Joel LaSalle has carved out a niche by purchasing struggling restaurants and providing financial and operational footing to turn them around—all while helping aspiring restaurateurs fulfill their dream of restaurant management and even ownership.
LaSalle, president of LaSalle Restaurant Group, owner of Oasis Café, Faustina, Kyoto, Caffé Niche, and co-owner of Current, has created a business model that’s transforming the Salt Lake restaurant scene.
What first attracted you to the restaurant industry?
My wife, Jill, and I wanted to buy this building specifically because it housed the Golden Braid Bookstore. I was pretty emphatic at that time that I didn’t want to be in the restaurant business, so I figured I’d try to find somebody to take over Oasis and lease the space from us.
Coming from a financial background, I started looking at it, and over a three-week period, I fell in love with the business. Financially, I made some immediate changes. The short story is I fell in love with every aspect of the business. I loved the food, the music—there’s art downstairs, there’s flowers all around. The sales started to just go crazy.
Your business model provides an opportunity for other aspiring business owners. How do you identify them?
Sometimes we have somebody in mind, sometimes we have to search to see who pops up, but we’re always looking for a managing partner. I think that’s why people are attracted to come and work for the LaSalle Restaurant Group. We seem to get really great, qualified people because they’ve already had that conversation with themselves: “This is the business I want to be in.” And they have a passion for it. It’s their dream to have their own restaurant.
Acquiring another business, we create opportunities for entrepreneurs that want to have their own business. Letting somebody that couldn’t have bought the business become an owner and do it right—I really liked that. Getting somebody else involved, somebody who knows the business and has a passion for the business, but doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to purchase a business.
How do you decide to purchase a restaurant?
Our model is that we take over existing restaurants and the real estate, and we improve upon them. We’ve done it so many times; we know the steps to take. There’s a criteria that you have to meet in order for us to buy the business. Things like a solid brand and reputation are critical to our decision-making process.
What’s your recipe for success?
Talking to your customers and putting great customer service in place. We started working on the little things, and I think those little things are the things that really make a restaurant thrive.
We developed a financial model for the restaurant business that really worked and we tweaked it for several years. With Caffé Niche, we took over the business, we made those immediate changes, and in just over a year, the profits have doubled. That’s what a good financial and operating system does.
Undercurrent is our immediate next. That’s the joining bar that will be right next to Current. And then we’ve set our sights on Main Street in Salt Lake City. We want to coordinate a new brand and we want it to be in the area of the new performing arts center.
…We’re trying to create a platform of independent concept restaurants that all operate under a different name and have different products, but they all have the same financial and operating system.