By DAN METZ Special to Delaware Business Times John Walter Constantinou is celebrating Walter’s Steakhouse’s 25th anniversary with the same thing that brought him into the business in the first place: good quality beef. For ...
John Walter Constantinou is celebrating Walter's Steakhouse's 25th anniversary with the same thing that brought him into the business in the first place: good quality beef. For the celebration, he's cooking up classic cuts of his signature prime rib. After a quarter-century in the business, he has the same spark as the day he founded Walter's in September 1993.
"It's the people. It's hospitality. It's like inviting people into your home and finding what makes them happy, which makes you happy," he said about running the business on North Union Street, "When you've found that chosen career path, you don't look at the hours because it's an extension of what you enjoy doing."
Walter's Steakhouse was built on the tradition of Constantinou's House of Beef, Delaware's first steakhouse, formerly located in Trolley Square. Constantinou's father, George, founded the business in 1959.
The younger Constantinou started working at House of Beef as a teenager in 1973. He recalled a guest coming in and asking if he would follow in his father's footsteps. He responded: "Are you kidding? Look at my dad. He works seven days a week over 12 hours a day. You think I'm gonna make the same mistake he's doing?"
But when John graduated from Wesley College, the passion which Constantinou's had instilled in him led him to culinary positions at the Hotel Marriott and Beefsteak Charlie's in Washington, D.C., before marriage and a good job offer from his father brought him back to Wilmington. When the business closed in 1986, John spent time in real estate until he found a location to start a restaurant of his own.
Now almost 60, John has grown into a man obsessed with flavor and the search for culinary knowledge. He has built an award-winning venue founded on the belief that the meat should speak for itself. "We don't like to adorn our steaks with a lot of sauces and so forth. I like to let people get to the true essence of the flavor of the beef."
What he leaves behind in added frills, he makes up for in a deep understanding of his field. Ask him about his half-price burger night, and he will wax poetic about finding just the right cut for the perfect burger - a mix of brisket and chuck - or the size of the holes on the grinding plate. "There must be dozens of restaurants that do half-price burger night, but I welcome them to try one of our burgers because we believe ours is better."
That confidence extends into customer service. Constantinou said he picks staff who see hospitality as their career and strive for success in their work. Six of his employees have been with him for 25 years.
In many ways, Walter's Steakhouse echoes the past. Constantinou strives for the same relaxed upscale atmosphere and his father's hands-on approach to running a restaurant, but he is also proud of the differences that make his restaurant unique.He has added beef flavor options like java spice char crust and bleu cheese crumbles, as well as pasta and vegetarian entrees.
"I didn't want to just ride on the coattails of what I'd done before," Constantinou said. "Instead, what we were after was to take it to the next step. It's gradually taking a nice evolutionary process towards becoming current with today's more popular ideas and themes and flavors."
The restaurant environment has changed a lot since Walter's Steakhouse opened in 1993. Businessmen still come to Walter's to entertain guests, but they are now seated alongside graduations, birthdays and rehearsal dinners. Fewer customers dress up when they go out to dinner - though some still do - and grab-and-go restaurants crowd the competition in Trolley Square.
"In this specific area, there's a good number of restaurants for people to choose from, but I think competition improves the breed," Constantinou said.
When asked about concerns that millennials are spending less on restaurants, he is unfazed. "I think some of it might be the fact that we're just not as approachable in price as some of the entry level restaurants, whether it be something like a grab-and-go or a quick service restaurant. Not everybody wants to come out and celebrate at a place like Walter's Steakhouse on a daily basis, but we will be there for them when they do."
The city, he said, is on an upward trend. The area around Walter's has undergone a lot of revitalization in recent years, leading to more attention and activity. He's even excited about changes at the Riverfront, though he admits it is not exactly in his backyard, calling it a "good direction for the city."