After more than two years of planning, Westerville finally has its first Northstar Cafe.
The restaurant sits at 109 S. State St., the former home of the Kyoto Tea House and Shinto Shrine. It has been in its conceptual phase since 2014, when Northstar purchased the land from the city of Westerville.
Originally, co-owner Darren Malhame said he hoped to open the eatery in late 2015. That date was pushed back multiple times after a variety of roadblocks, and the restaurant finally opened -- without officially telling anyone -- on the night of March 7.
"We just sort of quietly opened the doors," said Josiah Littrell, senior managing partner of the Westerville location.
The soft opening was exactly what the restaurant's leadership wanted. Malhame has maintained throughout the process that he wouldn't open the new location before he was certain it was up to the company's standards.
By the time the doors opened, the Westerville team had about 70 employees, many of whom had been working at other Northstar locations for several months to begin adapting to the work environment and expectations, a crucial step in the process for restaurant leadership.
Malhame said he thinks it can take up to a year for employees to truly be up to speed, but he's thrilled with the progress the group has made.
"We have the most prepared staff we've ever had at an opening," he said.
For Littrell and the others working with the restaurant, the slow opening was ideal to ease the staff into the process.
"That really made it feel like just another Wednesday at Northstar when we first opened," Littrell said.
Still, neither Malhame nor Littrell expect the process to be perfect for some time. The group is still learning, for instance, that Westerville customers tend to make an earlier dinner rush. Their busiest time so far has been between 4:30 and 7:30 p.m.
Northstar puts an emphasis on quality over speed, and Littrell said he's been coaching his cooking staff to make customers' meals correctly, even at the expense of a few more minutes.
"We would rather people have perfect food and take a little longer to get it to them than get them just OK food that we've pushed out fast," he said.
While early reviews have been positive, Littrell said he's hoping to hear more feedback -- whether good or bad -- from Westerville customers, and expects the experience to improve as the staff finds its rhythm.
"Even though this is the first few weeks we're doing this, it absolutely always matters when we can't give customers a great experience," he said.