Owner: The Slaw Dogs
720 N Lake Ave #8
Pasadena, CA 91104
Yelp: 3.5 stars
Interview Date: Saturday, May 29, 2010
Disclosure: Ray Byrne and I graduated from the same high school – La Canada High School. Although I didn’t know him in high school, I must admit that interviewing a fellow alumnus was exciting!
While growing up in La Canada, Ray’s parents owned a coffee shop in Old Town Pasadena … before the town was completely renovated. Ray says that he worked at the café “reluctantly,” with no idea that it would one day serve him well.
After graduating from high school, he moved to Hollywood, where he and his girlfriend had plans to become famous. Like many aspiring to the entertainment profession, the two supported themselves working in restaurants. In 1993, Ray joined Il Fornaio Italian restaurant in Pasadena. When the company decided to open a location in Santa Monica, Ray was more than happy to be transferred to the new location, where he was a server/trainer for about two years before, he says, he “burned out” and took off for Europe.
“I was just burned out on everything and went to Europe for six weeks,” he says. “I took most of the year off, exploring food until I eventually ran out of money and needed to figure out what I was going to do next.”
It just happened that Il Fornaio was looking for managers with experience with the company for its Coronado location. It was a natural fit for Ray, but “I had to decide if that was a commitment I wanted to make,” he says. “I decided to do it – it was a great location right on the water, and I was the Assistant Manager for about four years.”
“That was my first taste of taking a place that was struggling and being a part of turning it around,” says Ray. He established a relationship with a mentor, George Tegami, the General Manager of the location, and together they increased the business almost five times and carved the restaurant into a really well-known spot in San Diego.Based on his success, Ray was offered the General Manager position at the Santa Monica location. “At 28 years old, I was the youngest GM in the company,” says Ray. “It was definitely an honor.”
A few years later, Ray was introduced to some people who owned restaurants in Malibu, including Moonshadows and The Sunset. “They were super guys – fantastic operators,” says Ray. After a few months of negotiations, Ray joined as General Manager of The Sunset. “It had an amazing location, but needed attention,” he says. “My role was to be there 24/7 and figure out how to steer the restaurant in the right direction and turn it into a successful location.”
The first action Ray took was to secure an excellent chef. He also focused on defining the different areas of the restaurant, which has two levels – fine dining upstairs and a bar/lounge downstairs. After two years of relentless work at the restaurant, Ray and his wife had to make some tough decisions. “I had stretched myself way too thin,” says Ray. “I hit a wall regarding how to keep giving without sacrificing the quality of my attention in any single part of my life.”
Ray made the difficult decision to quit at The Sunset. “It was the hardest decision of my life – I had put everything I had into that role,” he says. Once the decision was made, Ray efficiently created a succession plan for The Sunset and began work on his own concept, which originated during a casual BBQ. “We had a housewarming party in July 2009, and I had made some Thai-inspired coleslaw and hot dogs,” says Ray. “Everybody loved them, and the idea of forming a restaurant concept based on that BBQ sat in the back of my mind for about three months.”
Once free of his obligations at The Sunset, Ray moved quickly to open The Slaw Dogs. “The location had been vacant for three months – it was trashed,” he says. “But I decided that it was time to make the leap.” Ray leased the location in November 2009 and spent every moment of his spare time (he was still transitioning out of The Sunset) fixing up the location. He held his first mock service on January 28, 2010, and the opening party was held on February 8.
After three months in business, Ray says that running his own restaurant is fun. “The best part is getting to see families evolve, grow and change,” he says. “You get to see people come for birthdays, first dates, when they’re pregnant – it’s really cool.” Significant press, including the Los Angeles Times, has made The Slaw Dogs an overnight sensation. Ray’s wife Amy pitches in one day per week, and Ray also called his mother Jennifer in from semi-retirement to help at the restaurant. As for the future, Ray says that his current focus is to make the first restaurant successful, but he is definitely watching for signs that this concept can grow to additional locations.