Published on January 3, 2018

Island Creek Oyster Bar Burlington's Erin DiNatale on Preparing for New Openings

Celebrating its one year birthday recently, Island Creek Oyster Bar (ICOB) Burlington is the second outpost of the Island Creek Oyster Bar Brand, a restaurant concept in partnership with Island Creek Oyster Farm. Now Burlington residents no longer have to travel to Boston for fresh oysters. 

Who's behind this Burlington oyster renaissance? General manager Erin DiNatale, who started as a server at Row 34 in Boston before rising to become a manager at Island Creek Boston in 2015, led the opening of the group's fourth location. We chatted with her about preparing for a new restaurant opening and creating team cohesion.

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Photo of Billy Costa, Cohost of Matty in the Morning Show, and Erin DiNatale, GM of ICOB Burlington

You opened Island Creek Oyster Bar (ICOB) Burlington as the General Manager just over a year ago. Can you speak about the group’s philosophies on opening restaurants?
The partners’ (Shore Gregory, Jeremy Sewall, Skip Bennet, and Garret Harker) philosophy on opening a new restaurant is to find a community that they can see themselves in. They’re incredibly passionate about participating and being an active part of the community they operate in. With regards to Burlington, they wanted to bring New England seafood and their spin on hospitality north of Boston (ICOB Burlington’s sister restaurants are located in Boston).

Island Creek Oyster Bar is a collaboration between chef and farmer. The farm is located in the south shore of Massachusetts in Duxbury, so people are familiar with the brand in Boston and to the south. Expanding north of Boston will hopefully give recognition to the incredible brand they’ve built in Duxbury with the farm, and in Boston with the original Island Creek Oyster Bar. We’re so excited to share great food and hospitality north of the city, and be a part of the amazing restaurant community in the area.

How did you prepare for the new opening?
Before I had the opportunity to open ICOB Burlington as General Manager, I was a Server at Row 34 (another restaurant brand in the family with one location in Boston and the other in Portsmouth, NH). I expressed interested in management, and got promoted to Floor Manager of ICOB Kenmore in June 2015. This is the type of move that the partners make often. If you’re interested in management, then you take the next management opportunity, regardless of location.

ICOB Burlington was already planned when I was brought on as a manager at the original ICOB location, which is another thing that is important to the partners. They want to immerse managers in the culture before moving to upper management. So I felt quite prepared to carry on the brand at the new location in Burlington. That being said…

I gather there were some learnings, no matter how prepared you were. What did you learn from the new opening?
I’ve already learned so much in the first year of opening this restaurant. As General Manager, if you commit your heart and soul to the staff and their development, they will stand by you and be proud to be a part of the team. When I first arrived in Burlington, I had heard that a lot of the hospitality professionals in the area bounce around a lot. I feel very privileged to have good staff retention as a result of a commitment to education. We have roughly a 90% retention rate for servers so far. We’ve helped back of house staff transition to front of house. We’ve watched people who have never worked in a restaurant before move up from busser to food runner to barback in one year since opening. It’s been incredible to be a part of these amazing individuals' growth!

How was this ICOB opening different from others?
There were definitely a few things about this location that are different from the Kenmore location. Training from the beginning was unique: we spent 2 weeks just learning. From classroom-style education to in-restaurant placement and storage to helping decorate the actual space (staff even filled the oyster containers on the wall with shells!). We took staff to the farm where they were able to understand what we do, where we come from, and gain passion for all things seafood and farming. We even played Oyster Jeopardy on the bus!

Another thing that was different about this location was that this was the partner’s first opportunity to build a restaurant built from ground up - it didn’t go into existing structure. This afforded us some luxuries like a dedicated private dining room space. Burlington has 3 spaces with state of the art A/V, and even a separate part of the kitchen for private events so that business doesn’t interfere with standard dinner service.

Finally, and this is really interesting, Bear Walk, a video production duo, filmed the entire Friends and Family! The partners had worked with them before, but it’s so nice to be able to look back on FF as staff, since it’s such a blur of excitement and anticipation. And it’s that much more rewarding to have the content now, especially having retained so much of that staff since then.

IslandCreekOysterBar2-Boston.jpg Photo provided by Island Creek Oyster Bar.

What are the challenges of trying to deliver the same guest experience as your sister restaurant in Boston? Have you adapted the experience you deliver to your guests in Burlington?
We want to make sure that we deliver on the guest expectation set by the hardworking team in Kenmore, and that requires constant attention. You want to be able to deliver on that, and we do so through aggressive training and continued daily education.

One cool thing that’s happened is the butterfly effect between Burlington and Boston. The energy and tenacity the team brought to the Burlington opening sort of revived some programs and tactics in Kenmore and given them new life. For instance, we have the “miroir, terroir” series. It’s an educational, interactive experience with guests, where we educate them on the similarities between a wine’s terroir and an oyster’s miroir. Wine tastes like the place it came from, and experts can identify grapes and where it was grown through sight, smell, and taste. The same applies to oysters. And we help our guests learn about both!

How have you created culture and utilized team building as a means to achieve the goals of the restaurant opening?
Field trips and offsites are amazing team building activities. Since the opening, we’ve visited breweries, dined together, and threw an anniversary party for the staff (on top of the holiday party!). The staff is like family, and it’s so important to do things together that aren’t strictly service.

I believe in a culture of education, which is a huge reason why I feel like I’ve found my place as a general manager here. The culture of dedication to education that we’ve created starts at staff briefing. Jess Kagel from Island Creek Farm will attend staff briefing several times a week to go in depth on oyster farmers and miroir. We’ll even bring in other oyster farmers we partner with, and use our in-depth knowledge of our farm’s oysters as a baseline. For instance, we know that Island Creek Oysters start in the hatchery from seed, are then moved to an upweller, and then into floating bags before going off the boat straight to the oyster floor before being harvested. We use this base to compare and understand other farmer's techniques when they come in. I could go on and on about our other oysters (Row 34’s and Aunt Doddy’s) and the other ones we like (Moonshoals and Beach Points) but I won’t bore you!

A big thanks to Erin DiNatale of ICOB Burlington for offering her time to speak with us and for her partnership with Reserve. Do you too want to be featured? Email your Restaurant Success Manager and let us know!

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