Achieving Sweet & Savory Success: Running a Successful Restaurant
Apr 07, 2015 11:00AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
Running a successful restaurant requires ingredients that aren’t on the menuBy Kathi Ferguson // Photography by Tony Lewis, Jr.
“Where shall we eat tonight?” “What are you in the mood for? “Should we bring the kids?” As anyone in the restaurant business can attest to, the answers to these questions are not determined by great food alone. Satisfying hungry customers requires passion, endless effort, hours of dedication, and almost certainly a touch of insanity would rank high on the list of qualifications.
For the most part, the fundamentals of running any business are pretty straightforward. You purchase a product, mark it up to cover your overhead, and hire people to sell it. Managing a restaurant is all of this and more, whereby the ability to wear more than one hat is an understatement. On the very basic level, those that survive do so because of their location, quality of food, price, customer service, and ambiance of the dining room. In those that flourish, you will find something distinct that sets them apart from all the rest and keeps their diners returning. It is that special niche that often gives them the winning edge.
Andy Schulz of Fisherman’s Inn in Grasonville is no stranger to running a restaurant or two— literally. Located on Kent Narrows, his family’s establishment has been a landmark destination for generations of seafood lovers since 1930. What began as a local eatery and grocery store started by Andy’s maternal grandparents has since grown into something resembling a “culinary campus.” Schulz oversees what is commonly referred to as Fisherman’s Village, consisting of the main restaurant (Fisherman’s Inn), Fisherman’s Crab Deck, and Fisherman’s Seafood Market. A pavilion adjacent to the Crab Deck is the most recent addition, and is used for hosting weddings, corporate events, fishing groups, crab feasts, and other large groups during the season. “We have what people are looking for,” Schulz says. “Good seafood, on the water, super location. But you can never take your eye off the ball.” Schulz believes that “managing smart” is paramount to his long-term success. And that begins with a loyal staff. “You can’t afford to do it all yourself and when you are responsible for a business of this magnitude, one bad apple can be a real distraction,” Schulz professes. “I want my entire staff to share my vision and feel like they are not just working for me but with me.”
Menus here are easy to navigate and offer something for everyone, but seafood is the star. “At Fisherman’s Inn, we offer daily specials and decided to actually print copies for the servers to hand out with the menu,” Schulz adds. “It can be a bit labor intensive, but the customer can see right away what is offered, the cost, what it includes, how it’s prepared—all of that. It also saves the server from having to recite the specials at each table. And, our special sales go up!” Schulz’s insightful approach to management continues to steer Fisherman’s Village down its successful path. “This business is in my blood and that is what drives me,” Schulz says. “One of my biggest challenges is not to do too much and not be able to pull it off.”
The restaurant business is also “in the genes” for Mike Selinger of Old Stein Inn, who credits his parents for his successful journey. “I would not be here without them,” he proclaims. Located in the neighborhood town of Mayo, near Edgewater, the Old Stein Inn was opened in 1983 by German immigrants Karl and Ursula Selinger, who handed their son the torch after retiring some 15 years ago. Known for its fine German cuisine, festive Biergarten, and abundance of Gemütlichkeit (German for inducing a cheerful, welcoming atmosphere), the restaurant’s family-friendly spirit is alive and well thanks to Mike and his wife Beth’s dedicated efforts. “When people come here, they want the full experience—appetizers, entrée, beer, German desserts, after dinner drinks, and entertainment,” Selinger says. “Sitting down at a table with family and friends will never go out of style and that is what we base our philosophy on.”
That philosophy is reflected in the menu that Selinger and his long-time chef have created, which includes offerings to satisfy both the traditionalists and those who prefer something a bit more contemporary. “Sometimes we take a standard German recipe and tweak it to make it ours, or give German flair to a familiar American dish,” he explains. “Our menu reaches many and it can be a lot to absorb,” Selinger adds. “Part of my job as a manager is to provide my staff with the training they need to fully understand the menu, their ingredients, how things are prepared, as well as the correct pronunciation of the items.” Old Stein adds special platters during Oktoberfest, wild game dishes make an appearance during the winter months, and we are told by Mike that charcuterie has made a comeback. In fact, Old Stein Inn itself, made a comeback after a fire destroyed much of the 100-year-old building in 2011. “After the fire, the support from our customers and the community was overwhelming,” Mike reflects. “They are the heartbeat of this place.”
For Tommie Koukoulis of Severna Park’s Café Mezzanotte it is not just business, ‘it’s personal.’ While keeping an eye on his bottom line, Tommie is simultaneously working to raise awareness about what he feels the food industry should be. “The integrity of my food is my number one priority,” he says. “I am a strong advocate of using organic, all natural products and we do our part to support local farmers, giving back to the community whenever possible.” Italian cuisine is on the menu here and since the 30-year-old Koukoulis became sole proprietor just two short years ago, has held true to his commitment. “At least half of my ingredients are certified organic. For the rest, I personally investigate the operation I am dealing with to ensure they are growing or raising chemical-free.”
Koukoulis also maintains close relationships with a number of local charities and other organizations such as U Empower of Maryland (a primary community partner), The Franciscan Center, and the Oyster Recovery Partnership, just to name a few. Café Mezzanotte has put together an impressive line-up of fundraisers and other special events that highlight their commitment to community outreach. “Our monthly dinner has really taken off,” Koukoulis says. “We join together to support a local charity and in addition to promoting awareness of issues affecting our community, we donate 15 percent of all sales back to the featured organization,” Koukoulis says. “I can honestly say that my clientele has grown due to our outreach.”
Regardless of the size of a restaurant, the demands for its success are constant. Intimate and charming, Pope’s Tavern occupies the first floor of Oxford’s historic bed and breakfast, The Oxford Inn. Owners Dan Zimbelman and Chef Lisa MacDougal opened the doors to their 40-seat restaurant in 2005 with a sound business plan for commitment to quality from the top down. Equally important to them was to create a place where customers feel at home. “Oxford screams community,” Zimbelman says. “People come here not just for the amazing food, but the camaraderie.” Offering new American cuisine with some French twists, Chef Lisa uses only the freshest of ingredients in her creations. “Maintaining a good balance on our menu is probably my biggest challenge. You need to keep serving dishes that people are familiar with and what they come back for while changing things up at the same time.”
Positive energy and a dedicated staff is also what make this operation tick. Indicative of that is their 2013 Zagat rating of 27 out of 28 for service. Both Dan and Lisa agree, “Our staff has to care as much as we do as owners in order to achieve something like this. Their depth of knowledge and dedication to excellence is something that we are very proud of.” The esprit de corps at Pope’s also extends to the community. “There is a give-back,” says Lisa. “We get involved in what we believe in and what our customers believe in. For example, we discovered that the Oxford Museum was the only nonprofit organization in town with a mortgage, so we helped them retire that mortgage through black tie benefits and other events. It took us over four years, but the rewards were priceless.”
Be it fine dining or fast food, a neighborhood tavern or sidewalk café, a successful restaurant understands its image, what its customers want, and how to deliver results. Each of these seasoned restaurateurs seems to have found the right mix of ingredients to do just that.