Our interview with the force behind Schilleci’s New Orleans Kitchen – Wayne Schilleci, Chef David, and Zachary Schilleci. They made this article very hard to write…
Not because of the food, the environment, or the noise of a busy day, but because once I asked the first question, a conversation ensued, and from that moment on, I felt like part of their family. I made sure to type up our conversations to the exact wording but just to keep it in interview format, I tried to leave out our laughs, so you can go in and discover your own.
We decided to have an interview with Schilleci’s after our local foodie Nick Rama suggested them as the second best restaurant in The Woodlands.
Woodlands Monocle) Tell us a little about the Schilleci’s story.
Wayne Schilleci) I started off as a stock clerk at Sears, with no formal education other than high school in Upper ninth ward of New Orleans. I came to Houston in 1965, wound up with All State insurance for a 32-year career. I became the number one agent in the company… I say this because this is about all I can bring to the table in the restaurant business.
The restaurant itself started with Wayne Jr. and Zachary, who had a passion for cooking. Schilleci’s started as a Poboy – take a number shop, in Spring, TX, around 2005 across from Glenlock Farms in a converted Baskin Robbins. After 5 years and a solid client base, the boys came to me and said “Dad, what do you think about moving the restaurant to The Woodlands?” I said, “If we are gonna do that we can’t be a walk-up, take-a-number poboy shop. You guys have earned it, but Dad’s gonna be more involved, and it has be a sit-down full-service restaurant”.
WM) What about the decoration and planning of the restaurant?
WS) All the decorating was done by my wife, Debbie, and my daughter, Audrey. They picked out the brick, all the colors, and pleased me to no end. I loved what they did and our customers are constantly asking where everything came from, I think we hit a home run.
WM) What was the process to get this location?
WS) We looked on the Waterway first and put a letter of intent for the space above Grimaldi’s (what used to be the burger shop). We then tried for the place where Chocolata Cocoa Bar used to be (now Mortons) and it didn’t feel like New Orleans. Then I met Dave, the general manager of the AVIA Market Street (now Hyatt). I told him about our unsuccessful ability to find a location and he said, “You know, there’s a small space right there below the hotel, you really oughta check it out.” We came in here and it felt like a small French quarter, New Orleans restaurant. The feel to me is perfect, but unfortunately we’ve already outgrown it. (wink wink)
WM) What was the overall vision of the restaurant?
WS) I am all about customer service. Chef David can do the food and I’m the PR guy. We use Humm Systems, allowing our customers to rate us before they leave the restaurant. When the customer gets the check they also get an iPad which surveys them about the overall service. We get it in real time, so if there is anything wrong with our service or the food, we have the ability to fix the issue before they walk out of the door.
But, what I’ve found out about this business is that it’s not just about the food, you’ve got to be consistent with the food and the service. If there is anything that we strive for, and that makes us number one on OpenTable, Urbanspoon, and Google Reviews, is that we work hard at it not just every day, but with every meal. If you’re about to sit at this table, and I give you a menu, I know that I’m no better with everything that I’ve accomplished then the next meal I’m about to serve you. One customer at a time, one meal at a time.
WM) That’s impressive because not a lot of restaurants care about their social media standings.
CD) We like the feedback on the system too because we’re not immune to people’s likes and dislikes. If the plate is not working then we can change it. Some places continue to sell the same plates because it needs to be on the menu, but not us. If we’re not getting good feedback we have the flexibility to pull it off of the menu as we see fit.
We just added duck to the menu and it’s one of our best sellers. We do Duck with Veal Tortellini which surprised us because we thought the Duck was going to cause an uproar but wait until you eat it, it’s one of those items that just surprises you.
SC) Even though the Schilleci name is on it, we wouldn’t of put the item on the menu if we knew that it would put us on a higher level of integrity. But I look at each employee as an extension of my family. To the point that, David will tell you, most of these people have been with us all four years. I’m tough, but only tough when I think they need it and I do it with respect. They know that I care about them.
CD) We’ve got such a small staff that everyone here can do pretty much all the jobs to make sure everything gets done. Besides me, I’ve got another professional chef and two other guys that came from fast food that are actually my sous chefs. It’s great because I can leave for a couple days and know that I can have full trust with the chefs in the kitchen.
WS) The bottom line is that we’ve had hosts become servers and managers, we’ve had dishwashers become sous chefs.
WM) How long did it take to hit critical mass at this location?
SC) We want to say that it was pretty immediate. Once we opened this location we basically hit the ground running and this guy (Zachary) has really kicked it up. When we first opened we had one white wine and one red wine.
Zachary Schilleci) And now we’re up to 106 bottles. We have a lot of bottles that you won’t find in Houston and even a couple that you won’t find in Texas. We always try to keep our price as low as possible and that’s the reason we have some of the lowest markups that you will find in The Woodlands. I rather move it and have people enjoy it than have it sit there and look pretty.
WS) We are truly family owned in one location with the owners being myself, Zachary and my daughter.
WM) Being so close to The Woodlands Pavilion, have you had anyone famous dine here?
We’ve had Perry Farrell from Janes Addiciton who came for his birthday, Adrian Peterson, Robert Horry, Chad Hedrick (Ice skater), Avery Johnson, a lot of the pro golfers, The Kardashians took some food to go, and of course, Lil Wayne.
WM) Very interesting. Keeping the glitz and the glamour aside, what wakes you up every morning?
WS) We want to make a livin, not a killin. And we want to be the best restaurant we can be and if we can finish at the top that is just music to my ears. I think we deserve to be there because we work it. I personally get up at 4:30 every morning and get here at 6:30 – 7am. I put coffee on for the cooks, I greet them and accomodate them to make sure they have everything they need to start the day off right.
CD) You wouldn’t believe it but Wayne gets the mop buckets ready to go, and even gets the wine stocked for the day
WS) People ask me if I am the owner and I say yes. Which makes me the floor mopper, the dishwasher, the quickbooks guy. And I am 70 years old and opening this restaurant, after 7-8 years of being retired, has really revitalized me because I get to meet so many different folks who love our restaurant and who love our food, and even the challenges of those who don’t quite love it. I accept that as a challenge to become better. We welcome corrective critism because it keeps it off of social media and makes us better as a restaurant.
WM) What are your thoughts and do you agree with the phrase “If you build it, they will come”?
WS) If you build it and you earn it, they will come. Earning it means: amazing customer service, excellent food, and consistency.
CD) My philosophy is that I have to be ahead of the game. I need to make sure I am running a new special with the new items that are out before anybody else can get them. I got a new dessert which is a stuffed cookie which I’ve been running for a couple weeks, and I just found out someone stole it and they are running it in their restaurant (laughs). If I am not changing and evolving, then we’re falling behind.
WS) The first year, David would have to bring everything to me and Debbie (wife) would test and now I don’t remember the last time he brought me a dish to taste before it was on the menu. That’s how much trust and faith I have in him. And that gives him the ability to come up with it, put it on the menu that Thursday, and Friday or Saturday night we’ll get to eat it. And it’s paid off.
WM) As a restaurant, what makes you different?
WS) First of all, we use quality Louisiana (mostly New Orleans) items. We bring Gambino’s Bread from New Orleans, Blue Plate Mayonaise, Community Coffee, Abita Beer, Dixie Beer…
CD) One thing I hear a lot are “well the prices are a little high” but you know, we are in Market Street which has an effect on our prices, but we make sure to get quality items too. Another thing that makes us different is that Wayne and I are so focused on cleanliness. We’re proud to say that we’ve never received a demerit from the health inspection and that’s not easy.
WM) Looking back, what would you have done differently?
WS) Nothing. I’m very content.
CD) Hired me sooner.
WM) Last, but not least: What entrepreneurial advice would you give?
CD) Run away
WS) I think you have to have a passion for food, but you have to have a passion for knowing what food you’re gonna be preparing, and you have to have a passion for people. You can’t just fix food. And if somebody dislikes your food and tells you it’s terrible you can’t get upset about it. You have to figure out how to make the meal and the restaurant better. I think a lot of people think they can get in the restaurant business and it’s gonna be an overnight sensation. But it’s just not that easy.
CD) My advice to those people is that you really have to bring it. The people in your life have to be very understanding. I’ve been married for 18 years now and if it wasn’t for my wife, I wouldn’t see myself being successful at what I am doing. I don’t see her for valentines day, my mom for mother’s day… none of that. It’s not one of those jobs where you can come in, put some plates together and think it’s going to be an easy day.
If you haven’t already, check out the Schilleci’s website.