Lessons in Action, Part VII … Reinventing Azul: Setting a New Course for a Fading Restaurant

Every day I think of Michael O’Grady and the creative ways he coached and mentored so many to new heights. In this new series, Lessons in Action, I’ll I share my insights, breakthroughs tools, and techniques that honor his legacy of helping others grow.

At Azul at the JW Ihilani Marriott in Honolulu, I luxuriate in the first bite of a brilliant red heirloom tomato, taking me back to Grandma Celeste’s garden in Maryland, where I ate sweet juicy gems right off the vine. After a 10-day training stint, I reflect on the teamwork it took to re-energize a failing enterprise. For the first five days, GM Steve Glen; managers AJ and Greg: chefs Blaine and Randall; and I worked to build the vision, tools, and training needed to set a new course.

1. Create the guiding principles. Every bite would be exquisite. Dishes would be crafted from locally sourced fruits and veggies, day-boat fish and natural meats. Desserts and breads would be housemade, and wine would be California boutique. Guests would be pampered with chefs’ gifts, educated service and, most importantly, a spirit of warmth and welcome.

2. Write a storyboard. We created a map of the guest experience.

The opening scene: Tommy, the bellman, greets you and escorts you down the grand marble staircase to two pools, one filled with circling hammerheads and tiger sharks, one with broad-winged stingrays. You’re mesmerized by the starlit Pacific sky and perfume of hibiscus and birds of paradise.

The host tour: Continuing through the iron-gated entrance to a marble-tiled hallway, Candy, the hostess, smiles and says, “Aloha. E komo mai,” meaning “hello and come sit.” She leads you to a lounge adorned with tiger lilies and stargazers where you enjoy garlic basil flatbread and a pomegranate martini. When your table is ready, Candy escorts you through a room with a wine case and wood-burning oven where Pastry Chef Slavic is making flatbreads and showing off his pineapple tart. Candy’s last stop is the dining room. She seats you by open patio doors overlooking a tiki-lit pool surrounded by a garden with roses, Tasmanian ferns, and birds of paradise.

The beverage offering. Shane, the busser, pours complimentary local MaHaLo water before ace server Chary begins, “Welcome to Azul. Thanks for joining us. I understand this is your first visit.” Her eye contact and smile are proof positive she’s not just going through the motions. She graciously opens the wine list and suggests the Turnbull Sauvignon Blanc and Whitehall Lane Cabernet with a few well-chosen words.

The menu offering: “Allow me a few moments to tell you about several offerings. On the left are three standouts: Our Kona Lobster Ceviche marinated in lime juice, mango, Maui onion, and cilantro; our Lobster Bisque, a 24-hour labor of love, velvety and delicious; and, tops on the taste meter, our Heirloom Tomato Salad served with Molokai basil and gorgonzola, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with Hawaiian sea salt. On the right, don’t miss our Aged Natural Rib-Eye marinated in rosemary, sage, and thyme. Further down is Onaga, a local red snapper filet served with a Meyer lemon butter sauce.” You appreciate Chary’s insights since you might have stayed safe and ordered the chicken.

The order. You go for the Lobster Bisque, Heirloom Tomato Salad, and Onaga Snapper. Moments later, Chary returns. “Please accept our chef’s gift of eggplant caviar on a ciabatta crostini. And, after enjoying the amazing Heirloom Tomato Salad, she serves an intermezzo of lychee and basil sorbet. Next up is the Onaga with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Throughout, Chary’s interplay with bussers, servers, and managers creates an experience of precision, grace and warmth. She asks where you’re from, remarking on the purpose of your visit. She’s moved by photos of your children.

The good-bye. “For the finale, note our desserts on the right side of the menu. On the left are dessert wines, Cognacs, and Hawaiian estate-grown coffees, French-pressed tableside,” Chary says. You pick the pineapple tart along with Greenwell Farms Kona. She offers complimentary Limoncello. After paying, she helps with your chair and hands you a white bag. “This is a special gift of pineapple scones. Have a pleasant trip … and next time bring the kids,” she warmly adds.

3. Conduct the training. The next five days, we used the storyboard to craft game plans. Chefs Kevin and Randall put on a dazzling food show with the sights, smells, tastes, and stories of each dish, from a ruby red snapper to the organic heirloom tomato. We created sales dialogue along with a glossary of interesting tidbits gleaned from Google and our faithful reference guide, Barron’s Food Lover’s Companion.

Taking off from Honolulu toward DC, I thought about how, in a world of biogenetically processed food and impersonal service, Azul was transformed to provide an experience we long for: a return to earth and the human touch.

About the Author

Bob Brown, president of Bob Brown Service Solutions,, pioneered Marriott’s Service Excellence Program. He has worked with clients such as Disney, Hilton, Morton’s of Chicago, Nordstrom, Olive Garden, and Ritz Carlton and works internationally with the prestigious Burj Al Arab in Dubai. He has appeared on the Food Network and is author of the bestselling The Little Brown Book of Restaurant Success, selling over 100,000 copies worldwide. Contact Bob for keynotes, workshops, breakouts, and executive retreats at 571-246-2944 ©Bob Brown Service Solutions 2016.

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