Bob Shuman, Zaftigs

You’ve made it in the Boston restaurant market and your iconic eatery has a robust fan base. How do you maintain the momentum with rising expenses, increased competition and a social landscape that is forever changing? “If there is any secret to our success, it’s about building a team that can execute at this level, and at this volume,” says Zaftigs owner Bob Shuman. “With three meals a day, catering, and all-day take-out, there are a lot of moving parts.” Shuman taps into his 42 years of experience daily. He co-created and opened Appetito in Newton Centre in 1992, and the South End location in 1994. After selling his part of the business in 1997, he opened Zaftigs in Brookline. Two years ago he opened in Natick. The Brookline 2800 square foot restaurant serves upwards of 1,000 people a day with 100 seats.

The Daily Dozen: Shuman wakes up every morning at 4:30 am and begins connecting with his managers by 6:45. By 9 am on any given day, he has often dealt with a dozen challenges, from work schedule changes, to purchase order delivery snafus to equipment repair. Because of the volume of business, he’s able to pay a management team in both Brookline and Natick, so general day-to-day operations are the responsibility of the chefs and managers. Each morning Shuman receives a detailed statement from the previous day, allowing him to keep a pulse on the financial end of the business, including trends based on various times of the year, and catering jobs both on and off site.

Cutting Back to Stay Up: Despite the faithful followers, Shuman says increasing costs of doing business over the years has caused him to cut back, including shrinking health benefit compensation and putting seals on vacation time. “I can’t lose site of what the staff managers at every level bring to the table every day,” says Shuman. “It’s a balancing act to keeping people motivated and committed to excellence, whether it’s eight o’clock in the morning or eight o’clock at night”. The last five years, he says, have been especially challenging, since the price of oil controls everything from corn being used as ethanol to the various grains that they purchase, which fluctuate in price. In addition, all of the company’s plasticware, and catering goods with an oil derivative, have crept up in price, eliminating between five and ten percent of what Shuman would normally bring to the bottom line.

Purchasing Power: Having the two stores has allowed Shuman better purchasing opportunities, and the ability to keep fewer inventories on the shelves. Now, if they buy a $100 case of pine nuts, for example, management is able to transfer half of those to Natick. “It’s been a great learning curve over the past two and a half years for all of us,” says Shuman. “From my controller to my operations managers and chefs, we are running the business as smart as we can.”

Lease: Shuman says he has two excellent leases. He’s “In the Black” in Brookline, and working off debt in Natick. In Brookline, he negotiated with the landlord to buy the existing furniture and secured another two extensions on his lease. “The first two years in Brookline were kind of bloody- not enough working capital,” says Shuman. “I had to go back to my partners and into my own packet, which is an added stress that I wouldn’t wish on anyone opening a new business.” Fifteen years later, in Natick, Shuman found himself under-capitalized in the middle of a project due to an unfortunate contractor issue, which had him bring in a business partner.

Keeping up with Customer Needs: Because most of the menu items are made from scratch, Zaftigs is able to prepare dishes to meet customer dietary needs, such as a full gluten-free menu, which has been offered for two years. Nut allergies are another factor that has become more prevalent, as well as special requests for diners battling high blood pressure, diabetes, or dairy allergies.

Brookline -VS -Natick:  With 13 years of experience in Brookline, one would imagine that a second restaurant with a similar concept would run in the same manner, but 18.3 miles has proved to have different food trends and spending habits. Natick’s full liquor license changed the way business is done at the dining counter, and there is a retail component in Natick that the Brookline location cannot accommodate due to space. “All our prepared foods are up on the blackboard in Brookline, and guests know they can get anything to take out, like a pound of whitefish salad or smoked salmon,” says Shuman. “In Natick, we have a whole smoked fish case, two dessert cases, and an eight-foot main case with items like cooked roast beef, turkey, and prepared salads.” Natick does nearly five times the retail sales compared to Brookline. When Shuman first opened Brookline, retail cases were part of the landscape, but with space at a premium, and the high volume of business, he chose restaurant over retail and replaced the cases with a dining counter. “The seven seats turn all day long,” says Shuman. “We’re very single-diner friendly in both stores.” About 75 percent of Brookline guests are repeated, including a fair amount of celebrities and athletes. “It’s nice that people can be kind of under the radar and blend in with the masses,” says Shuman. While the Zaftig brand continues to grow, Shuman continues to explore every opportunity that he can-from costing tools to social media- to keep the name fresh in an ever-challenging industry. “Zaftig’s recently picked up their 7th ‘Best of Boston,’ which is a nice feather in the cap,” says Shuman. “Our clients are a pretty demanding market. If you can do business here you can probably do business anywhere.”

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