Schoenbaum: ‘people expect an experience, not just food’
Sitting in a corner booth of his riverside restaurant in Sandy Springs, Ray Schoenbaum, 70, wears the exhausted posture of a man who just finished a long shift. From the speakers above, Frank Sinatra croons, accompanied by a breezy big band playing “Nice ‘N’ Easy.”
Sipping his drink, Ray’s eyes follow an approaching waiter, who places a salad on the table.
“Now, that’s about the right size,” Ray says.
The waiter nods: “I told them to cut it back for you, like you said.”
“I know, but it shouldn’t have to be cut back. This is the size we should be serving people. That’s a meal right there.”
Here is a man who’s spent a lifetime studying plating and portions, and trying to pay close attention to what the customer wants. When he was younger, the Marriotts — as in, the founders of the hotel and hospitality chains — taught him a lesson he’s kept close to his heart throughout 57 years in the business.
“You can learn more in your dish department than anywhere else in you restaurant,” he said. “If the food keeps coming back, something’s wrong. Sometimes, it’s too much food. Sometimes, they may not like the food, but if you pay attention to what they didn’t eat, you’re listening to the customer.”
Currently the owner of Ray’s on the River, Ray’s in the City, Ray’s at Killer Creek, and Ray’s Rio Bravo, one might say the Charleston, W.V. native has the business in his blood. His father founded the Shoney’s restaurant chain. In addition to the Marriotts, he recalls meeting Ray Kroc and Colonel (Harland David) Sanders multiple times as a young person.
Ray had his own chain of restaurants too. After going to college, he became a Shoney’s franchisee and later, around 1975, a Wendy’s franchisee. He had 55 of the restaurants at one point before selling them back to the company in 1986.
In 1984, he started Ray’s in Sandy Springs and Rio Bravo in Buckhead. Rio Bravo became a successful chain, which he later sold to Applebee’s in 1995.
“(There were) 100 (Rio Bravo) restaurants at one point,” Ray said. “And, they closed them all down because they weren’t running them the way they should have been run. I’ll say that much. We’ll just leave it at that. Big corporations never run things the way entrepreneurs run them.”
In August 2015, Ray opened Ray’s Rio Bravo in Sandy Springs, and said he’s learned some important lessons.
“I started Rio Bravo 32 years ago, and people’s tastes have changed a whole lot since then,” he said. “It’s been a challenge getting a handle on how people’s taste in Mexican food has changed over more than three decades, because it has dramatically moved up the scale.”
Added Ray: “I think all food has moved up dramatically, in general, from when I first started in this business. Food has gotten much more sophisticated and complicated. Now, people expect an experience, not just food.”
He feels that, in general, it’s just a different world entirely for the restaurant owner. Social media has made sure of that much.
“In our business, you can’t goof up very often,” he said. “One customer will tell ten other customers about their bad experience. Social media is unbelievably influential now. It’s crazy. Used to be I could tell six months to a year before a restaurant was going to get better or worse with their sales. Now, with social media and everybody hearing things so fast, it’s about a month or two. That’s the difference in the expanse of time.”
Friend, Clive Bank, feels Ray has been successful as a businessman because he’s attuned to such feedback loops.
“He’s got that true entrepreneurial spirit that sets him apart,” Clive said. “He just doesn’t stop either. He will never be satisfied. He will always be striving for perfection.”
And, just what does the future hold for such a dynamic, evolving entrepreneurial soul?
“If the management can keep running the business well, and they want to build more restaurants in the future, they can have at it,” Ray says, laughing. “I’m 70 years old and I’m tired. It’s time for me to slow down and let other people take care of it. Working in this business … this isn’t a 9 to 5 job. So, the mileage on my body is probably 90 years old.”
With these words, Ray drops his fork on the plate, pushing the salad aside. Sinatra pleads from the speakers above: “All of me, why not take all of me?”
He gestures toward the generous remnants of food still on the plate. “You see, if something like a salad keeps coming back, that’s worth paying attention to. This is too much food. I’m a pretty big boy, and I can eat a lot of food. You’ve got to keep yourself tuned in.”