The next time you’re in Satellite Beach enjoying a cold beer and a hot slaw dog or basket of wings at Long Doggers, you’ll probably notice a collection of surfboards, say hello to a friend you haven’t seen in a few weeks and feel yourself relaxing just a bit at one of Brevard’s favorite local spots, thanks to L.J. Burr, Al Steiginga and Tony Gebhardt.

Let this sink in: these three partners, along with a few others (different at each restaurant), have created a favorite “locals spot”in five distinct locations around the county. With similar, but unique, restaurants in Indialantic, Melbourne, Satellite Beach, Palm Bay, Viera and Cocoa Beach, along with Meg O’Malley’s Irish Restaurant in downtown Melbourne and Hemingway’s Tavern in Melbourne, the parent company, LDE, Inc., is a nearly $30 million per year Brevard food services powerhouse, employing over 300 people. Purely and proudly local.

The origin story has been on the Long Doggers menu for years. A bunch of guys go on a surfing safari in a Volkswagen van to the Outer Banks in North Carolina and form life-long friendships that carry on today and provide the solid foundation of the organization today.

That isn’t just marketing hyperbole, it is all true. (Full disclosure: I was employed by the company for a few years, and still consider eating there (frequently) like a family dinner at home).

Photograph by Jason Hook

Burr, Steiginga, and Gebhardt on occasion still argue like brothers. I’ve been there, seen that. But they also come together to run this successful melding of friends, family and business in a way that honors hard work, commitment and community. Family? Certainly. After nearly 25 years, children of first-generation employees and owners now work at Long Doggers, and Meg’s, and Hemingway’s.

Like family, Long Doggers is in their blood, but according to Burr, it is the “relentless restlessness for improvement” that keeps that blood pumping. This alignment of mission challenges everyone from CEO to cook and is a Long Doggers leadership best practice. To succeed at LDE, Inc., you learn to recognize that every job matters as much as any other, and each is singularly critical to delivering the best guest experience.

An odd circumstance for this company, and one that is hard to fathom, is that the systems in place came after their initial success. When the group decided to expand, systems needed to be created and tested, not only for promoting consistency across the brand but also for ensuring the fair treatment of employees. That turned out to be one of Burr’s strengths as he took on writing the playbook for how an LDE restaurant was to be run.

Successive locations follow guidelines now, and Gebhardt monitors their progress, making adjustments unique to each location. In a meeting once, the group was considering adding quesadillas to the menu. Gebhardt added to the conversation that if a family of five was seated and they all ordered the new quesadillas, the entire cooktop could be taken for all the time it takes to prepare them. That could slow down the orders for other guests, or they’d have wait for space to cook them one at a time. Either way, the guest experience would be compromised and that did not seem like the right way to go. That’s the level of detail the team is constantly addressing, and also why Long Doggers doesn’t serve quesadillas!

When the federal government announced its first programs to help local businesses survive during the pandemic, Long Doggers adjusted its model to include selling groceries to their communities through drive-up windows and curbside service. And in a widely publicized, wildly appreciated step, they gave their em- ployees raises instead of furloughs. Raises.

The doors were shut, the stools stacked in a corner, but each Long Doggers location determinedly remained a vital part of their respective communities.

Burr said, “We are part of the Brevard community, it’s built into the fabric of our daily work-lives.”

To this group, “local” isn’t an adjective, it’s a verb. Being locally-owned comes with local responsibilities, and LDE is mindful about protecting theirs, spearheading efforts to reduce plastic straws and Styrofoam containers, supporting programs to seed oysters in the Indian River Lagoon, and striving daily to raise
awareness of our impact to the local environment. Burr believes strongly that if you’re not a steward for your community, you’re not truly successful.

How do these values of friendship, dedication and commitment to community manifest in the restaurants?

Burr says, “We all respect each other. The corporate office exists to better the lives of our staff. Fairness, thoughtfulness and energy are the criteria for staff retention. As a practice, we want truth over harmony. That makes collaboration more difficult [sometimes] but delivers better results.”

Having spent many years at the original Long Doggers location in Indialantic, Burr now spends his time overseeing daily operations, guiding each individual restaurant. Steiginga drives marketing, so don’t be surprised to find him on the beach with front-of-house staff in an impromptu social media workshop. Gebhardt is, and has always been, the CFO making sure the entire operation rolls smoothly and forward.

Each of these three would tell you instantly that there are many other names that should be celebrated here. That’s the “radically relaxed” magic of LDE, Inc.: every person’s efforts are recognized and appreciated as vital to the success of the organization.