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Shawn Walchef, owner of Cali BBQ Media in San Diego, lives life off the belief that “A rising tide lifts all ships.”
His foundation is rooted in giving back, connecting with otters, and building a community through hospitality.
A San Diego native, Shawn’s restaurant started as a breakfast spot. As time went on, he turned the location into a popular, family-friendly sports bar with great food and a view of any game from any seat in the house.
Deeply connected to the sports community in San Diego, Shawn would host events and fundraisers to support young athletes who may not have had the resources they needed to participate in Pop Warner or Little League.
Fifteen years ago, a plan was hatched to host a fundraiser centered around an amateur barbeque event. “I didn’t know the first thing about hosting a barbeque event. So I reached out to the Kansas City Barbeque Society, the NFL of BBQ, and spoke to a few people there. One of the people I spoke to came to the event as our pitmaster. He showed me the ropes, let me use his smokers, and 15 years later, we’re still barbecuing in Southern California.”
Being new to barbeque helped Shawn see the discipline with fresh eyes, and he realized that as a category, barbeque is traditionally rooted in superlatives – best, worst, winner, loser. He decided to mimic the inclusive and exploratory approach that the craft beer industry in San Diego follows and celebrate all types of barbeque: no winners, no losers.
Cali BBQ’s origin story doesn’t start with Shawn and Shawn alone. He inherited the location from his family who bought the space and rented it out to a local restaurateur years ago.
“I was raised by my grandmother and grandfather. My grandfather was a doctor and real estate developer, and he originally acquired the space that is now Cali BBQ to build a senior home facility behind it. For years, he leased it out to a woman who ran a breakfast spot. And overtime, we turned it into a family restaurant. With no restaurant experience, my grandfather and our family continued running a breakfast spot – (laughs) I think it was mostly so everyone had a place to work.”
But the restaurant space isn’t all Shawn inherited from his grandparents. They taught him how to navigate challenges, remain positive, care for others, and solve problems creatively.
“At its core, hospitality is really just taking care of people – like my grandparents did for me. I’ve taken the values I learned from my grandparents and translated them into our restaurant’s values.”
Armed with creativity, work-ethic, problem solving skills, and endless positivity marked by an “Every day is the best day ever” mindset, Shawn has since taken this foundation and used it to build a master smokehouse and media center.
“Everyone in the restaurant industry always talks about location, location, location.” Because Shawn’s grandfather originally acquired the space to build a senior home and it just so happened to come with a breakfast spot, Cali BBQ’s location is not “ideal” for a restaurant.
Located in East San Diego, Shawn is a ways from the hustle and bustle of downtown. He took what could be a “problem” and turned it into an opportunity by using his location as the catalyst for creative problem solving. Most of which is centered on proactive innovation and what he calls “digital hospitality.”
Initially, Shawn’s interest in innovation was a means of survival. “From the beginning, we’ve put a lot of effort into our digital platforms by creating experiences that are user friendly and community building.”
He has since evolved a killer website and social channels into a true “media powerhouse” including an educational, inspiring blog and podcast that enables him to communicate with both his customers and the restaurant community more transparently.
Shawn is always discovering new ways of reaching people – the latest of which is bespoke cocktails inspired by cultural moments and trends.
Cali BBQ’s menu is full of culturally relevant items like the “Tiger King cocktail” which he promoted on social – helping him garner engagement, attention and virality digitally. Increasing Cali BBQ’s media footprint allowed Shawn to reach more people, gain traction and increase popularity – despite his brick & mortar’s “less-than ideal” location. His focus on reaching his customers transparently, authentically, and thoughtfully has turned Cali BBQ into a go-to destination for people within and outside of the San Diego area.
Well-known within the restaurant industry, Shawn has managed to maintain his humility throughout his journey.
Talking to him, you can immediately tell he isn’t driven by ego or superlatives. “I’m not afraid to ask for help or advice. Similarly, I’m more than willing to give others help and advice.”
This no-ego approach led him to creating a group of restaurant industry advisors who are experts in things like financing, operations and technology. Partnering with this advisory helps him make sure every innovative move he makes is a good one. He used social media as a platform to continue to reach people and to draw in customers and allow his customers to stay informed.
As someone who is constantly seeking advice and inspiration, Shawn and Cali BBQ were more prepared than many other restaurants when the pandemic hit.
They’d been using one delivery platform, taking advantage of pick-up + catering, and building a digital community for years. However, when Cali BBQ’s business transitioned to 100% off-premise, there were changes that needed to be made.
“We signed up for a handful of new delivery platforms to reach new customers, and transitioned to Toast for point of sale. We cut down our menu to just focus on what we do best – barbeque.”
Being the proactive, innovative person he is, Shawn saw how managing multiple delivery tablets could get messy, and solved the issue before he had it.
“I’d been to enough local restaurants and seen all the tablets and thought, well that looks daunting. So when we signed up for new delivery platforms, we signed up for Otter in parallel. It’s been absolutely incredible. Me, my staff, and my operations team all noticed how it changed our business. Implementing Otter was one of the greatest things we’ve ever done. Easily.”
Cali BBQ’s digital innovation didn’t stop there. He also used the mix of pandemic and location related challenges to build what may become the future of Cali BBQ’s footprint.
“We’d been exploring building 1,500 sqft drive-thru locations before the pandemic hit as a way to overcome our location. Then after the pandemic hit, I went and toured a ghost kitchen with my team of advisors. We looked at the financials, and it looked good, so we opened a single ghost kitchen location in Downtown San Diego. We’re testing how it works. If it works, we’ll scale it.”
When asked what the future of the restaurant industry looks like, Shawn foresees an increase of “hybrid models” designed for limited dine-in and maximal take-out and delivery. At Cali BBQ, this will likely come in the form of kiosk ordering, mobile checkout, and multiple ghost kitchens.
What many might call an “uncertain” time in the industry, Shawn sees this time period as “the most fascinating time to work in food. It’s a kicking off point for innovation and opportunity. What restaurants become and the evolution in the way we eat is exciting: it’s a convergence of technology, influencers, and real estate.”
When asked what he might say to someone who is feeling more nervous-excited than excited-excited about this evolution, Shawn mentions that “all restaurateurs started as entrepreneurs. When you started your restaurant, you had to figure out how to do everything: marketing, operations, staffing, inventory. The same spirit that got restaurateurs started will push them forward. You just have to connect with who you were at the beginning of it all.”
You can support Shawn and Cali BBQ by ordering the Tailgater (family-style meal filled with slow cooked meats and a sampler of sides), the Tiger King cocktail (habanero infused blanco tequila, mango + lime juice and triple sec), and the peach cobbler (did we mention it’s free if you subscribe to Cali BBQ’s email newsletter?). Find Cali BBQ on Caviar, Doordash, GrubHub, Uber Eats and Toast. If you’re interested in learning more about Shawn and Cali BBQ’s story, check out his podcast and blog.