When Sam Curreri opened Sammy's Trattoria in Mount Vernon in June 2006, he thought he was well prepared to own his own restaurant. After all, he'd spent a dozen years as general manager at one of Baltimore's busiest restaurants, Chiapparelli's. Curreri figured he had seen it all.
Then his sprinkler system failed. And flooded the restaurant. The day he had a big political dinner booked.
"It almost flooded the whole dining room," Curreri recalls. "I kept calling it Venice and joking that I wanted to put a gondola in there."
In addition to getting the place cleaned up and dried out, he had to recook all the food he had cooked that morning—though first he had to call a plumber, an electrician, and a "kitchen specialist" to make sure his equipment was working properly. For five hours, he and his staff used squeegees, wet-vacs, dehumidifiers, and "a lot of elbow grease" to dry the place out, he says—a huge effort, but they pulled it off.
Faulty sprinkler systems aside, opening a restaurant is enormously risky. More than half of all restaurants fail within their first three years, according to university studies, and more than a quarter of new establishments never make it to their first anniversary. It takes an extraordinary amount of courage—not to mention creativity, business savvy, and financial backing—to launch a new venture. And yet, despite the obstacles, new restaurants open every day.
"From almost day one, my friends and family were anxious about me opening," Curreri says. But he had a dream: "I wanted to create a place that will grow as a family and that I will grow old with."
No matter how much experience a first-time restaurateur has had in the field, that first year of owning one's own business holds a plethora of surprises. For Curreri, it's been the workload: He finds himself constantly exhausted. "I certainly wasn't expecting the amount of work that's required to do it well," he says.
For David Sherman, the surprise has been the money involved. At his acclaimed Locust Point restaurant, Nasu Blanca, some of the most popular items on his Spanish-Japanese menu have had to rise in price—including Sherman's signature dish, Kobe beef filet with spicy tuna tempura. Sherman, who has spent his entire career in the restaurant business, started by offering the entrée for $39. But then the price of Kobe beef rose—to $75 a pound, from a low of $35 a pound.
Sherman tried a few solutions to recover the cost. He experimented with raising the price to $41 and removing the tuna from the dish, but his customers quickly objected. "Most of our regulars were not happy with that, and they wanted it to be the same as before. They said that even if we raised the price, they wanted it to be the same way," he says. "That's why we love our regulars, because they're very honest with us."
Today, he offers the Kobe beef—with tuna—for $45. "It's one of those dishes that we make no money off of, but we serve it because we love it," he says.
Customer input can be both vital and maddening to a new restaurateur. Diners can be especially vocal when a restaurant is new, perhaps because they believe their opinions will have more impact than they would at a more established spot.
When chef Christopher Paternotte first opened Vin in Towson, the menu was intentionally small, and he deliberately offered no chicken or salmon dishes. Paternotte—who had done stints as a chef at Kali's Court and the Polo Grill—wanted his menu to be distinctive, original, and manageable for a kitchen staff that was still feeling its way as an ensemble.
But almost immediately, customers began telling the staff that the menu was too limited and lacking in poultry offerings. So, Patternotte obligingly expanded the menu—and even added a chicken entrée.
"We made the adjustment a lot sooner than we had anticipated," he says. And that chicken dish that was in such demand? "I probably sell a dozen a week." (In case you're wondering, no, that's not very many.)
Curreri, whose restaurant sits on Charles Street at Biddle, in the heart of the city's cultural district, said he was not quite prepared for the theater crowd. "They come in like a tornado, all at one time," he says. "I was caught with my pants down."
To meet the needs of these time-sensitive diners, Curreri developed a pre-theater menu with a limited number of dishes that could be prepared relatively quickly. But instead of being grateful, his theater-going customers complained. "They don't want a pre-theater menu any more," Curreri says.
On the other hand, sometimes customers can lead restaurateurs to new ways of keeping their fledgling businesses going. Sunni Gilliam, co-owner of Teavolve in Fells Point, says her Eastern Avenue cafe was popular almost from the first day it opened in November 2005. Some early publicity brought in the initial customers, and then word-of-mouth did the rest. But the traffic was never consistent. "There were some great weeks and some bad weeks, with no pattern," says Gilliam, and it remains so.
She and her partner, Del Powell, realized they needed something special to boost sales at Teavolve during slow times. Early on, they received several requests for private tea parties. At first, Gilliam says, she resisted offering afternoon tea because she saw it as "stuffy and Victorian," everything her restaurant is not. So she decided to do the high tea, but in her own way. She updated the traditional fare by adding mint to the cream cheese for the cucumber-cream-cheese sandwiches, and she provided other flavorful fillings like roasted chicken salad, creamy egg salad, and fresh mozzarella with sun-dried tomato pesto.
The tea parties have been a huge hit, and groups book the restaurant for baby showers, birthday parties, and other celebrations. And they've helped generate a more stable source of revenue to offset the shop's slow weeks.
Sometimes, though, a slow week becomes almost a fantasy for a new restaurateur; it's easy for a newly opened restaurant to get overwhelmed by diners eager to try the latest hot spot.
"When you get slammed [with customers], you can't do what you wanted to do," says Diane Neas, a Baltimore-area restaurant consultant. That's when chefs have to start compromising, she says—or pay for their principles with customer backlash.
Jason Ambrose, chef/owner of Salt in Patterson Park, has had to deal with customers who are frustrated, and at times even angry, about the fact that there is usually a wait for a table in his restaurant. After several glowing reviews were published a couple of months after Salt opened in April 2006, "all hell broke loose," he says. The crowds were way too big for a dining room that seats 45.
"I found myself apologizing for what we were, which was a small restaurant in a neighborhood that had no parking, and we don't take reservations," he says.
For someone who has cooked at the Atlantic; John Steven, Ltd.; and Soigné, and who was always more comfortable "hiding behind the stove," Ambrose found dealing with the public on a daily basis a real eye-opener. "With a recipe, you combine certain ingredients and you pretty much know how it will turn out," he says; people are not so predictable.
This can be a problem for a lot of new restaurateurs. Many are chefs first, and "front of the house" issues like reservation-management and service can be new terrain to negotiate. For Nasu Blanca's Sherman, the service issue has definitely been a source of frustration. It's very difficult "finding people that are willing to [perform at] the level that you want them to," he says.
Ambrose admits that one mistake he made was hiring friends and former co-workers to staff the restaurant when it first opened last year. "I never put an ad in the paper to hire," he says. "I hired friends and people from the business who knew me as a peer and not as a boss." He wanted to surround himself with people he could trust, he says, but ended up with a staff who viewed him as a peer and not as a supervisor. And that made managing them difficult at times.
Different owners handle the dilemma differently. Paternotte (who co-owns the restaurant with developers The Cordish Company) has a general manager to attend to the business end of things. Sammy Curreri, meanwhile, admits he probably tries to handle too much by himself, but he says that's just his nature.
"I like to wear every single hat," he says. "I'm a person who would rather do it on his own than ask someone else to do it."
Like Curreri, Gilliam is a very hands-on owner. She spends six days a week at Teavolve, waiting on customers and ringing up sales. For now, she and Powell are the only paid staff. "We try to keep the labor costs low," she says.
That will change soon, though: Gilliam and Powell are preparing to open a second location, at Harbor East, in January. This restaurant will be twice the size of the Eastern Avenue property, and will have a liquor license and outdoor seating. It will be a more vibrant nightspot than the first Teavolve has been. The emphasis will still be on tea, however; they will even be offering tea-infused cocktails made with organic vodka.
But perhaps the biggest change will be that Gilliam and Powell will no longer be the only people running things. Gilliam, who managed several successful Philadelphia restaurants before moving to Baltimore, knows that her biggest challenge will be stepping back from the day-to-day operations at the restaurants so that she can focus on running the business itself.
"But I can't be in two places at once," she adds. That should probably help. But no matter how much she works on the big picture, Gilliam will probably never stop pulling down containers of tea and asking customers to smell them, or in taking delight in those customers' reactions when they do.
And that's the thing that keeps people in the game: The restaurant business may be risky and tumultuous, but it can also be very rewarding . . . in more ways than one. Sherman loves working out his sake and wine list. As for Sam Curreri, he says that running Sammy's is exhausting—but also oddly soothing. He gets to the restaurant early in the day, when it's quiet, to plan the day's menu and begin preparing the stocks, sauces, and homemade pastas for the coming rush of customers.
"I spend about six hours a day preparing for the night," he says. "I find great peace in doing it. It's neat to be able to make something and know that two hours later, someone's going to love this."