Why did you decide to go into the restaurant business?
After waiting tables and working in kitchens for a couple years at the end of high school and early on in college, I felt like I could make each place I had worked better. And I enjoyed the fast pace of things always happening, of different challenges each day, and certainly being around food and wine was a big plus.
What made you decide to open more than one restaurant?
I think it was a combination of a new challenge and the fact that I had made enough contacts in the business, as well as had a good core group of co-workers and employees who were ready for a new challenge. Faith in others who could help keep each individual restaurant successful.
How did you decide on the locations for each of your restaurants?
Solstice was a leap of faith in a sense, but the demographics proved there are lots of folks out in Northeast Columbia, so I felt like we were gaining customers who lived a little too far away to be Mr. Friendly’s customers. As far as Cellar on Greene, it was definitely convenient, and the landlord gave me plenty of time to open it/renovate, so I was able to put a little money in bit by bit. And after seeing how other wine shop/restaurant combos had failed in Columbia, I felt like I had seen the inner workings of what it would take to keep the original idea intact for good.
How did you decide on the names for your restaurants?
Mr. Friendly’s was the name of the sandwich/ice cream shop that occupied what is the dining room area of the restaurant until late 1994, and the old sign had a mouse on it, so I guess he was Mr. Friendly? The term “New Southern Cafe” came as a means to distinguish it from the Friendly’s ice cream company. Solstice Kitchen & Wine Bar was given the “Solstice” part by an old business partner, as we tried to figure out a new name to seasonal cooking. I’m still not sure everyone actually knows what it means, but at least most folks can pronounce it now! Adding “Kitchen & Wine Bar” to the end of it gave it a little of a feel of comfort I hope. Being that “Kitchen” is an approachable word, and that Wine Bar I think says “yeah, we have a bar, but it’s more for wine drinkers than party animals”. As for Cellar on Greene, it was pretty easy…wine and “cellar”, and we’re (sort of) on Greene street. Plus, I’ve always found one-word restaurant names to be weird. Or maybe a little bit pretentious. Even if people refer to them as just “Solstice” or “Cellar” or “Friendly’s”, I just think it sounds weird. It’s like naming yourself Madonna or Prince.
Tell me a little about each restaurant and what you like about each of them.
Well, Mr. Friendly’s is my heart and soul. Next to meeting my wife, I’d say that the luckiest I ever got was when Cary Wolfe told me to come check out where he was cooking in 1996. I had just quit the USC golf team and had to start waiting tables to help pay for college, and I lucked up and discovered Mr. Friendly’s in its early stage. The owners were young and had lots of ideas, the staff was full of folks who now own other restaurants, manage other restaurants, etc… and at that time, everyone brought something different to the table, but everyone shared in the idea that dining out didn’t have to be stuffy, or intimidating, and that it should be fun, and taste good. I think it’s still that today, and for that, I could never thank all of them enough for laying the foundation. I’d like to change a lot of things about it, but honestly, I’m scared to! I may not have opened it from day one, but I’ve spent five times as many hours at Mr. Friendly’s as anyone, and it feels like home every time I walk in.
What I love about Solstice is that it represents how hard this business can be, but also how great it can be. In 2009, I honestly did not think we would make it. The economy turned sour, and folks in Northeast Columbia felt it worse than others. But we stuck it out, and I’ve kept some of the same core beliefs that I’ve had about Mr. Friendly’s, as well as taking a few more “risks” to make Solstice stand out. Plus, seeing it from a field of dirt and grass, to what it has become, with lots of folks coming and going, yeah, it’s pretty darn cool!
As far as Cellar on Greene, it makes me feel “refreshed”. The success of literally operating two businesses under one roof isn’t something many other places other than Gourmet Shop have succeeded with in Columbia. I was a partner at Gervais & Vine for years, and we tried something similar, but you have to a daily commitment to BOTH the retail side and the restaurant side to get customers for both on a daily basis. I’m proud of what we offer, both where unique wines are concerned, as well as the fact that the food isn’t over the top, but it’s good. We don’t try to out-cook what we’re capable of in there. It’s another very small kitchen with limited space for equipment, and although I would love to have a “real” restaurant kitchen and slick, modern wine shelving, Cellar is what it is…100% ours.
How did you decide on the decor of each restaurant? Are they similar in how they were decorated, or did you want to change the look up for each restaurant?
Each place has it’s own feel, and that’s definitely by design. Mr. Friendly hasn’t changed too much over the years. It’s supposed to have that bistro-feel and I think it does. We can turn the lights down just enough at night to give it that touch of fine-r dining, but the bright sun during the day gives it a really vibrant feel when we’re busy. It’s had its’ share of paint jobs, some new carpet, additional wine racks…but the brick wall dominates the dining room and the artwork changes several times a year, so it stays fresh for the most part.
Cellar on Greene utilizes the funny “slant” of the building. That entire space used to be about sixteen different tiny little offices, so you don’t realize how weird that space really is sometimes. The big beam running through the dining room is really our only area to add much flair with lighting. My wife picked out the colors and helped me a lot with laying it out. I wish we had one more set of windows, and the old roof up there has been a pain, but we’ve kept it clean, and neat for the most part. Nothing intimidating about it and I think the bar stool height chairs create a more “pub” atmosphere, so it certainly feels less formal than Friendly’s to most. And I let the staff play some funky music too, but that’s mostly because the kitchen echoes like the Grand Canyon.
As for Solstice, the goal from day one was to think “Atlanta” when someone walked in. Nicer (don’t get me started) lightning, fresh colors, dark wood tables, a beautiful
bar, big and expensive artworks, etc…all amidst the service you’d expect from a white tablecloth restaurant. I want it to feel like YES, it’s the nicest place in the Northeast. But, I don’t want anyone to have too feel like a pair of jeans and a golf shirt isn’t dressy enough.
What is the biggest struggle you have come across when trying to start a restaurant?
This is the easiest question of all…convincing a bank that you are not some fool trying to fulfill a pipe dream by opening a restaurant! Everyone has heard the statistics…something like 80% of restaurants fail in the first year. I’m sure they do. And that’s cause they loan money based on collateral first, and experience second. But it’s probably a good thing it’s been this tough, otherwise I’d probably have five restaurants by now!
How do you manage to keep all of the restaurants staffed and running efficiently?
Do I? ha! Well, I think that I do most of the time. Honestly, I’m like a substitute teacher a lot of times…you never know where I’ll be filling in! I just believe in making all of our employees feel like they are joining a new little “family” when they come work for me. I expect a lot out of them, and their co-workers do too. There’s good money to be made at the restaurants if you put in the work. Yeah, we’re a bit dysfunctional, perhaps, but all restaurants have their scars where the ups and downs are concerned. I just try to be very accepting of all the different folks that work at the restaurants. I don’t overwork them, I still do all of the schedules, I believe in days off, and I enjoy paying people what I’m quite certain is better than most restaurants do. Just some of those things go a long way where having dependable people are concerned. But at the end of the day, you never know who may/may not show up or walk-out at any given time, so remaining very hands-on from my end is definitely very key.
What are some qualities you look for in your staff?
Accountability, Honesty, Competitiveness, Passion for food and wine, and the ability to work well with others. Just “being here” isn’t good enough. You have to want to be here. You have to want to get better, and make those around you better. And you have to be adult enough to deal with your personal issues, but still come in ready to work hard and smile your way through it. Even if the boss (me) doesn’t always lead by example.
How do you decide who your suppliers are going to be?
It’s a combination of a few things. Obviously the products themselves are what gets them in the door. After that it’s about being reliable for sure, but also being easy to work with, fun to talk to, and generally caring about the restaurants. I’ve turned down all sorts of little bribes and perks to buy from some suppliers, just cause it wasn’t the kind of people I wanted to have to deal with every other day. You scratch my back, I scratch yours only works if you have an itch I guess.
How do you decide which items are going to be on the menu?
Availability, seasonality, functionality, and is it something that WE want to eat/drink? Will it catch someone’s eye? Will the staff get behind it? Are other restaurants doing
something similar? How much does it cost? Can we get more? I could go on forever…
Looking back on your business decisions, is there anything you wish you could have done differently?
Of course! There’s times where I wish I would’ve trusted my instincts more. There’s times I wish I would’ve asked for help with things. There’s times I’ve trusted certain people, probably done waaaaayyyy too much for people, only to have it come back to bite me. But in the end, I try to be honest with everyone. I’ve never done anything to hurt the businesses. Not knowingly. But it’s just not that simple. There’s just too many pieces and parts to make everyone happy, but I still wish I could figure out how to do so. Overall though, I’m pretty happy. We’ve seen employees and customers come and go, and I really believe most folks are better off after spending some time at the restaurants, so that makes me feel good.
This isn’t easy. It’s not perfect. But it’s not supposed to be. There’s lots of things I wish I could do differently today! But there’s more than one way to do ANYTHING, so whatever way we are doing it today, well, we’ll do it the best way possible and go from there!