These 5 Restaurants Embrace and Celebrate Innovation
Sarah Eisenmenger + Ali HoffmanAuthor
When it comes to the restaurant world, innovation is everywhere. From new service models to updated hiring practices, restaurant people are always looking for new ways to keep moving the rest of the industry forward.
We asked our restaurant community to share your stories of embracing and celebrating innovation, and you did not let us down. Introducing our five finalists, who have each done amazing things in their communities.
Wanderlust Wine Company
Duke’s Delicious Pizza
Read their stories and cast your vote* for the grand prize winner who will take home $20k.
WANDERLUST WINE COMPANY
Wanderlust Wine Company, with two locations in Austin, TX, is a self-pour winery, focused around a love of sustainability and innovation. Founder and “wine cowboy” Sammy Lam started Wanderlust in 2020, after spending 6 years working in various other areas of the wine industry. Sammy’s aim was to serve wine in a new and exciting way – first, working to legalize self-dispensing technology, and then partnering with PourMyBeer to launch his concept.
From the beginning of Wanderlust, Sammy put sustainability at the forefront of the business. With the self-pouring technology, Sammy is able to sell fresher and more sustainable wine to his guests, reducing the number of bottles that end up in landfills. This innovation landed Wanderlust the 2021 People’s Choice KEGGY Award, for sustainable practices and reducing their overall carbon footprint.
For Sammy, success has come from connecting with the people around Austin. He had to guess what consumers might go for, and the price point and concept they would be most interested in. Through partnerships with other local businesses, Sammy has added food trucks and is constantly looking for new and interesting ways to reinvent the business. As Sammy says, “you have to risk it for the biscuit.”
Sammy’s aim is to pave the way for other bar concepts. Self-pour is a new concept, and he believes that keeping the entrepreneurial spirit alive is the key to success in a saturated market. “We never would have succeeded as a regular wine bar,” said Sammy. “Businesses, brands, and concepts start to die out after a while, you have to keep that spark alive.”
Sal Maredia is the Founder of MESS Waffles, a small fast-casual concept located in College Station, TX. As a graduate of Texas A&M, Sal originally had plans for a corporate career in the energy sector. But two years into a daily 9-5 routine, he realized it wasn’t for him.
“My mom is the best cook I know,” he says. “She makes everything from scratch.” In 2014, Sal moved back home where he had a strong support system, and decided to jump on the food truck trend. What was once a linen delivery vehicle became MESS, a waffle and fried chicken restaurant on wheels. He named it MESS because, well, “everything seemed like a mess at the time.”
The quick success and popularity of MESS earned a contract with Sal’s alma mater, where he learned how to produce at volume and that when it comes to menu design, “less is more.” But MESS’ less is more mantra led to even more when they opened the first brick-and-mortar location right across the street from the campus. MESS will celebrate its fourth year in this location on October 1.
And while it was an investment to start the food truck, the permanent location is a new beast. At first, Sal was concerned about the size of the location. Now? They’re always running out of space. Like many businesses, MESS has implemented technology to tackle challenges. “Being a smaller fast-casual restaurant, we are constantly running out of space,” Sal says. “We utilized Toast’s table assignment with our cameras so we assign tables on the fly, and have them cleaned and turned over efficiently.” They also made a pivot to on-foot apartment deliveries during the pandemic, bringing fresh food to those who lived in the building attached to the restaurant. Not only was Sal excited to offer a service that many others weren’t able to at the time, but he used the proceeds from these meals to pay it forward, providing free meals to first responders and students who had lost their free lunch programs while schools were closed.
So, what’s in the future for MESS? Sal says, “It’s not about being better than others, it’s about being the best version of yourself.” He is keeping an open mind about a second location, focused on being present for his team, and, more than anything, he wants to just be a good dad.
Farm-to-table is alive and well in Central Texas, thanks in part to Aaron Lyons and his Dish Society.
Lyons got his culinary start as a grad student at the University of Texas — not that he was a culinary student; he spent most of his weekends reveling in the fresh produce and ingredients of Austin’s farmer’s markets.
Lyons was inspired to pull farm-to-table down from more upscale dining and open it up to the masses via a counter-service operation. Fast forward nearly 10 years, and Dish Society is a flourishing all-day eatery. Their menu changes seasonally, though always has an emphasis on healthful twists to new school and old school classics.
Like the rest of the industry, labor is an issue at Dish society. The operation has doubled in size, and the business is still growing. Along with attracting and hiring talent, scaling their team culture can be difficult. Dish Society is a value-driven restaurant. Lyons ensures they do things the way he felt they should be done — with intention behind everything they do. On the labor side, this includes investing in staff, offering wellness reimbursement (including gym, therapy, language classes, and more).
“If you aren’t able to take care of yourself, you can’t take care of the people around you. Pay for volunteer opportunities. These values attract the right people, and they want to stay, it is very positive for the business overall.”
Along with people, Lyons makes sure to support his local community of growers and suppliers — especially during pandemic lockdowns. Most of the folks he orders from aren’t big enough to sell to grocery stores. That leaves farmer’s markets as their livelihood.
“Onions and potatoes don’t know that there’s a pandemic, they’re still growing. How can we support our partners and provide access to this nourishment?”
Lyons helped set up off-premise sales for their suppliers, including Atkinson Farms, Black Hill Ranch, Greenway Coffee, Ives Creek Organics, Slow Dough Bread Company, and plenty others. It started with produce boxes, growing into bacon, turkey, milk, eggs, produce, everything that they used to buy. Dish Society even shared recipes for cooking at home. It was wildly successful and allowed local ranchers/suppliers to keep their staff employed. They sold almost 5000 produce boxes and even offered meals for first responders, kind of a pay it forward model where consumers could buy for first responders.
As the world has opened back up, the focus shifts back to innovating on their menu and keeping the farm-to-table dream alive for the masses.
For the team at Lazy Betty, located in Atlanta, Georgia, innovation is the core of the business. Whether it’s a new dining experience, or a different approach to hiring and retaining staff, they’re always looking for the next big thing. “You have a duty in industry—in any industry—if you care, you have to push it forward,” said Owner and Chef Ronald Hsu.
Connection and community is at the heart of the Lazy Betty dining experience, where they pride themselves on serving exquisite ingredients in an unpretentious way. With a focus on seasonality, adaptability, and guest feedback, the menu is always changing. And, an open kitchen setting encourages the ‘small talk’ factor, building connectedness with the guests in the dining room.
“We take a broader approach to the concept of innovation,” said Ronald. “For me, first and foremost, we are a people business. You have to take care of the people who are going to take care of your customers.” Ronald explained that too often service workers aren’t treated equitably, and front- and back-of-house staff both deserve to be fairly compensated.
In order to remedy this, they have implemented a service charge, which allows the restaurant to divvy up tips however they see fit – and send their staff home with a higher paycheck. Ronald hopes that other restaurants will follow suit, and make a positive change in the industry. “You have to be brave enough, courageous enough to be different,” he said. “If people like it, that’s where innovation succeeds.”
DUKE'S DELICIOUS PIZZA
Growing up working in pizzerias, Timothy Miller always knew he wanted to start his own business. After working as a teacher for 14 years, he decided it was time to take the leap. Originally starting as a frozen pizza business, Duke’s Delicious Pizza eventually expanded into a mobile pizza pop-up, pulling his refurbished pizza oven on a motorcycle trailer to farmer’s markets around Arizona.
From the beginning of his pop-up, Timothy knew he wanted to go in a different direction than the traditional brick-and-mortar pizza shop. He is working to position himself so that he can keep growing in different directions – while keeping the mobility and flexibility of the trailer. Eventually, Timothy is hoping to convert a workshop at home into a cottage-licensed kitchen, outfitted with an oven, fridge, prep tables, and everything else needed in a commercial kitchen. Community building is the goal here – he’d love to rent out the space to friends in the industry and build a community of trustworthy bakers to use that same space.
For Timothy, the hard work made all the difference for Duke’s Delicious Pizza. “Restaurants who go in with a lot of investors will always be fine,” he said. “When there’s a story and a lot of hard work, it’s more sustainable in the long run.”
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