.  Any final thoughts or comments that you would like to share?

Tony:  Appreciate you give me an opportunity, taking time out of your day.  Final thoughts, just have fun and come by see me.

Marcus:  Yeah.

Tony:  Meet me and I like to meet new people all the time. 

Marcus:  You will not be disappointed and I'll definitely try the biscuits cause they're really good.

Tony:  [laughing]

Marcus:  Tony, I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your journey as a business owner and entrepreneur.  It was great talking with you.

Tony:  Thank you very much.  I appreciate it.