Restaurant owner with dreams of 4-stardom tries hard to hang on

June 17, 1991|By Michelle Singletary | Michelle Singletary,Evening Sun Staff

If James Shivers can hang on just a little longer, his investment in a Creole and Cajun restaurant might pay off.

His restaurant, Louisiana Cafe, is situated in what he believes will be a hot area some day.

It's in the Brokerage complex across the street from the Central police station and near the Inner Harbor. At his back door will be a new Metro station, scheduled to open in 1993.

Unlike his spicy food, business isn't hot at the moment.

While the restaurant industry has a high fatality rate, black business owners such as Shivers have an even harder time keeping their companies afloat, according to state officials.

Despite tables draped with white linen tablecloths, tuxedo-clad waiters and rave reviews from local restaurant critics, Shivers has seen his revenues drop 60 percent since September. He opened in August.

To determine what can be done to keep minority-owned businesses vital and contributing to the state's tax coffers and creating jobs, the state is surveying owners such as Shivers.

The Louisiana Cafe employs 31 people full and part time, Shivers says.

State officials hope that the results of the survey will lead to plans to help minority businesses prosper.

Shivers, a native of New Orleans, says he isn't looking for a handout but a chance to run what he believes can be a four-star restaurant.

"How many full-service restaurants with a seating capacity of more than 250, that are black-owned, do you see in downtown?" Shivers asks.

The answer: One.

The answer might have have been none. Shivers came precariously close to being evicted after falling behind in his rent due to unexpected expenses. Instead, Louisiana Cafe in April filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of the Federal Bankruptcy Act.

Shivers says he invested nearly $300,000 to open and renovate the restaurant. That includes redoing the electrical system and plumbing and installing restrooms. The only restrooms available before he renovated were in a hallway outside his restaurant.

The biggest expense came when court orders obtained by his upstairs neighbor, Slapstix Comedy Club, forced him to spend $75,000 to soundproof the interior of his restaurant. That expense left him scrambling for cash.

The owners of Slapstix complained that bands hired to play in the restaurant disturbed customers trying to listen to comedy routines.

Jazz is an important element to help carry out his New Orleans theme and attract clientele, but he had to cancel performances by several national jazz bands because of restraining orders obtained by Slapstix, Shivers says.

Such unexpected problems and expenses are tough for any business, but they can have disastrous consequences for a minority-owned company that is likely to start out undercapitalized, according to Stanley Tucker, executive director of the Maryland Small Business Development Financing Authority.

Shivers says he worked years as a chef with the dream of one day cooking in his own restaurant. He says he depleted his savings to open Louisiana Cafe.

"You have a lot of blacks that have good ideas but they have trouble getting working capital," Shivers says.

"If you take my background, education and make me white, I might not have had the problems I've been having," he says. "I'm not crying racism, but what I'm trying to say is that something is wrong."

Shivers, 37, believes he has a solid business plan and an impressive background.

.` He says he has a bachelor's de

gree in economics from Morris Brown College in Atlanta and a master's degree in public administration from Atlanta University. has trained with top-rated chefs, and run several restaurants in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lafayette, La. He was the head chef for the catering service for the skyboxes at the New Orleans Superdome. In 1987, he became the executive chef at RFK Stadium in Washington. He also has operated his own catering company.

Other restaurants that were not minority-owned have run into trouble in the area that Shivers chose when he came to Baltimore. The first site he investigated was near Harbor Park theaters at Market Place. The Brokerage complex that he picked instead is in bankruptcy and several of its restaurant tenants also filed for protection. His space in the Brokerage first opened as a restaurant called Dante's, and later converted to a Mexican restaurant called Tortilla Flats. Both failed.

Shivers is convinced he's going to beat the odds.

"I've never lost in my life," he says. "I didn't decide to go into the restaurant business overnight. I have to make Louisiana Cafe a viable entity."

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