When you walk into a bank vault, you may not be expecting to be handed a cocktail, but that’s exactly what happens at Shelby, a speakeasy in downtown Detroit. Shelby started as an Australian-style cafe: coffee by day, cocktails by night, and has grown into one of the city’s premier new restaurants - they were even a semifinalist for Outstanding Bar Program in 2022 for the James Beard Foundation awards.
We spoke with director of hospitality Mindy Lopus about Shelby’s history, future, and how they’ve managed to build such a tight team with high retention rates. So, pour yourself a drink and let's start the conversation!
Entrepreneurs: don’t be afraid to start over
Mindy told us a little bit about the winding paths that it took some of Shelby’s leadership team to get to the restaurant industry, and the lessons they picked up along the way. This is something we see a lot: individuals with successful careers, usually in the corporate world, who desire something more. Honeycomb alumni such as Butter and Scotch in Atlanta and Western Reserve Distillers in Cleveland are just some examples.
Shelby’s owner Tarun Kajepeeta started his career in business consulting and development, and fell in love with the space at Shelby, located in the basement of an old bank. It took a year to get Shelby ready for service, during which the pandemic raged front and center.
What was key for Tarun was to hire a director of operations and hospitality to run the restaurant and raise the bar on hospitality. This is where Mindy comes in. Mindy spent 18 years in the tech world, which she found tiring as the ever-changing nature of the industry made her feel like she had to change directions every year. This spurred her to take courses to become a sommelier and began consulting and opening restaurants, and eventually led her to Tarun and Shelby.
Make customers and employees feel like they matter
Hospitality is front and center at Shelby. “Hospitality is one of the last remaining way to get human contact - I would hate to see everything turn into fast casual and lose the human aspect of it,” says Mindy.
This comes into play with the overall vibe of the restaurant. Shelby is dedicated to representing Detroit in their food, drink, sustainability program, and of course their hospitality. Mindy told us that too often in the restaurant industry, the focus is on the food and hospitality gets put on the back burner. At Shelby, they’ve found the perfect balance between the two.
The other place where hospitality is important is internally with the restaurant’s team. Employee retention is incredibly important for Shelby, and Mindy does what she can to make her employees feel valued and that they are growing alongside the restaurant. This has been the case for her whole career - she told us the first busser she ever hired is now a partner in one of her restaurants.
At Shelby, employee retention comes down to the golden rule: treat others the way you want to be treated. And it’s shown not just in the culture of the restaurant, but also in the way that employees are paid a living wage, given growth opportunities, and offered a unique work experience.
When employees do leave, Mindy makes sure that a social media post is made to send them off and thank them for their hard work - it’s little things like this that make people feel valued and want to stay. Furthermore, this trickles down into how employees treat customers, making everyone feel welcome at Shelby.
Uncertainty is certain in the restaurant industry
One of the biggest lessons Mindy has learned in the restaurant industry is that margins are slim and things are constantly changing - especially food prices. This is especially true in these years after the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This year, people are tightening their belts,” she says. “You need to put out a special vibe and give them an experience in order to bring people out. You can’t rest on what happened last year or the year before.”
Despite this uncertainty, Mindy is working with Tarun again to open another restaurant this fall. Coming in November, it’s going to be a vegetable-forward, open-fire fine dining restaurant with a casual vibe.
Lessons from the vault
Thank you to Mindy for sharing her story with us and showing us the secret sauce to Shelby’s legendary hospitality. We’re so excited when restaurateurs like her are generous with their time and advice to help pave the way for entrepreneurs of all stripes, like those we work with on Honeycomb.
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