Skip to main content

Why Fit In When Your Business Can Stand Out

Episode 60

033122-podcast Paluca

Listen here

At the mouth of Monterey Fisherman’s Wharf lies Paluca Trattoria, a “coastal chic” restaurant focused on keeping the history and authenticity of its location alive. Customers can watch aquatic life swim in the bay while eating delicious meals and also observe the sense of community and camaraderie in the restaurant. Reviewer Valerie A. shares her experience using Yelp to find this classic Italian eatery amidst a relatively touristy location, and she describes what made it stand out.

On the Yelp Blog: Read the three tips that have helped Paluca Trattoria’s owners make a lasting impression on visitors to Monterey for more than two decades.

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. This week I talked to Yelp reviewer Valerie A. Her and her husband live in Sacramento and found themselves a little too close to one of Northern California’s wildfires last year, so they decided to get out of the way of all the smoke.

They landed in Monterey, California, and found a quiet Italian restaurant right in the middle of the famous (and famously touristy) Fisherman’s Wharf—Paluca Trattoria.

VALERIE: We found a place in Monterey and we decided to stay there for a few days until the weather got a little bit better here at home.  We were out and about in Monterey and we’re riding our bikes and walking around and really enjoying the place. And we were down by the Fisherman’s Wharf and it was a little bit more crowded than we expected and we’re hungry.

So of course I looked at Yelp and Yelp is really useful in a place like Fisherman’s Wharf because it’s very touristy and there’s a lot of people and everywhere kind of looks the same. You really don’t want to waste your time and you don’t want to have a bad meal or a bad experience.

I opened up my Yelp and I saw the restaurant and I was really happy it had a feature I’d never used on Yelp before, which is that you can check in and get on the waitlist, right? I was looking around to try to get reservations and everything was booked. So I like the fact that I could check it on the waitlist. So I did that. And we walked around for a little bit, and then we headed back to the restaurant and we checked in and were able to get a seat right away, which was really great!

EMILY: I’m always excited to hear that Yelp features for small businesses are working for both the business and the consumer. When we launch a new feature, we’re looking to create great customer experiences, like the one Valerie detailed.. More on that later.

Let’s listen to Valerie’s review.

VALERIE: It’s hard to pick a place to eat in such a touristy spot as Monterey Fisherman’s Wharf, but we took to Yelp and were not disappointed.  We were able to get in line with Yelp, which I’m not sure made a difference. Although it said there was a wait, we were seated immediately.

The menu was great with lots of traditional Italian classics and some fresh seafood. Our table was nice on the water, but just far enough away so we weren’t freezing. They have plenty of heat lamps for added warmth. Our server Rosemary was really friendly and accommodating and we had a lovely evening.

EMILY: I like this review — it covers a lot of ground, and we learn details about the restaurant’s location, the server’s cheerful disposition, and the atmosphere, without it being overly long or wordy.

And as someone who has been in the service industry, and managed people in general, I see the value in mentioning their server Rosemary by name. Often that’s one way employees get recognition for a job well done. It’s an extra detail that Valerie didn’t have to include in the review, but I’m so glad she did.

So is Paluca Trattoria owner Ashley Tedesco. Stand-out employees not only create goodwill and good reviews with your customers, but they also help you create and maintain the kind of atmosphere you want in your small business.

ASHLEY: Rosemary has been with us for quite some time and she’s also a personal friend and she and her husband actually come from the restaurant business. They had owned their own restaurant for many, many years.  She is a key part of our team because she, along with myself and Sal, really model the type of behaviors and interactions that we like to see, or that we want to allow our staff to be able to engage in. So the thing is, you really have to model what you want your people to, how you want them to be and how you want them to interact with your clients and your customers.  If we were put out by our staff taking extra time to talk to people, or even just shoot the breeze and chit chat about whatever the weather or give recommendations on hotels or what to go see, that would cause them to do this again, what we have a lot of times in these tourist locations and what we call an industry – turn and burn. So it’s really there. The sentimentality, it’s a turn the tables as quick as possible that doesn’t leave any time for making connections and making recommendations.

And you’ll find myself and someone like Rosemary and Sal and other staff members helping people find hotels. They’ll ask what they should do. We’ll give them ideas about what to do while they’re in town. We want to create an atmosphere where we feel like people are getting a lot of personalized attention and care.

And really, again, feeling as though we really care that they came and we want them to have a great time in the Monterey peninsula in general, not just at our place. But we really want to create that feeling that we can help them with anything even outside of what we’re offering with the food and wine.

And so oftentimes again, you’ll find us really engaging in conversations that have nothing to do with the food and wine, particularly.  Which I love. And I think it creates a culture in our restaurant where we are all like family. We tell our team members, we’re all family here.

We’re here to help each other out and be there for one another. We use a team approach on the floor.  It doesn’t matter if it’s your designated role or not. If you see something that needs to be attended to, or a customer has a need, anyone can help them. And we were, we’re all cross trained.

EMILY: Ashley’s philosophy on creating a family-like atmosphere among her staff is about more than team-building. It’s about creating a great customer experience.

ASHLEY: I think that the customers get the feeling that they can see it’s a team atmosphere. You don’t have one or two people running around and then someone else was standing at the host stand. If the host has a minute, no one’s at the host and they’ll jump in and pour water, clear plates.

We’re all working in swirling the floor to make sure that everyone’s having a good experience. And I think that comes off to visitors and I actually have had quite a few people stop me and comment on that, that they appreciate the fact that it’s obvious we’re all in that together.

And they feel very well taken care of. And so that’s the culture we want to create. Not just for our guests, but for our staff members and that we’re all friendly and kind to one another and care about each other on a personal level, not, it’s not just about making the money and grinding away.

I think that’s the feeling that guests get when they come as well.  Which we love. You spend a lot of time at work and we want to make it enjoyable for everyone. So that’s hopefully what is conveyed in what customers see.

EMILY: Ashley and her husband, Sal, have owned Paluca Trattoria for more than twenty years, opening in 2000. The location puts them right in the middle of the busiest part of Monterey, and that means there are many different restaurants for tourists to choose from in the area. But their restaurant isn’t like the others, and that’s a very purposeful move by Sal and Ashley.

ASHLEY: We really attempted to create an environment and a place within the tourist atmosphere that not so touristy, we like to say, and not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I think there’s certainly people that come to Monterey and central coast to have a much more relaxed, casual, less hectic feeling of an experience, which is part of the draw of coming to Monterey peninsula in general, and specifically the city of Monterey.

We are fortunate that we’re situated, as you enter the mouth of the wharf, you make a right and we’re on the only original part of the Wharf that’s left. That’s all the wooden boardwalk portion, which may not seem significant necessarily. But when you walk down the middle, it used to be boards and very vintage looking where it’s now it’s paved, which is fine, but we kind of have that one little nugget of that historic feeling part of fisherman’s Wharf, whereas much of it is either been remodeled or paved over. So we really liked that. And we liked that you have the wooden boardwalk, we overlook the Monterey marina and all the sailboats, and a little Cove where there’s lots of sea life, there’s sea otters, and sea lions and pelicans and all the rest.

As you walk down the walkway, you’ll find our place is in again, the original building, which we love. And it’s mostly wood. It’s very rustic, but we upgrade it to the years we can. We’d like to update our aesthetics and  the design of the places. And well obviously the menu.

We call it sort of like coastal chic. It’s got that little bit of that modern up-to-date edge to it but in keeping with the. History of the building. It’s actually was 1960s architecture, which we think is pretty cool. That’s really the essence of the place. We did a refresh and remodel just a couple of years ago, so it’s kinda got that lively, upbeat feel to it as well as the older charm.

EMILY: When marketing the restaurant on Yelp and social media, Ashley makes sure that anyone searching for Paluca Trattoria knows what they’re getting, not just from the food but the atmosphere as well. Photos tell a story quickly, and accurately, and customers really appreciate that.

ASHLEY: I really think it is portrayed in a lot of the photography that we use. I handle all the social media and I take most all of the pictures myself. Because I’ve always tried to look for, how do I convey that message? I think pictures are a great way to do that and really if we take photos of customers, it’s really friendly and upbeat looking and sometimes my husband is in the picture with them, or there’s some pictures of Sal sprinkled throughout Yelp and our social media to kind of give them that personal feeling, that one-on-one like, oh, here’s the owner chef.

You can see him any day of the week as you enter the restaurant. And a lot of people will notice him or recognize him. It’s funny, from the different pictures of the website, they go, hi, you’re the guy on the whatever. They feel like they have that personal connection. He works the floor every day.

You’ll often see him at the host stand greeting customers. He’s always working the floor and checking in on guests and seeing how they’re doing and pouring wine and water and clearing. He and I both are, he more than myself, but he and I are very actively involved in actually working the floor, which I think is the obvious route to people getting that feeling that it’s that mom and pop and we’re hands-on.

And we really do genuinely care about their experience. Whereas I think a lot of times in tourist locations that feel much more like a get them in, get them out for the feel. And again, nothing, against the folks that have those types of places. There’s certainly a place for that.

So I think that’s really the vibe and the feeling that people get through the pictures that it’s, that really relaxed, chill, hangout kind of place, or you can get a quick in and out as well as if that’s your preference. But I think the food looks in the pictures, in my estimation, very fresh and homemade and not pre-packaged mass produced kind of look that can come potentially with some other places.

EMILY: A successful small business is one that plays to its strengths. What can your business give customers that your competition can’t? In the case of Paluca Trattoria, it’s all about how they use their location, as well as the relaxed atmosphere, and the appeal of some of their “neighbors,” shall we say.

Valerie mentioned the deck as a highlight of her visit.  Since it was important enough to put in her review, I asked Ashley about it.

ASHLEY: What is nice about the way our restaurant is situated – It’s on a corner and again, overlooking the Monterey Marina and all the sailboats. And then there’s this little cove of water and really kind of interesting rock formations. On any given day, we have our regular visitors, the sea lions – particularly people love watching them and they’re swimming in the water right underneath, like people who sit at the railing. It’s a see-through railing. And so if you’re seated there, you can really just look over to your right or your left and through that see-through wall that we have there.

So it’s really amazing for people to come and be able to sit and eat and see all that going on, pelicans and the seagulls and that type of thing. So we have an outer seating area that’s closer to the sailboats and that’s great for a day that’s decent weather and not a lot of wind and people love to sit out there because they’re closest to the boats and all the sea life.

Where the tiered part is, there’s a set of tables that are closer into the building and a little more protected. Some days it gets a little windy here and there. Of course we have heat lamps all over the patio and on all the different tiers. You’re really protected from any type of breeze. We’ve actually found even when we’re able to seat people inside, when the coast is cleared and they’re allowing us to seat people back inside, most people now prefer to sit outside.

They’ve become accustomed to wearing layers or being prepared for any type of weather conditions. So we’re finding even on days that are slightly chilly, our patio, all the tiers are full.

You’ll find the inside of the restaurant empty and the patio absolutely full. So that’s been an interesting shift in things in these last two years,  which has been great because we feel like that’s where you’re going to get your stellar views and really in my estimation, the best experience is really sitting outside, enjoying all the sights and the sounds that you can from the patio versus the inside.

EMILY: Yelp’s waitlist technology allows customers to add themselves to the waitlist remotely, without all that standing around and, well, waiting, outside a restaurant. Weather can be unpredictable in Northern California, especially on the bay, and it can get chilly. Standing around outside a restaurant isn’t a pleasant experience.

Beyond that though, Waitlist added additional value for the restaurant.

ASHLEY: We discovered Waitlist during, I believe it was the first shut down during COVID and we were researching different ways that we could operate more efficiently and keep our guests safe at that time.

Instead what we had was a lot of people would pile up at the door near the entrance to wait to find out about getting a table. So at the time, really knowing that spacing people out was going to be very important – that’s what got us going on the Yelp waitlist feature originally.

Ultimately what it snowballed into was, it ends up being a complete game changer for our business actually, in that what we figured out was a lot of people would make reservations with good intentions of trying to get there and make it for their reservation. But we had huge rate of no shows or people that were very late. And the reason being is we get a lot of people coming from the bay area or different parts of central California.

And they get caught in traffic jams they could never have anticipated. So it’s very common. The conundrum we have is we’d have all these tables booked out for reservations. We’re holding these tables while we’ve got other people physically standing there saying, why are all those tables empty?

Why can’t we get seated? And we’re holding them for the reservations. Many of whom the phone would be ringing off the hook because of running late again, due to the traffic problems. Of course they’re frustrated and overwhelmed and feeling anxious because they’re trying to get there for this reservation and already you’re starting off on a bad foot in a sense.

I mean, it’s no one’s fault, but it’s a stressful situation for everyone. So what we decided to do is during our busiest months and particularly on the weekends, is offer Yelp waitlist exclusively. And what that allowed folks to do is as they’re approaching and getting closer, they could time it out and then hop on the waitlist.

And then when they get there, just sail right in and no problems. Not having to panic call us, not having to cancel and rebook. And then all the while the people that are coming up to the host stand and they see the empty tables, we’re able to go ahead and seat them. So they feel taken care of as well.

It became an absolute game changer for us. And I believe the customer experience has been greatly enhanced because of it. We use it in different ways during the course of the day. If we’re a little slower, we offer more reservations . We offer wait lists year around.

The other aspect that’s really helpful is that  there’s a lot of gift shops and candy stores and other things they can do to occupy themselves while they’re on the waitlist. And the fact that they get pinged with a text and a phone call it’s very loud on the Wharf. So it’s helpful to have that phone call feature because sometimes you don’t hear the ping of the text.

So those two combined makes it easy for us to get the customers back to the host stand within a couple minutes. They’re able to walk around instead of just waiting near the host area to get their seat. There’s plenty to do while they’re waiting for their table.

EMILY: It’s strange to think that reservations — a long storied tradition in fine dining — might not be the best way to optimize your dining room. Ashley and Sal figured out a way to reduce the risk of latecomers and no-shows while also keeping tables open – a way to make it work for everyone – both the business AND the customer.

Valerie mentioned the waitlist function in her review, which as I mentioned earlier is one of my favorite kinds of reviews — full of information without a lot of extra words — so I asked her about her review process. Turns out, it’s a little bit self-serving, in a very good way.

VALERIE: I think that for me a review doesn’t have to be very long.  I read some of those reviews sometimes I’m like, scroll, scroll, scroll. It doesn’t have to be very long. I just like to share what was my general feeling.

Did I feel welcome? Did I feel like I had a nice experience? Did I want to come back? And when I feel like if I want to come back, I should take the time to write a review so that they are going to  get better reviews and other people will come because the more business they get, the more likely I’m going to be able to keep enjoying coming back to this restaurant.

So I kind of look at it as like I’m making a small investment to help them be successful in the future, by putting my review out there and my thoughts out there.

I don’t often write bad reviews. I feel like if a place is really bad,  it has to be really bad. And those two star reviews I consider really bad. It’s two stars for me is like all the, like a minus one star for someone else. Cause I always skew more positive.

And I often think that  if I have a bad experience, I sometimes just think I’m not going to waste my time writing a nasty review. Why bother? Why should I put my effort into it?  It’s not going to do me any good. It’s not going to make me feel any better. Unless I think they’re actually going to read it.

And most of the time, I don’t think they’re going to take any action. If the experience was that bad, I don’t think they’re going to do anything about it. My husband likes to talk and a lot of times, if something’s not good, we’ll say something. Unless we think we’re never coming back again.

If I’ve made an effort to say something and they didn’t take my feedback or they treated me poorly, I think that other people need to know that and people need to stay away from that.

EMILY: For small business owners, reviews can be both a great source of feedback, and a little bit of a sting. Valerie’s method of providing instant feedback when a situation is less than ideal is something most people don’t do – they don’t speak up at the moment. Ashley agrees with this, and wants to give a business the chance to make it right on the spot and avoid a negative review altogether.

ASHLEY: It is definitely a mixed bag, I think, for any business owner and particularly in the restaurant industry, and maybe I’m hypersensitive because we’re in it.  I love actually to use Yelp, particularly when I go to travel different places. That is my go to, I have to say. To find out particularly where we’re going to eat, more than anything else.

I probably use it more even locally for restaurant stuff. And I have the bookmarks tab of the collections for places locally that we liked that sometimes I forget, now where should we go today?  Oh yeah. We haven’t been there in a while and that type of thing. So I am a user.

But I am not a negative reviewer. If I have a great experience, I’ll give a positive review, but I’m of the mindset, that if you’re at an establishment and you’ve had a  negative experience, and particularly if it’s a really terrible experience, I’m more a fan of talking to the people in the moment. Whether it’s  a server or a front desk person or a manager, or what have you. Being a business owner, I’m more sensitive to the fact that, really that’s more likely how things are going to get changed.

If you’re concerned about oh, I had this terrible experience and I want to help other people. Well, I feel it’s more advantageous to actually talk to the business owner or the manager or the worker themselves to try to address it that way rather than just saving it all up and going online.  A lot of times it feels that  it comes out of the clear blue because people will say to your face, oh, everything was great. So they don’t give us that opportunity to correct it or fix.

Oftentimes I find that they’re really super negative reviews. We never would have had a clue that they had such a terrible time because honestly that people tell us something’s really awful, we fix it there.  We take care of it.  As a person and as a business owner is first of all, why not give the business or the person helping you an opportunity to fix it. And then by all means if they don’t fix it or they’re really terrible to you. Yes, by all means, I understand, giving a bad review, But more often than not what I read through the reviews and I see them and I’m like, well, and I was working that night.

My husband’s there everyday. I’m like, well, did anyone say anything? Do you hear from this person?  And we find out they, they didn’t say a word. My stance is give the people an opportunity  to take care of you and correct it.

It’s hard not to take them personally, obviously when you put your heart and soul into something, but I do take it with a grain of salt and, try to recognize, oftentimes there’s a lot more good than bad. For quite some time I was responding to every single review, but I find, for me personally, it can take a lot out of me if I take in the negativity.

I will say on the positive side, if someone calls out one of our staff members, as I know different reviewers, particularly Rosemary gets a lot of great reviews and she always introduces herself to her tables.

So they know her name and if anyone writes or mentioned them in any review in any capacity or even in person, if they walk up to us while they’re dining with a, Hey, you know, Rosemary or Jeremy did a really great job, we actually give our team members a gift card. We have a whole bunch to choose from.

So we do incentivize and reward them. When someone goes out of their way to mention their name, we feel like that’s pretty spectacular. That doesn’t happen a lot these days. So when it does, they must’ve done something really incredible. That’s one part of the reviews that I really love was when they call it our staff members, it really does make their day in so many ways.

EMILY: I’m always happy to hear that reviews can help make a business better, or brighten an employee’s day. Any opportunity you have to make your business stand out is welcomed.

Sometimes, though, you get lucky, and you stand out more than you ever thought possible. A chance encounter with a man looking for a good cappuccino made Paluca Trattoria more famous than they ever imagined.

ASHLEY: They were actually filming on the walkway near the sailboats, more in the marina area, this part of the show. So you can see our restaurant right across the water there in that little Cove. And so the director could see our umbrella, which said Lavazza, which is an Italian espresso that we have featured. And he is from France. Well, we get a lot of European visitors say, I find it hard to find what they call a good cup of coffee or espresso in America.

So every morning he would come over and have an espresso and chat with Sal and Sal had no idea who he was or what they were doing. He was just being his usual, hospitable, friendly self.

He was setting up for the day, and here this French guy would come over and have his espresso or cappuccino. Then he started coming for lunch. And at some point the guy says, I’m with HBO and we’re filming a show. And I feel like I want to use this place. And I call those the best cup of coffee. Best coffee talk ever, right? And that’s Sal, just being Sal. Like he’s not phased by who you are, what you are. He just likes people. And he loves chitchatting with people and he just chatting it up with this guy, unknowing that right across the way he had no idea that Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon were just right across the way they’re filming with this gentleman. Who’s a very well-known director.

Well, after the fact, we get a thank you note from HBO and on it had the logo for Big Little Lies, and then we looked it up and saw who was in it. We thought when this thing comes out, if they don’t, if we don’t end up on the cutting room floor, This is going to be something, not just for our entire area.

We knew what those A list actors were like. Holy moly. So we took a chance. We actually that’s when we decided to remodel, because we knew the show was coming out and we thought, if we are in it, we better be ready. Let’s take this thing up a notch. So we closed down for two months and remodeled our place and fixed it up a little bit more.

They used our place, like a coffee shop in the show more than like an Italian restaurant. So we had to get a bigger espresso machine. We kind of projected that if people were to come, they’d want to have that whole experience, right? So we had to get the ginormous espresso machine.

So we took a chance and we reopened and the show came out and we’re sitting watching at home and I was astonished how much our place was actually in the show. Well, we were sitting there like holy moly.

I really do believe that John Martin Valet was the director’s name. He sadly actually just passed away recently. I know he, he just likes Sal and he actually came back even after filming like a year or so later with his girlfriend to eat. And then he started to come have lunch with Sal during the filming.

He did. He in cell just got on and he came again to visit him and just check in and say hi, like two years later and have lunch and just really generous, kind hearted down to earth guy. And I do believe he’s the reason why we ended up in there so much. And I think he knew the impact it would have on our business.

And it was just a gift. It literally put us on the map, this whole area. Pandemic put a halt on a lot of foreigners coming, but since the flights have been opening up, we’re seeing uptick again, people coming because of Big Little Lies.

Grow your business with Yelp

Manage my free listing

Explore further

Digital marketing funnel: woman paying using her credit card

How to use a digital marketing funnel to maximize profits

A digital marketing funnel maps a customer’s journey from first encounter to repeat customer. Understand how it works to optimize your marketing efforts.
Learn more
Lead generation tools: entrepreneur using a computer

7 lead generation tools to accelerate business growth

Discover 7 of the best lead generation tools you can use to reach potential customers and quickly expand your marketing reach to potential clients.
Learn more
How to upsell: couple looking at fabric swatches

How to upsell: 5 techniques for small businesses

Learn how to upsell shoppers before they finish the checkout process, and discover effective techniques to boost your bottom line.
Learn more