2016 San Francisco Rising Star Restaurateur Charles Bililies of Souvla

2016 San Francisco Rising Star Restaurateur Charles Bililies of Souvla
May 2016

Born into a Greek-American family of restaurateurs, Charles Bililies was destined to a life in hospitality. The Boston native was studying natural resources at the University of Vermont when he realized his family-bred love of food was too strong to ignore. Bililies started on the line at juggernaut Legal Seafoods and earned his culinary degree at Johnson & Wales in nearby Providence, Rhode Island. After three years with Legal, Bililies decided he wanted to learn more about the business of hospitality and earned his degree in business administration from Cornell University. 

In 2006, Belilies became Thomas Keller’s first assistant. From there, he helped coordinate the infrastructure and training program at The French Laundry, and a job as director of management at Bouchon followed. After a year and a half at Bouchon, he moved on to assist another industry great: Michael Mina, whom he helped launch RN74. 

All the while Bililies was hosting backyard barbecues, where he gathered friends and fed them spit-roasted whole animals. Eating leftover lamb on a sandwich one day, he dreamed up the idea for a fast-casual, tech-driven Greek restaurant. Souvla opened its doors in 2014 in Hayes Valley with Greek froyo in the front, rotisseries in the back, and optional fries built into your sandwich (aka Greek-style). Everything at Souvla is purposeful and thoughtful—from the color scheme and art on the walls, to the music, lighting, take-away counter, and side walk dining. Making Alamo Square a livelier place to eat, Souvla’s second location will be opeining soon.  

Interview with San Francisco Rising Star Charles Billilies of Souvla

Sean Kenniff: How did you get your start? 
Charles Billilies: 
I enrolled in the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell. My professor Giuseppi Pezzotti got me into The French Laundry. After that, I didn't want to go back on the line [at Legal Sea Foods]. It just so happened that Thomas Keller was looking for an admin-type person to liaison with the kitchen, and he created a culinary assistant position. I worked there for a year and helped launch a management training program, and then I became director of management at Bouchon Bakery. History repeated, and I worked on a few more management training programs: I was tapped by Corey Lee, and then Michael Mina to help open RN74. I stayed and became assistant general manager. Two and half years later, I had the idea for Souvla. 

SK: If you had to estimate a percent, how much of the work of managing your business are you able to do with your phone? What phone do you have? 
Restaurants are inherently analog, and require a talented team on the ground to manage the operation itself, for which I am very grateful to have. Having said that, provided there's internet access, I can get an immediate, real-time snapshot of the business from my iMac or iPhone via email, online dashboards, and a host of apps. 

SK: What apps are you using? 
We use Caviar and Postmates to receive guest orders for delivery. All of our orders, whether dine-in, take-out, or delivery, all funnel through our Square Register (point of sale)—all to one kitchen printer. We've had a strong relationship with Square since before our opening, and have been at the forefront of their new products, being in position to test and offer real-world feedback to their teams (their offices are just down the street). We helped with Square's Dashboard App, which is an integral part of our business management—tracking revenue and item sales in real time and showing sales comparisons week-over-week, month-over-month etc. We also work closely with Plate IQ, where we scan and upload all of our invoices via mobile, allowing us to track all of our purchases and monitor item prices, food cost etc. We're working with them on an inventory component, which will allow us to take our end of month inventory via mobile with our most-current item pricing, as opposed to an Excel spreadsheet. 

On the HR side, we run all of our payroll through Gusto, which also handles our worker's comp and employee benefits, all from a simple web portal. Our Square Registers also run the Homebase app, which handles all of our timekeeping functions, as well as employee scheduling (allowing us to track labor cost in real time). Administratively, all of our files are backed up on Dropbox and Google Drive and shared accordingly with the team, so we can access anything via mobile or computer when we’re away from the restaurant.

On the operations side, we have the restaurant's lights wired with Lutron Caseta wireless dimmers, which can be adjusted via iPhone app, and programmed to dim/brighten/turn on/off at certain times of day. Nest Cams and their app cover all of our safety and security needs, and more importantly, allow us to monitor the business when we’re not on the floor, and determine when managers need to shift from the office to the floor etc.

SK: Have you tried out some apps or technologies that have not worked out?
The one we had the biggest hopes for but ultimately didn't take off for us was Slack. It has been widely adopted and is popular with other teams, but we never ended up using it much here, perhaps because we're still a very small team who see each other all the time and only have one restaurant. We're hoping to revisit it when we realize our growth plans. [Note: a second location of Souvla has since opened near Alamo Square across from Nopa.]

SK: Given your close proximity to Square, both physically and financially, can you tell us more about the technology you’ve adopted in your store?
There are some things I can't tell you about, unfortunately, but we happened to open Souvla around the time that Square was readying Marketplace (its online "store") along with its integration directly into Square Register. This effectively allowed guests to order remotely (via mobile or web), receive a text when their order was ready, and skip the line and pick up their food, with the order already being paid for. We hadn't originally accounted for online sales, or delivery for that matter, and two years later it's 30 percent of our business!

SK:  How much did this technology cost you? What do you think are its most beneficial aspects?
For us, the investment lies more with our team's time and energy spent on it as opposed to anything financial. Especially with new companies, we're very particular about who we work with, and view these as true partnerships. As with any investment, there is risk and reward, and we've been fortunate to have several of these work out very positively for us.