The man behind Villa O knows what people want
It’s 6 p.m. on a Monday and the room is filled.
The lights have been dimmed and the mahogany walls glow with the setting sun making you feel as if you have stepped onto a cruise ship.
A man exits a nearby restaurant and heads toward Villa O, this “ship.”
He enters through the revolving door and introduces himself as Steven Elsea, the inconspicuous, middle-aged man who is behind this nautically-themed restaurant.
There are hundreds of restaurants to choose from in Dallas, as this city has the largest restaurant per capita in the nation, according to CNN.com.
But there is something about the Italian restaurant on Travis Street that seems to set it apart from all others.
Perhaps it is Villa O’s use of organic and local ingredients in a majority of its dishes.
Maybe it’s the packed dining area that never seems to diminish.
It could possibly be the reality that we are in an economic crisis and Villa O is thriving as though we weren’t.
But it is probably Elsea himself, the genius and vice president of operations at Villa O who designed this bustling arrangement of things we associate with home like big tables, jovial laughter and divine aromas.
No ship can sail successfully without a captain. In the case of O, Elsea has set sail a set of ideas to keep this establishment afloat.
When he was a teenager, he got his start in the restaurant industry as a host at Ruby Tuesday in Miami.
When Elsea turned 18 he was promoted to manager.
He went on to open eight other restaurants within that franchise in three different states: Florida, Georgia and Alabama.
“I didn’t go to culinary school because I wanted to be a chef. I went because I just loved to cook,” Elsea said.
To fulfill his passion he traveled to Providence, R.I. to attend Johnson and Wales University.
After completing culinary school, he ambitiously entered into the business school for marketing and hospitality.
Elsea spent the next 10 years in the four and five star hotel business working for hotels such as the Texas institution, the Mansion on Turtle Creek.
All of Elsea’s experience in the industry reflects where he gets much of his ideas for Villa O.
For example, he created an event every Monday night called guest appreciation night.
On such an evening you can expect every table to be filled with smiling guests, the room to be booming with the sound of deep conversation shared amongst friends and the bar is crowded, three people deep.
It feels like the warm comfort of going to a party at your best friend’s house.
What has brought all of these people together tonight? Free food. “Tonight we offer a two course meal, for free— no catches,” Elsea said proudly. The only requirements are that you have a reservation and it must be for six or fewer people.
“In fact, this is one way we save money actually. Instead of spending money on ad space, we spend it on the guest,” he said.
This is free media.
People hear about an outstanding free meal that their roommate had the other night, make a reservation, eat the food and bam! They are hooked.
SMU communications major Stuart Fisher would agree with Elsea’s technique.
In her classes she is learning that “Places are starting to really utilize as much free media as possible during this economy,” she said.
Junior Lindsey Gengo said Villa O has been one of her favorite restaurants in Dallas since she was a freshman.
“It’s funny because I have never seen an ad for this place, yet every time I go they just seem to be getting busier and busier,” she said.
It is Elsea’s innovative ideas that keep guests coming back for more.
He also believes that in order to continue to be successful one must “do what they do better.”
By ‘doing better’ Elsea means never compromising standards, food, service or hospitality.
“These are the foundations of our success and we are successful because of them, not despite them,” he said.
There is no quality without consistency, Elsea said.
This is not just a phrase Elsea applies to his line of work, but what he looks for in his restaurant of choice when he is not eating at the restaurants he operates.
“If I could choose anywhere else, it would have to be P.F. Chang’s,” he said.
He said he likes it because of the idea that it is a widely known establishment and he can go to any one of the restaurants in the country and the quality never fluctuates.
“After the downfall of the economy,” Elsea said. “We have had an uptick.”
In April the proprietors of Villa O will be opening the third concept restaurant called Sfuzzi.
Elsea’s idea behind Sfuzzi was to target the SMU community by creating a place for students to go for late night eating.
Elsea knows what people want and what a community needs.
According to Elsea, his knowledge of these areas are the foundation for good public relations.
“The three things that are needed in order to be successful in PR are to protect your identity, act with integrity, and always do your best,” Elsea said.
“In my opinion, a good PR representative is one that gets results,” said Susan Friedman, owner and publicist of FMPR, a public relations firm in Dallas. If results are a direct reflection of a successful idea, then Elsea has reached success.
However, Elsea considers himself successful as long as he is “remembered as someone who gave and got respect.”