Owning your own restaurant is no piece of cake

A TALL ORDER

February 20, 1997|By Charles Salter Jr.

It is one of those fantasies that sounds utterly creative, fulfilling and fun, in other words everything your present career isn't shaping up to be. The fantasy? Opening your own restaurant.

Sure, it's crazy, but after cooking the best meal of your life, or better yet, the morning after throwing a splendid dinner party, you imagine it could happen some day. You're Rick in "Casablanca," running the most popular night spot in town. Or Sam Malone on "Cheers," hanging out behind the bar with your buddies. Or those two brothers in "Big Night," serving a truly unforgettable dinner.

"People tell me all the time, 'I'd love to walk around here with a glass of wine and do what you do,' " says Nancy longo, the owner of Pierpoint restaurant in Fells Point.

She can't believe her ears. If those peope only knew what it took to open a restaurant -- the money, prime real estate, reliable staff, delicious food and 16-hour days, for starters. If they only knew how hard it is to keep the place running. It's like throwing a dinner party all right. Every day of the week.

Restaurants come and go faster than the macarena. Some longtime restaurateurs say that eight out of 10 new establishments don't make it. Others say it's more like one out of three. Compared to those estimates, the National Restaurant Association's failure rate of 27 percent is practically encouraging. Over the last 10 years, the already competitive market has become even more competitive, with the continued influx of national chains.

Nevertheless, experienced chefs, second-careerists and young entrepreneurs continue to pursue their dream as sole proprietors. And more of them are on the way. Nationwide, the number of culinary programs offered at post-secondary schools has doubled in the last 15 years. Now there are more than 600. "If you survey culinary students, I think you'd find most of them would say their long-term goal is to open their own restaurant," says Mary Peterfen of the American Culinary Federation.

Volker Stewart, Gregg Santori and Johey Verfaille used to sit around talking about how great it would be to open their very own brew pub. They loved to entertain. Every week, they organized a dinner party with a dozen friends to watch "The Simpsons."

Stewart, 32, was a librarian at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. Santori, 29, was a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University. They enjoyed home-brewing and wanted to make a living out of their hobby. Verfaille, 29, who cooked at Donna's and for local caterers, wanted to run her own kitchen.

They thought they could start the business on a shoestring budget. Instead, they wound up spending about $510,000 on the Brewer's Art, which opened on Charles Street last September. The majority of it was Stewart's family money. They borrowed the rest, about a third. Several banks turned them down before they got the money they needed.

Start-up costs are one of the biggest obstacles to would-be restaurant owners. Banks, says restauranteur Michael Gettier, "want to invest in restaurants like they want to buy shoes for fish."

The real headache for the Brewer's Art trio, though, was finding a site tor their restaurant. Because they planned to brew beer on the premises, they needed a microbrewer's license, a special liquor license and the capacity to seat at least 75 patrons. After finding a building in Canton, they battled a neighborhood association over the zoning regulations and lost.

It was January 1995, and they had already spent more than a year looking for the right space with nothing to show for it. Stewart had quit his job at the library and was teaching German. Santori was working as a fly-fishing guide. Three months later, they got a break. They found a site on Charles Street, but the turn-of-the-century building required a complete renovation. The construction and various permits and licenses delayed the opening, originally planned for summer, to September -- Friday the 13th, to be precise. By that point, they were too relieved to be superstitious.

"We opened the top floor only because they were still hammering on the bottom floor," says Stewart. Now, both are open, the 80-seat dining room upstairs and the 30-seat tavern downstairs.

Opening a restaurant is sort of like putting on a show. You assemble the cast, build the set and hope the audience shows up. But some times, in the rush to open for business, the kitchen and dining room staffs don't get to rehearse and smooth out the kinks.

That's what happened to Gettier when he was working at a restaurant in Ellicott City several years ago. The night before the official opening, the owner told the staff that a dozen friends were coming for dinner. But by dinner time, the party had grown to well over a dozen.

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