Longtime restaurateurs: They share their experiences of what works and what doesn’t
It’s not the easiest way to earn a living.
A report compiled earlier this month by the Washington Restaurant Association shows that 76 percent of state restaurant owners saw a decline in September sales compared to sales in September 2008. The results also revealed year-over-year declines in customer counts, the number of full-time employees and employee hours.
September – a year ago – saw the first signs of declines due to the recession. Anthony Anton, WRA president and CEO, said, “What’s most discouraging about the (recent) numbers is that this is the first set of figures that really compares recession-to-recession figures, and yet sales are still down.”
The National Restaurant Association’s monthly composite performance index, which tracks the health of and outlook for the U.S. restaurant industry, fell to 97.5 in September, down 0.4 percent from August and marking the 23rd consecutive month below 100.
Sixty-five percent of operators nationwide reported same-store sales declines, according to the association.
“Collectively restaurants are the state’s largest employer, and our communities depend on us for jobs and a tax revenue base,” Anton said. “It’s critical to all of us that our industry emerges strong coming out of this recession.”
So it’s not easiest place to earn a profit. As examples, restaurateurs list a recent increase in wholesale liquor prices, and a proposed increase in workers’ compensation premiums, plus taxes and fees that continue to grow.
Still, people own restaurants.
Still, restaurants succeed.
The News Tribune recently asked Anton to assemble a panel comprising some longtime restaurateurs from Pierce County. A few weeks ago, seven restaurant owners met over coffee and pastries at The Poodle Dog in Fife.
Here’s how it went.
The News Tribune: So, how’s business?
Warren: Actually, not that great. We’ve been hit in the last three years – the freeway construction, utilities, and the area has changed dramatically. It’s been a real struggle. I’m constantly trying to change our approach, adding a dance floor, adding karaoke. The no-smoking law was devastating. We had a robbery in May. It’s been a constant battle.
Rothwell: It’s been the same at Gertie’s. We’re looking at roads being torn up. The City of Lakewood makes more money from our gambling than we do. Also, people don’t drink like they used to.
Warren: We have new daytime cooks and bartenders. That should help. But look at the places that have closed, just in October. The Friendly Duck, the Chieftain, McCabe’s. Grandy’s, the Western-R –it changed its name – now it’s closed.
Suprak: We just took over Charlie’s this year. Our business is actually up. In September, we were up 12 percent, even with the fair. I had to run the numbers five times. We’ve brought some new enthusiasm – and happy hour, a wine list, a dessert list. We’re trying to keep the essence of what (the previous owners) did. We wanted our guests to get to know us.
We love this business. We’re just going to try not to screw it up.
How do you become – or stay – successful?
Anton: Fifty percent of the restaurants in Pierce County have been in business less than six years. The people in this room have beaten the hell out of the odds. What makes their brand do that?
Burgi: We’ve grown every year. Now, we’ve had the best year we’ve ever had. With outside dining, we’ve had good weather. We work hard at it.
I love it. I love meeting the people. We’ve been blessed.
Prine: We try to make sure our food is fresh. I’ve seen places keep the prices down, and the quality goes down.
Tweten: I bought a business from my folks 24 years ago – the Harvester. I paid my dad $325,000, and he charged me 10 percent interest. I did it because it was challenging. You learn something every day.
You could open a new restaurant.
Tweten: The risk is too great for me. Furniture, fixtures, equipment – and you hope people will come to you. It’s really risky.
But what is it that keeps a restaurant successful, one over the other, with others, even longtime names, closing their doors?
Suprak: Reputation is everything. People want to know what kind of experience they can have before they arrive. And you have to hire people who are friendly and outgoing.
Burgi: Your product has to hold up. And with some of my older customers, it’s the only thing they do every day.
Warren: You have to be friendly. You have to know what you’re doing.
And what about maintaining – or building – a reputation? All of your restaurants have been in business for decades. Some go back to the 1930s.
Rothwell: It’s really important. My mom started it in 1952. Later it was sold – they had it eight years. When Rob and I bought it back, we put out the sign: “Gertie’s kids are back,” and people came back. Soldiers tell me, “We talk about Gertie’s and coming home.” The SOS and biscuits, I’m always getting stories. You feel like you’re really a part of a community, also history.
Warren: People come in and tell me, “My father came here, My grandparents came here.”
Rothwell: People have a sense of ownership in the restaurant.
Mason: We see the soldiers – these guys are so young. A year later, you ask them, “Did everyone make it back?” It just makes you feel so good when they come in. We serve a breakfast, it’s on two plates. Soldiers say, “We’ve been dreaming about this all year.”
What advice do you have for someone thinking of starting a restaurant – or any other business?
Prine: Be willing to go the extra mile. Someone might be gluten-intolerant. Be willing to help people out. And just say “please” and “thank you.”
Mason: Have fun with the people you’re dealing with. Know your product.
Rothwell: Don’t you think the world is too impersonal? My advice would be to make eye contact. So much of it is simple.
Burgi: Attitude. Watch when you go into a store – it’s attitude.
Tweten: Restaurants are a number-driven business. It comes down to numbers. Successful businesses pay attention to how they make money. It’s tracking your business. It’s controlling your costs.
Anton: I’d be surprised if everyone in this room didn’t know their labor costs and their food costs. Everybody’s different, but you’d better know what yours is.
Have any of you made any interesting errors over the years?
Tweten: When espresso started. I said, “No, that’s not going to catch on.”
Warren: I did the same thing.
Mason: In England, years ago, Soho, we called it “frothy coffee.” Spend an outrageous amount of money – but Starbucks was on to something. I never thought it would last.
Tweten: You change very slowly, but you have to change or you die. You have to continually make room for new guests.
Where are things going in Pierce County? How are things changing?
Warren: Bar-Bingo, we have it from 7 to 9 on Sundays. Another thing – dinner, movie and a drink for $10.95.
Tweten: The health department – labeling menus (with calorie and other information). A couple of our stores have embraced it, and it’s been received well. I think for us, our food profile will slowly change.
Mason: With certain things, it’s hard to make too many changes. We make changes very subtly.
Rothwell: Remember the Atkins Diet? We went gangbusters. I put out special menus. That’s gone by the wayside.
Tweten: Technology is changing. We used to be a 100 percent cash business. Now we’re 60-40 the other way. Web pages, twittering, wireless. That’s a big part of what’s happening – and being able to see what sells. I spend a lot of time looking at where we’re making money a line at a time.
In the end, why do you keep at it – with long hours, regulations, short margins?
Tweten: I do what I do because – who would hire me? It’s a people business, and I like people. With employees, I like to see people be successful.
Warren: I’ve been doing this for 16 years. At my age, where would I do something again? I enjoy working with people. This restaurant was owned by my in-laws. I just want to keep it going. I’m hoping I can still be here in five years, 10 years.
Well, maybe eight years.
Peggy Warren: Flying Boots Cafe, Tacoma
Sue Rothwell: Gerties Grill, Tillicum
Rob Mason: Gerties Grill
Joe Burgi: Pick Quick Drive In, Fife
Teresa Suprak: Charlie’s Restaurant, Puyallup
Diana Prine: Fife City Bar & Grill, Fife
Tim Tweten: Poodle Dog, Fife; Harvester, Knapps, Hob Nob, all of Tacoma; Burs, Lakewood; Lighthouse, Port Orchard
By: C.R. Roberts
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