Investment banker Oz Bengur is betting sunny side is up with restaurant venture

April 01, 2005|By BILL ATKINSON

OZ BENGUR, investment banker and failed congressional candidate, stands over a hot grill wearing a white apron and a nervous smile.

"I can do this," he said. "A mushroom-cheddar-shallot omelet."

He cracks three eggs into a silver bowl, tosses in some cream, beats the mixture and pours it onto a puddle of hot oil on the grill.

"Where are the shallots?" Bengur asked Jose Enrique, a cook who is keeping an eye on Bengur as the lunchtime crowd starts gathering at Eggspectation restaurant in Silver Spring.

Cracking eggs and scraping grease off the grill with a metal spatula is not something that Bengur, 56, has had much experience with. In his former life, he invested in a pizza enterprise; the business did well, but Bengur was banned from the kitchen after he botched the dough.

But this time he's a full-time chief of a restaurant company.

Bengur is president of Baltimore-based Eggspectation USA, the franchiser of the restaurant where he's laboring over the grill. Last year, he and a handful of partners bought the trademark and rights from a Canadian company to franchise and develop Eggspectation restaurants in the United States.

The company has three franchised restaurants, in Silver Spring, Ellicott City and South Portland, Maine. Bengur has visions of a coast-to-coast chain with maybe several hundred restaurants that offer a large variety of high-quality food with unique dishes.

The restaurants, which cost about $1.3 million to open, are casual and airy, with exposed brick and ductwork. Two of the restaurants have fireplaces, and all have fully stocked bars with jazz or light rock piped in through speakers.

"We will start in the Mid-Atlantic and go from there," Bengur said. "We will be very selective where we go. If we are successful, then clearly we will be able to roll it out into a national chain."

With his go-slow approach, Bengur plans to open at least one more restaurant this year, three more next year and as many as six in 2007 in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

"You always have to be a little bit crazy to take on a new entrepreneurial venture," Bengur said.

He seemed crazier in 2002 when he staged a primary challenge to Democratic incumbent Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger in the 2nd Congressional District seat.

An unknown candidate, Bengur went up against a seasoned politician and dropped about $750,000 on the race, more than half from his own pocket. He raised eyebrows by hiring Julius C. Henson, a political operative known for his bare-fisted tactics, as his campaign consultant. Bengur put up a good fight but lost and moved on.

As an investment banker at Bengur Bryan & Co., a Baltimore business he recently left as partner, he and his group of investors made millions owning and then selling a chain of 31 Papa John's pizza stores.

After he lost the election, Bengur began looking for another restaurant investment. A friend told him about Eggspectation.

"I walked into the Ellicott City restaurant and it was a wow," Bengur said.

He negotiated to buy the trademark and franchise rights from the parent company, Eggspectation International Holding Co. of Montreal.

The restaurant aims to attract upscale diners with its casual setting and high-quality food. It serves real maple syrup and uses real eggs and butter.

The menu has a wide variety of dishes, from French toast and eggs Benedict to filet mignon and salads.

Competition is intense in a business known for its razor-thin margins, but Bengur believes there is nothing else out there like Eggspectation.

Yet, a hot restaurant chain can fold in a heartbeat because of lousy service, poor food quality or changes in consumers' tastes and diets.

Planet Hollywood, the glitzy chain backed by Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, filed for bankruptcy reorganization twice.

"It is a tough business," said Robert Furlong, an analyst at GARP Research in Ruxton. "Finding a concept that has nationwide appeal ... is difficult. If he wants to grow it to five locations around the Baltimore area, he is probably going to do it. It becomes questionable when he says it is going to make it 100 stores."

Bengur said each restaurant draws 4,000 to 5,000 diners a week and that sales are growing.

"The food is great," said Laurel Thompson, 36, who eats at the Silver Spring Eggspectation every day.

Doug Robbins, a 33-year-old recruiter for the Army, and his wife, Jill Robbins, ate dinner by the fireplace on a recent evening and returned the next day for lunch.

"It was awesome," said Doug Robbins, who lives in West Point, N.Y.

Bengur's stint as cook isn't for fun. He wants to learn every aspect of the business, from waiting tables to tending bar. "I am going to do it all," Bengur said.

He has found out that restaurant work is not always easy. As the orders began to pile in, one customer wanted a dish called an Eggstravaganza.

The rookie cook was forced to turn to Enrique for help.

"What's an Eggstravaganza?" he asked.

Bill Atkinson's column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. Contact him at 410-332-6961 or by e-mail at bill.atkinson@balt sun.com.

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