The Herald-Mail visited with two restaurant owners, a former owner and a chef. We asked about their secrets for business success in downtown Hagerstown. They are:
- Charlie Sekula, host and former owner of Schmankerl Stube, which opened in 1988.
- Paul Deputy, co-owner of The Gourmet Goat and GG's Restaurant & Martini Bar, which opened in 2000.
- Michael Barry, chef and kitchen manager, Bulls & Bears, which opened in 2008.
- Bernard Paul, owner of Uncle Louie G's Homemade Gourmet Italian Ices and Ice Cream, which opened in 2009.
The conclusion? There is no one secret that works for everybody. But the four downtown restaurateurs discussed about what works for them — basics like listening to customer feedback, plus counterintuitive concepts like cooperating with your competitors.
Appeal to more than one kind of customer.
Michael Barry: Daytime, we have a lot of business people, and it has to be quick — fast in and out — because they don't have a long lunch break. Then there's also the afternoon drinkers, especially in summer. They come in and sit and meet up with a friend they haven't seen in a while.
Bernard Paul: Here, we have a lot of residents. So I see a lot of people who come and get ice. And during the day, we have a lot of people who come through (from businesses and) from the Alexander House. So it's a lot of locals.
Paul Deputy: We consider the front part a deli-coffee bar; we call it The Gourmet Goat. We consider the back part GG's Restaurant & Martini Bar. During the day, it's all one. At nighttime, just the back space is open.
Take advantage of activities that draw people downtown.
Paul Deputy: Shows are very important for downtown. You've got The Maryland Theatre, a huge asset to us. Every time they have a concert, every time they have the (Maryland Symphony Orchestra), every time they have a special show, all the restaurants downtown benefit.
Michael Barry: We absolutely love The Maryland Theatre. Initially, when we opened, it was very difficult, because you go from completely empty to 250 seats full within five minutes because everybody's going to the show. (Also,) there's live music on Friday with Wind Down Fridays. And Blues Fest is coming up. There's a lot of things to do downtown. But people don't always know what (is going on).
Bernard Paul: The (Washington County Free) Library — before it was (gutted for renovation), I used to have a lot of kids go over there to get DVDs, then come here to get some ice.
Be a downtown booster.
Bernard Paul: It's not as rich as other parts of Hagerstown, but it's a cute downtown area. I like the idea of being in a neighborhood. I don't want to be on Dual Highway. Here we have walk-in traffic. There's a lot of kids that live around here. I know the people across the street. I know the people who live upstairs. It's just nice to have a neighborhood ice cream shop. I think this is good for Hagerstown.
Paul Deputy: We like downtown, we believe in downtown, so we wanted to stay downtown. When we travel, we like going to a downtown area, and see mom-and-pop (businesses).
Charlie Sekula: I started my restaurant downtown because (this building) had this back porch for a biergarten. It had this second room as a Bavarian delicatessen. And it had this dining room. This is what I was looking for. At first, the area was very bad — prostitutes, drug dealings, fights. But there were some incentives like (Community Development Block Grant) loans. I paid back every penny and $380,000 in interest.
Be dedicated to your restaurant.
Charlie Sekula: Whatever was your first priority, your new priority is your restaurant. And you eat, live and sleep the restaurant. Total dedication. It took me about 13, 14 years to break even. Where, normally, a restaurant should break even in seven years, depending on the investment. I just hung in there.
Paul Deputy: Make sure you're on your premises. Make sure you're involved with your customers. If you're not, you have no idea what's going on. (Co-owner) Steve (Cook) and I are on premises most of the time. We're here from opening — making the coffee in the morning — to closing at night.
Attend customers personally.
Paul Deputy: You have to get to know your customers. We try to know as many of our customers as we possibly can, because that's the only way to do it. Make sure you're involved with your customers.
Charlie Sekula: Now I do it a little different from most restaurants. I not only host the customers as they come in, I check the tables and see that everything is to their satisfaction. Customers like that.
Let your regulars know what's coming up.
Michael Barry: The things we promote are buffets and bands. We use Facebook a lot, because obviously it's a great way to advertise. And at the bottom of every (menu) specials sheet, we'll put upcoming events. So that way, people who already come here know.
Paul Deputy: It's all in your friends list. It's who you have as friends. You always do Facebook, you always do Twitter.
Don't be afraid to try new things.
Charlie Sekula: The Bavarian deli — I gave it six months to see some improvement. I didn't see it. So I closed it down on a Sunday, tore it down, put in new refrigeration, and reopened as a restaurant on Thursday.
Michael Barry: We've changed a lot in five years. We started out, we just did sandwiches and light fare, and we only had six beers on tap. Now we've doubled the beers on tap. We've expanded our menu, trying to catch a larger client base. I think the key is not to be too set in your initial concept. You have to do what works for the community.
Come up with ideas for improving downtown.
Bernard Paul: I really feel the city should do a lot more for the businesses that stay down here. I've got offers from other places, but I like being down here. This is a great location.
But I'm surrounded by parking lots. Maybe we could take one parking lot and maybe make it a basketball court. A public basketball court. And a child's playground. You don't have to go to a "real" park for a kid. You can (have a small park) in the middle of town. There's a lot of young people here, you know. A lot of young mothers here. They could sit while their kids played in a sandbox, played on a jungle gym. Swings. And there you could have festivals, handpainting, facepainting.
Customers: No more complaining about downtown parking.
Paul Deputy: You can't get parking right outside your venue. You're lucky if you do, and be thankful if you get it. But don't say we don't have parking, because there is plenty of parking downtown. There's a big parking garage (on our block) that has 400 parking spaces in it, and another (garage with) 400 parking spaces a block away, plus the central parking lot with over 300 parking spaces.
Michael Barry: There are parking garages here, and anytime after 4 (p.m.), it's only $1 to park.
Don't be afraid of other restaurants opening nearby.
Michael Barry: I think other restaurants are good to have. We actually have other people, they'll go somewhere else for dinner, but they'll come here for a drink. I think it's better to make downtown a destination location. We like all the restaurants to be around, because it creates more of a buzz, more of a reason for people to come downtown.
Working with competitors can be good for everyone.
Michael Barry: Everyone who works downtown is great. Every month we get together with Gourmet Goat and 28 South and discuss what we can do to help create a better downtown. Even though we're competitors, we're all very good friends. I go to 28 South a lot. (Chef) Jay (Zuspan of 28 South) comes over here a lot.
Paul Deputy: It's all in networking. That's our most powerful advertising, all the networking we do. You have to have it. If you don't, there's no way you're going to survive. Now we're also trying to do a network of getting people seated and fed. What we're doing now is, maybe 28 South is busy, they will try to get in touch with us and see if we have seats available. If we don't have them, we'll call the (Broad) Axe to see if they have something available, or call Bulls & Bears.
Welcome customer feedback, especially the bad reviews.
Paul Deputy: We get very upset with our customers if they don't give us feedback. They say, "We didn't want to get you upset." Well, you're upsetting us more because now we didn't know about it. We appreciate when people tell us if there's an issue.
Charlie Sekula: When you find out if something is not right, you make it right. Once they leave the door, it's too late.
Michael Barry: Your staff knows your clientele better than anybody, because they're here 40 hours a week and they're getting all the input. If you take all the input from your staff and from your customers, and do what needs to be done, they'll come back.
Restaurants face challenges for continued prosperity
Restaurants, like other small businesses, face stiff odds against long-term success. According to an article by G. Sidney, writing for RestaurantOwner.com, a website serving the restaurant industry, about two-thirds of restaurants close before they are a decade old.
Sidney said recent, reliable statistics on restaurant survival are surprisingly hard to find. But researchers at Cornell University and Michigan State University conducted a study of restaurants in three local markets over a 10-year period. Their conclusions:
Within 12 months of opening, 27 percent of restaurant startups failed.
- After three years, half of the restaurants had closed.
- After five years, 60 percent were no longer in business.
- At the end of 10 years, 70 percent of the restaurants had closed.
In the late 1990s, Restaurant Startup & Growth magazine commissioned a survey to quantify the new restaurant failure rate. Studying thousands of restaurants in Dallas from 1997 to 2002, the study concluded 23 percent of new restaurants in Dallas closed within 12 months of opening; and additional 14 percent closed in their second year; and 7 percent closed during their third year.
Researchers said restaurants closed for a mix of reasons, some beyond the control of owners and some due to owners' poor management — bad location, unworkable menu, uncontrollable costs, poor marketing or a combination.
— Chris Copley, Lifestyle assistant editor