Q&A: Chef Ken Irvine of Irvine Hospitality Group and Bleu Bohème

Chef Ken Irvine – of Bleu Bohème, SEA180° Coastal Tavern and Irvine Hospitality Group – talks Dine.Direct, avatars, blow-up dolls and cocktails-to-go. (Photo: Courtesy of Irvine Hospitality Group) (Irvine Hospitality Group)

By Aaron Kiel for Bar & Restaurant

As the industry continues to face the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurateur and industry leader Ken Irvine believes the best advice he’s given to anyone – whether that’s someone in the hospitality community or a friend – is to wake up each morning with a smile on your face and say, “Today is going to be a better day than yesterday.”

It’s that positive attitude – mixed with a lot of creativity and innovation – that’s helped Irvine navigate the last 10 months with his team members.

Irvine is the owner and executive chef of the popular French restaurant 
Bleu Bohème in San Diego, as well as chef and managing partner at SEA180° Coastal Tavern, which is located at the Pier South Resort in Imperial Beach, Calif. He’s also principal at Irvine Hospitality Group, which operates restaurants, consults, and develops concepts for restaurants, hotels, nightclubs, wineries and retail outlets. So far, Irvine has helped develop more than 50 venues.

Bleu Bohème
Bleu Bohème in San Diego, Calif. (Photo: Courtesy of Irvine Hospitality Group)
 
A graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York, Irvine has received numerous awards and accolades, including Restaurateur of the Year from the California Restaurant Association (CRA) and Best French Restaurant by CRA many times over. To date, he’s been the only San Diego restaurateur to win both the "Chef of the Year" and "Restaurateur of the Year" Gold Medallion Awards, presented by his peers of the California Restaurant Association.

Bar & Restaurant chats with Irvine to learn more about how he has adapted during the pandemic, and to get insights on a new delivery platform he developed for the industry – Dine.Direct. He also talks blow-up dolls, avatars, cocktails-to-go and takeout for picnics in the park.

Question: Hi, Ken. Thanks for your time. Tell us about your experience coping with the COVID-19 pandemic and managing your restaurants. What has that experience been like for you and your team in Southern California?

Answer: It has been an incredibly challenging time. The mandates have been everchanging and it feels like every time we pivot, there’s a new set of guidelines. At my neighborhood restaurant, Bleu Boheme, I have stayed open as much as has been allowed and have continually updated our offerings to navigate these changes and keep as many people as possible employed.

It has been especially frustrating as we recently had to shut down outdoor dining for several weeks after being placed in the same zone as Los Angeles, where the cases have been much higher than San Diego. My other restaurant, SEA180°, is a partnership with Cohn Restaurant Group. Because it’s located inside a hotel, we are just coming out of a seven-week hibernation.

But more importantly than the businesses and restaurants suffering, our staff members have suffered because it has taken a long time for many of them to receive their unemployment benefits. There has been quite a bit of unemployment fraud reported within the state, and that’s causing the system to be overburdened. Most people don’t see how much harm that has caused our staff.
 
Bleu Bohème
Bleu Bohème's Les Moules Frites (Photo: Courtesy of Irvine Hospitality Group)

Question: Can you tell us a little about your restaurants?

Answer: Bleu Boheme is an intimate French bistro in Kensington, a quaint neighborhood just north of Balboa Park in San Diego. Bleu Boheme feels like a family – we actually haven’t had to hire a new waiter in 12 years. Plus, it has been awarded “Best French” by San Diego diners and media nearly every year since the restaurant opened. Under normal circumstances, the restaurant is buzzing most nights of the week.

I’m also a managing partner in SEA180°, which is part of the Cohn Restaurant Group. Located within Pier South Resort on Imperial Beach, SEA180° spans 10,000 square feet with beach views visible from throughout the restaurant and from the patio, which sits directly on the beach. The menu focuses on local seafood and the flavors of Baja. During peak season we have a staff of 175 employees.

Question: Last year, during the quarantine, you had the foresight to start developing your own delivery platform, Dine.Direct. The technology is browser-based with no app download required, and it’s easy to integrate into a restaurants website for easy ordering. What’s the thought behind that innovation? Has it been successful?

Answer: Dine.Direct is a takeout and delivery platform co-founded with Ralph Burleson, who was formerly a developer for Microsoft. We had already founded the company prior to the pandemic, and we were focusing on artificial intelligence technology that restaurants could use. When restaurants started closing in-person dining and offering takeout and delivery, we saw how third-party delivery vendors were taking advantage of our industry. We quickly pivoted and morphed that technology into Dine.Direct.

Dine.Direct provides restaurants with innovative technology to help them survive, including “Easy Order,” a platform to eliminate the dependence on expensive third-party delivery companies. Dine.Direct was designed by restaurants for restaurants, meaning that it was created with the restaurateur in mind. By using the platform, restaurants have control of their own customer experience, reputation and money.

The platform has also created a social community of restaurants and supporting industries. We’ve found groups of restaurants in areas that are working together because we’ve created these online communities through the platform.

Dine.Direct has been hugely successful. We’re all over Mexico – Cancun, Mexico City, Baja and Puerto Vallarta – and growing exponentially throughout California, Nevada and just entering into Arizona. We’re growing organically and mostly through referral. We’re looking to expand into South and Central America next, followed by Canada and Europe.

Question: Dine.Direct also has avatars or virtual servers. Bleu Boheme has its avatar, “Chloe.” How do the avatars fit into the picture?

Answer: Dine.Direct has avatars which can be customized for each restaurant to become virtual restaurant representatives. The avatars have their own personalities that are designed to fit each restaurant, brand or location. The avatar guides the guests through their ordering experience on the platform and provides regular updates on the status of an order.

Chloe is specific to Bleu Boheme – she wears a beret and red scarf that aligns with the French bistro-feel. She’s a hostess, server, bartender all wrapped into one. A lot of people continue a dialogue with her thinking she’s real; that’s how fully engaging she is in the conversation.

Question: I understand you temporarily extended free services to small-business restaurants through the Dine.Direct platform, to help them offer delivery and take-out without using third parties. Can you tell us about that?

Answer: We were able to offer our services for free for the entire state of California while it was restricted to takeout and delivery only, but as the restrictions have been lifted, we are back on our regular fee schedule. Third party delivery fees are typically 30 percent of the order, which is a high fee to absorb. Restaurants never pay more than $1 per order with Dine.Direct, and they get to keep all gratuities.

Question: In addition to working on Dine.Direct in 2020 when your restaurants were shutdown, you also spent a lot of time creatively preparing for their eventual re-openings. How did you approach that?

Answer: As we’ve had restrictions set in place and then lifted, we’ve been able to prepare for each phase and be ready for service on the first day each reopening has been allowed. When indoor dining capacities were reduced, we brought in inflatable dolls to help with socially-distanced seating in the bar area. We also created new seating areas outside, putting up affixed awnings to help recreate the interior dining experience on the exterior of our restaurants. It was an expense that we weren’t expecting, but our guests are grateful for the effort we put in to create that atmosphere outside. We also introduced a “table in a bag” offering; guests could borrow a collapsible picnic table to use with their to-go order across the street in Kensington Park. It was another way to offer more seating, too.

Bleu Bohème
Inflatable dolls at the bar, to encourage social distancing at Bleu Bohème in San Diego, Calif. (Photo: Courtesy of Irvine Hospitality Group)

Question: What impact did that preparation – those new ideas – have on your businesses in 2020?

Answer: The budget has certainly changed over the past 10 months with everything that we’ve faced due to the pandemic. We’ve had to spend a lot of money to try to recoup our losses in revenue, due to not being able to serve indoors and in-person. For a lot of restaurateurs, they’ve had to spend money they didn’t have. Budgets went out the window early because we don’t have anything to compare these times to – that’s probably the biggest change and challenge. Managing your budget is vital in the restaurant industry, and even more so in this climate.

Question: Tell us more about your creative ideas and solutions that helped support your business through the pandemic. Did they help attract customers?

Answer: The inflatable dolls were probably the most unique idea we had, and they were introduced early on. We tried to be proactive with updates, utilizing social media and our newsletters to communicate the ever-changing offerings to our customers. We introduced takeout and delivery early on as well with the Dine.Direct platform. Bleu Boheme was actually the beta test for the technology, and we worked really hard to ensure that guests were going to get the same meal at home that they would get in the restaurant, that deliveries would be on time, that the packaging would allow the meals to travel well. Most people who order takeout from a restaurant are already familiar with it; they’re typically repeat guests. Our regulars and neighbors have been incredible in supporting the restaurant throughout this. We were also able to offer our signature martinis to-go, which we hadn’t been able to do previously. We introduced the table-in-a-bag offering during the summer, so the weather was perfect for guests to order takeout for a picnic in the park.

Irvine Hospitality Group
Cocktails-to-go at Bleu Bohème. Photo: Courtesy of Irvine Hospitality Group

Question: How successful were your cocktails-to-go?

Answer: We offered three of our signature martinis for takeout and delivery, and bought great to-go containers to serve them in. They were successful in helping to drive our own revenues.

Question: How were the blow-up dolls received?

Answer: The dolls were a huge success. They were media and social media darlings, too. We have Dirk, Britney and Beyonce and they were all dressed by my wife. They are so lifelike that many people think they are real and will say hello when they sit next to one.

Bleu Bohème
Chef Irvine introduced a “table in a bag” offering, where guests could borrow a collapsible picnic table to use with their to-go order. (Photo: Courtesy of Irvine Hospitality Group)

Question: You’re also the principal of Irvine Hospitality Group, which – in addition to operating your restaurants – consults and develops concepts for restaurants, hotels, nightclubs and wineries. What advice have you offered your clients during the pandemic?

Answer: I have offered my clients the same advice that I follow myself; I always try to practice what I preach. My advice is to examine your menus and wine lists to only sell your most profitable items. It’s more important than ever to control your costs. Make sure that you design your schedules and hours of operation to where it makes sense. But, the best advice I've given to anyone, client or friend, is to wake up each morning with a smile on your face and say, “Today is going to be a better day than yesterday,” and fight to keep it that way for the rest of the day.

Question: Thanks again for your time. Last question: What’s the biggest lesson you learned over the last 10 months?

Answer: Being better prepared is the biggest lesson we’ve learned, and we should be prepared for any sort of unpredictable situation or issues. As restaurateurs will start looking at building new restaurants or taking over spaces in the future, we’re going to start with a new perspective. We’ll be looking at outdoor patio seating and how we can do it successfully, should we have another pandemic such as this. Even when things return to “normal,” we expect that there will be guests and staff who will prefer to dine and work outside, and we want to be mindful of that moving forward. You also have to examine the relationship that a restaurant has with its guests and locals. Locals will always support locals. You have to develop a restaurant with your neighborhood and neighbors in mind.

To learn more about Ken Irvine’s ventures – Bleu Bohème, SEA180° Coastal Tavern or the Irvine Hospitality Group – visit
BleuBoheme.com, CohnRestaurants.com/Sea180 and IrvineHospitality.com. To learn more about Dine.Direct, visit https://dine.direct.com.