Life in the restaurant industry is pretty similar to working on Capitol Hill, Steve Ding said Thursday afternoon as he sat at one of the tables of his new business venture: Woodbridge Crossing.
Previously chief of staff for former Rep. Richard Pombo, Ding is no stranger to stress and crises that come with running a campaign and being in charge. And while he may no longer be hopping on cross-country flights several times a week for strategy sessions, he’s now using the skills acquired in the political arena to keep the customers of his restaurant coming back for more.
“Both jobs are basically customer service,” he said, as patrons sat shoulder-to-shoulder at the bar behind him during the restaurant’s lunch shift.
The steak and seafood restaurant, formerly Woodbridge Feed and Fuel, is now the center of Ding’s attention. While he hasn’t changed the restaurant’s trademark Western decor, Ding has focused his efforts on the menu. With the help a new executive chef, the restaurant now offers wild salmon, homemade potato chips and Ding’s favorite, baby back ribs. Even though the sauce recipe is a closely guarded secret, Ding did say the ribs feature a traditional coating with hints of honey. What Ding is most pleased with about the dish is that the rich sauce isn’t overpowering and the cooks apply it with a light hand so it doesn’t drown the ribs.
The investment is both joyous and stressful, and Ding said he is surprised at how closely restaurants and politics mirror each other.
The Stockton native exited politics after 25 years because he was tired of the constant travel and wanted to invest in a business.
“I wanted brick and mortar,” he said. “I just didn’t know there would be this much brick.”
Continuing a tradition with a modern approach
Built in 1865, Woodbridge Crossing has plenty of history. The brick building was a Wells Fargo stop during the 19th century and features a makeshift jail in the basement. While it’s little more than a storage space now, the area is just one part of the building Ding enjoys talking about.
Even though his restaurant staff is smaller — the restaurant employs 20 while he led a political staff of 60 — Ding finds many parallels between the servers and strategists. He points to servers who have been at the restaurant for decades and sincerely love the work.
“Just like the attorneys and engineers I worked with, the servers here are just as passionate about their job,” he said.
But there is one notable difference between politics and the restaurant industry: competitors working together.
When the new ownership group took over Nov. 1, 2010, Ding realized just how different relationships would be in the restaurant industry. It was Game 5 of the World Series and the bar was packed with patrons ready to celebrate the San Francisco Giants winning the Fall Classic. With orders pouring in, the restaurant’s credit card machine went down.
He went to the establishment next to him, Cactus Mexican Restaurant, and was able to borrow one of their old credit card processors. The act of professionalism stunned Ding, who said something like that would never happen in politics.
“People in politics knock you down and use you as a step-stool,” he said.
The sense of fellowship he’s experienced with Woodbridge restaurateurs has him looking to promote the area as a destination for diners. Lodians can sometimes forget the small community when it comes to making dinner plans.
While any plans are purely in the discussion stage, Ding said he envisions festivals in Woodbridge that highlight the area’s agriculture. Noting that olives are the fastest growing agricultural commodity in the county, Ding said an olive oil tasting at Woodbridge restaurants is something he’s considering.
Consistency is key
It’s important for the food and ambiance to be consistent for every table that comes in, Ding said. Taking lessons from his days in Washington and in war rooms, Ding said it’s key to avoid saying “no” to a customer.
“If someone wants us to put a chicken breast on a hamburger bun and top it with Alfredo sauce, we will do it,” he said. “If we have the ingredients available, we will work to do it.”
Despite the long hours, permitting issues and small crises that come with owning a restaurant, Ding said it all becomes worthwhile when he sees the same faces coming back time and time again.
“Seeing people come back a second, third or fourth time with smiles on their faces and saying how great the service was is the most rewarding part,” he said.