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Donovan’s sets a place for ‘all in the family’

Dan Shea and Don Wollan take extra care making diners feel welcome and at home

By David Rottenberg

There was a time early in Dan Shea’s career when he had decided that he wanted nothing to do with the restaurant business and yet today he is the driving force behind the very successful Donovan’s Steak and Chop House restaurants.
“I was recruited by the Stauffer chain of hotels and restaurants as I was graduating from Southern Illinois University, but after a year of working for them, I knew there was no way that I was going to spend my life in the restaurant business,” Shea  said.
That was then. This is now.
Leaving Stauffer’s, Dan found his way to the West Coast by accepting a job with John DeLorean’s auto company, giving him a second jolt of how life would be in corporate America.
“I grew up in a poor family in Okawville, a small town of 900 in southern Illinois, but after those early corporate experiences, I determined that I’d rather starve than work for someone else,” he said.
Leaving DeLorean, Shea was hired to turn around a troubled company in Los Angeles and with that success and money in his pocket, he connected with Don Wollan through a children’s charity in Oceanside where they were on the board of directors.
Wollan, a successful entrepreneur with a chain of fast food restaurants, encouraged Dan to partner with him. Shea, recalling his distaste for the restaurant business from his days at Stauffer, was reluctant.
“I resisted Don’s overtures until I had seen enough of his financial statements to realize that he had something really good going. I finally relented and we formed a partnership in 1995.”
Today, Shea and Wollan own 87 Hardee’s restaurants in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee.
Wollan, however, was not satisfied and said he wanted to start a fine dining restaurant. Dan said he tried to dissuade him. Don’s response was that if Dan wanted no part of an upscale steakhouse, he’d start looking for a new partner.
“Don is the most knowledgeable person I know in the food side of the business and by this time I agreed that whatever he wanted to do was find with me,” Dan said.
The two spent 18 months putting together the Donovan’s concept, found a vacant Rusty Pelican’s location on La Jolla Village Drive and opened their first Donovan’s in  1997.
The site was restructured with a massive entry, gorgeous wood paneling and soft lighting to create the feel of an exclusive private club. A long bar that reflects the look and feel of the interior has become a favorite watering hole for lawyers, doctors and executives from the nearby UTC area. Private rooms, also paneled with rich woods, are available for groups and meetings.
“One room, in fact, has  been named the “Qualcomm Room.” As Shepard says, “We’ve brought the entire Qualcomm company into our family.”
A “Chargers Room” will soon be completed, with lots of memorabilia and a great setting in which to enjoy group dinners or watch games together.
Shea will be the first to say that the credit for their success belongs to their
staffs, and Debbie Shepard, who is now the general manager of the La Jolla location, says, “Welcome to our family,” as she melodiously greets new customers.
Shepard, who formerly owned the Village Garden restaurant in La Mesa, joined Donovan’s four years ago as front office manager. She knows most of the regulars and makes it her job to know the newcomers. She treats her customers as family.
“We do some limited advertising (including San Diego Metropolitan Magazine) but our best efforts are directed towards making our diners feel welcome, comfortable and involved with our staff,” she said. “We’ll even Google some visitors before they arrive so we know a bit about them to relate to. We train our staffs to learn our guests’ preferences and then we keep notes in our computers so that we can meet their wishes. That’s why our guests think of dining at Donovan’s often as  well as on special occasions.”
This marketing strategy has helped the small restaurant group weather the financial storms that have rocked the economy in recent years. It has expanded to four locations — La Jolla, Downtown San Diego, Phoenix and Salt Lake City — and is about to open a second location Downtown, having decided, as Shea says, to “grow our brand here.”
The name given to the new Downtown location on Fifth Avenue at J is Donovan’s Circle of Fifths, which refers to musical scales, not bottles of booze! It refers to the progression of tones between major notes.
“We plan to have wonderful appetizers, a limited menu and some of the best music around. It will be a fun place on its own or after dinner at Donovan’s locatin nearby,” Dan said.
Donovan’s is very much involved in the community, giving back often to “our family,” as Shepard says.
“We feature a food bank, where our customers drop off food to share with less fortunate families. It is a big event that is even seen on television. We also offer our famous sandwiches to military events, giving away as many as 500 of them.”
The “Dono-truck” is another popular feature. The 14-seat van picks up diners at select hotels, offering transportation to many visitors who don’t rent cars.
Yet what best puts into perspective Donovan’s caring philosophy is that whenever a military family or personnel arrives, their table is instantly set with a personalized plate which identifies them as “Our Hero” and a $50 gift certificate.
Donovan’s success is tied to “All In The Family.” No, not the classic television show. It is the way guests are made to feel, whether the first time they visit or every time they come back.

David Rottenberg is the editor of Dining San Diego Magazine, a guide to many of the city’s favorite restaurants.  He is a member of the Southern California Restaurants Writers Association, a member of ASJA and vice president of the North American Travel Journalists Association.

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