Turning Points is an interview series where we invite merchants to share a pivotal moment in the evolution of their business.
In 2009, John and Rebecca Lastoskie opened Graze: A Place to Eat, a quick-serve, fast-casual sandwich and salad restaurant in Walla Walla, WA. After opening a second drive-thru location in 2012, they were at a crossroads, deciding whether to take the risk of adding a third location or sitting tight with two locations and a dependable special event catering business. Here, John shares their journey from selling sandwiches at the farmer's market to now having five thriving locations with more than 85 employees.
Background | The path to opening a sandwich shop
Rebecca and I met working in a restaurant and loved the industry. We got married and graduated to "real jobs" — I was a junior high school science teacher, and Rebecca was a hairstylist — but always imagined opening a restaurant. We were young, naive, and ambitious enough to try it, so we quit our jobs, sold our house in Sacramento, and packed everything into our Volkswagen van and tent trailer. We drove around with our 18-month-old son and our pit bull, Larry, searching for a magical town to open a restaurant and raise our family.
When we stumbled across Walla Walla after two months on the road, it felt right. It was affordable and we liked the vibe of the town. Eastern Washington is home to over a hundred wineries, and Walla Walla has a great downtown core, two colleges, and a diverse population. In 2006 it was relatively undiscovered and was ripe with restaurant opportunities.
Initially, Rebecca was doing hair to pay the bills while I catered and sold sandwiches at the farmer's market. It took three years for us to actually open our first sandwich shop in 2009 — 950 square feet in the former front lobby of a Sears Tire Shop. From the start, our idea was to cook all the sandwich and salad ingredients in-house. We were not going to be just another generic sandwich place. At Graze, we make everything ourselves. We cook the meat and make the sauces, sauerkraut, bread, mayo — you name it, we do it. It's a lot of work, but fresh and simple food has always been so important to us.
"We cook the meat, make the sauces, sauerkraut, bread, mayo — you name it, we do it. It's a lot of work, but fresh and simple food has always been so important to us."
Challenge | Making the decision to expand
Our second location, Graze Drive Thru (Walla Walla), opened in the spring of 2012, and at that point, we were finally doing well with a stable business that was supporting our family. But then came the opportunity to open a third location an hour's drive away in the Tri-Cities area of Eastern Washington. It was a voice that we couldn’t quiet.
We had to ask ourselves, "Do we want to take the leap and expand, which could bankrupt us? Or do we sit tight with the catering gigs, two sandwich shop locations, and a nice quality of life?" Ultimately, we decided to listen to that voice and opened the third location in 2014. We didn't want to look back in 30 years and regret not taking the chance.
Approach | How Graze continued to grow
Expanding to multiple locations, especially in different cities, brought a lot of complexities. In order to do it successfully, we had to keep several variables in mind.
Understanding local laws and regulations
The Tri-Cities were an hour away and required us to comply with another county's health department, due to our commissary kitchen setup. It was a huge hurdle to clear. Blast chillers, refrigerated vehicles, and HACCP plans became our new friends! The infrastructure build-up was daunting and expensive, and the paperwork was not for the faint of heart.
Hiring good people
Hiring staff for a new restaurant concept an hour from home was daunting. But with time, we were able to build a great team with a healthy culture. We feel the heart and soul of our business is the employees, so you want to work with good people, support them, and create a safe and respectful place that your employees enjoy coming to.
Over the years we played around with employee reviews and bonus structures to varying degrees of success. In the last year, we instituted manager reviews and bonuses, a detailed employee review process, instructional videos for prep work and sandwich making, and better training for new hires. The impact on new employees and manager satisfaction has been remarkable. Right now almost 50% of our staff have been with Graze for a year or longer — one of our proudest metrics on the health of our business.
"If you treat employees well, teach them appropriate skills, and promote a good work environment, then we think most employees will do awesome things and enjoy being at work."
Ensuring consistent service and quality
We didn’t want to lose our flexibility and become rule-oriented and corporate, but we had to ensure our customers had the same experience at all locations. We tightened up operations, wrote an employee manual, implemented measurements for recipes, and created more detailed procedures. These parts of the process were always important, but it wasn’t until our third store that we really took this lesson to heart.
Expanding our business with delivery
And while our brick-and-mortar expansion helped us grow, a significant amount of our takeout business' success is because of our DoorDash partnership. It made a big difference in our ability to survive during the pandemic.
Prior to DoorDash, we were accepting text message orders during the flip phone era. Customers would text their order using sandwich codes (such as T = Turkey, A = Avocado, P = Pastrami), and we would respond to confirm orders with "K!" Flip phone texting was crazy and amazing.
Originally, we added DoorDash to supplement our evening business at our slowest location. When we saw how well it was doing for us, we listed each of our locations on DoorDash in the winter evenings, when foot traffic was slower.
Eventually, we went exclusively with DoorDash because the Storefront platform is great. Today, it’s on all day and accounts for 25% of our sales — it’s bonkers!
of Graze's overall sales are from DoorDash
Result | Lessons learned and continued growth
We now have five locations, a 4,000 square-foot central kitchen, and around 85 employees. This spring, we bought a beautiful four-deck commercial oven built out a bakery. Now we supply all of our own bread needs instead of buying from other sources, and it’s way better for our business. None of this would have happened if we hadn't taken a risk and opened a third location.
"If you want to open a new location, you think you have a good idea, and the math seems right, you should do it. Otherwise, when you get old, you might regret it."
The turning point from a stable two-location business to what is now five locations was a huge step. If we are lucky and that voice speaks to us again, maybe we will open more — or maybe not! This has been a crazy ride and no matter what happens, we are so grateful to everyone who has come along with us.
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