20 Years and Still Doing What is Right
By: Steven Hicks
Early one June morning in 1997, well before dawn, John “LJ” Burr and Al Steiginga unlocked the door to their new business. They began to prepare for their first day open to the public. Two friends who’d met in college and surfed together took a first step in a journey that would continue to this day. The door they opened that morning has become a Brevard icon. It has become a $15 million-plus juggernaut employing hundreds and impacting thousands. The door they opened that June morning was to be the first Long Doggers restaurant in Indialantic.
DOING WHAT IS RIGHT
Burr and Steiginga have been friends and business partners now for nearly 30 years. They are that rare pair who complement each other perfectly. Steiginga is outgoing and emotional; Burr is more subdued and purposeful. Today, Burr runs LDE, Inc., the umbrella company for the current six Long Doggers locations (as well as Meg O’Malley’s Irish Pub and Restaurant in historic Downtown Melbourne, and Hemingway’s Tavern in The Oaks Plaza off Hibiscus near Orlando/Melbourne International Airport) with what he calls “restless relentlessness.” Steiginga still manages the original Long Doggers in Indialantic. He also coaches the other locations’ managers in the Long Doggers’ model for success. Burr says, “We opened (additional) restaurants because we had great people who were looking for more responsibility and growth in the organization. We never really opened restaurants to make money; in fact making money has never been a purpose, just a result. Doing what is right is our first priority.”
DETERMINED, PLANNED GROWTH
After the first Long Doggers opened in 1997, there were immediate plans to grow, but not until the right location came along and the processes were in place. Burr insisted that while each location had its own personality because of its location, the guest experience needed to be consistent. The same, but different. In 2003, the second Long Doggers opened on Post Road in Melbourne.
The third location followed in Satellite Beach, the fourth in Palm Bay. Number five was more of a gamble, as it opened in Viera, away from the traffic of The Avenue on Viera Boulevard. The Viera location reinforced a theme LDE wanted to keep: Long Doggers are neighborhood restaurants for locals, not a chain with mass-produced food and uniformed staff. Most recently, the sixth Long Doggers opened in Cocoa Beach, a block back from the intersection of state roads 520 and A1A.
The executive staff has grown with LDE’s success as well. Today’s brain trust consists of Burr and Steiginga; Scott Marathas, a partner with Burr at Meg O’Malley’s; Tony Gebhardt (another friend and surfer from college) who came onboard early as a CFO; and the more recent additions of Jeff Buck, food and beverage director, and Bob DiMeo (also a fraternity brother) as director of marketing.
“WE HAVE FUN EACH AND EVERY DAY”
You’ll discover a common thread throughout the staff, management, and owners of these restaurants. It is a “work hard, play hard” mantra that keeps everyone sane through the long hours this type of work carries. From finding Steiginga ushering guests into their seats with a bullhorn, calling for refills of drinks, to their famous twice-a-year parties for staff and their families, the people of Long Doggers certainly know how to enjoy themselves and each other. You’ll likely catch the manager of the Satellite Beach restaurant surfing at dawn before he opens his doors, and Steiginga has probably run or biked quite a few miles already when you see him at lunch. These are real people and your neighbors whom you’ll get to know as a regular guest.
MANAGERS AS OWNERS
There are a core group of owners and investors for Long Doggers restaurants. Interestingly, that core varies from location to location. Again, the same but different. Friends and investors are in line now for the next location to be named. Uniquely, a portion of ownership is put aside to be offered to the manager upon opening. This literally encourages a sense of ownership to the management of a Long Doggers and reinforces that vital aspect of being “local” that is integral to success. Guests get to know the management, their families, hobbies and community interests.
THE SAME BUT DIFFERENT
Twenty years on now, Long Doggers eschews the outward traits of a chain. These are six specifically local restaurants with the same name. If you haven’t been to a Long Doggers (is that possible?), you’ll need to try all six. Each has its own vibe created by the management and staff on site. From Indialantic’s small surf shack feel to Post Road’s college vibe, Satellite Beach’s neighborhood hangout style to Palm Bay’s locals’ bar, Viera’s local sports headquarters to Cocoa Beach’s big bright surf-mecca outdoor deck, each is uniquely Long Doggers, and uniquely successful.
Long Doggers is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2017 with a beachside celebration at Nance Park, Indialantic, in July. Follow the event on Long Doggers’ Facebook page starting soon.