Paul Le of Bonsai was only 32, Tsunami Sushi's Michele Ezell was 31, and Brian Blanchard was a mere 23 when he took over iMonelli ' a tender age that puts him more in line with a new crop of ambitious restaurateurs in Acadiana. Some are barely-out-of-college age, but that isn't stopping them from barreling full-speed ahead in pursuit of their dream of business ownership in the highly competitive Lafayette restaurant arena.
At the less than 3-month-old Catahoula's Steakhouse on Pinhook Road, there are Brach Myers, 25, John Slaughter Jr., 29, and their 34-year-old partner/executive chef, Jude Tauzin. Over at River Ranch, two 25-year-olds, Jake Alleman and Cody Gielen, are poised to make a huge breakfast splash in this market when they open Another Broken Egg CafÃ© behind Bonefish Grill in a couple of months. And by November, just across the street from Another Broken Egg, brothers Logan and Jason Trotter, 25 and 26, will introduce ZoÃ«'s Kitchen to Lafayette diners.
They'll face tremendous competition, not only from local independents such as Le, Ezell and Blanchard, but also from similarly ambitious out-of-towners who have expanded their own popular restaurants to the Hub City. Raising Cane's founder, Todd Graves of Baton Rouge, was fresh out of college when he hatched his tasty chicken fingers concept, choosing Lafayette for his first expansion outside of the Capital City. On July 6, Cane's will open its third Lafayette location ' its 60th store in the 12-state chain ' at the corner of Pinhook and Kaliste Saloom roads. Baton Rouge native Andy Blouin and his partner, both of whom were 28 when they came up with the idea for Serranos Salsa Co., join the local scene July 9 in front of the Grand Theatre on Johnston Street. And New Orleans native Greg Reggio was all of 28 in 1990 when he teamed up with two friends to form the Taste Buds, the culinary group that founded Semolina in 1991 and six years later Zea ' which has enjoyed tremendous success since opening in Lafayette in the summer of 2001. Reggio is also an owner of River Ranch's CafÃ© Roma.
Getting the restaurants open ' though certainly no easy task ' may be the least of the challenges these young guns face.
Each of these new groups' concepts vary greatly, as does their experience. Myers, Slaughter and Tauzin best fit the mold of independents like Le, Ezell and Blanchard; Alleman is bringing his uncle's concept, a breakfast eatery that got its start in Mandeville and now has a group of eight corporate and franchised stores, to River Ranch. And the Trotters are franchisees for a "fast-casual" Birmingham-based chain of about 20 locations that cater to health conscious diners.
If there is one common denominator in this group of up-and-comers, it's got to be their enthusiasm.
"I love talking to people, meeting new people," says Rayne native Alleman, who last week was planning his June 29 wedding. "I guess my personality is a crowd pleaser. I love pleasing people."
That zeal will likely be a critical ingredient in Another Broken Egg's success, Ezell says. "The thing that was on my side was my youth," she notes. "I was full of energy, moxie and a bit bull headed. I didn't take 'no' for an answer."
Ezell describes herself as "horrifyingly clueless" in her quest to open Tsunami Sushi with no restaurant experience in late 2000. "That's the only words to describe my naivety to what I was getting into," says Ezell, who's now 37 years old. "I never looked past the thought of 'how Lafayette needed an eccentric downtown sushi bar.' I never thought about monthly sales taxes, workers' comp, payroll, employee thievery, liquor liability, equipment maintenance, random inspections from the Department of Health, pleasing the general public, power outages in the middle of a Friday dinner service, inventory ' and that was the first year." She continues: "One of my 'a-ha' moments was bouncing all of the first run of payroll."
Ezell failed to calculate that credit cards are processed two to three business days after the date of business; so Friday's sales, for example, wouldn't hit her checking account until Tuesday or Wednesday, two days after she processed payroll. "Not one of my proudest moments," she notes.
Ezell, however, quickly overcame the problems, and Tsunami was soon a phenomenon in Lafayette. Five years later, she parlayed the Tsunami sensation into a successful location atop Baton Rouge's downtown Shaw Center and more recently expanded on Lafayette's Jefferson Street with the opening of the upscale piano bar Lounge.
Likewise, Blanchard has been serving up Italian dishes in Lafayette for two decades, opening a scaled-down version of iMonelli, Cafe Jo-Jo, in Morgan City in 2002 and more recently buying Ã la carte. The 41-year-old, however, is convinced people entering the restaurant business don't have a good grasp of what it takes just to turn a profit. He says most people are taken aback to know that the industry standard is a 10 percent profit margin. "They just don't understand the cost of doing business," he says. Blanchard sees it all the time ' people who think the business is a cinch to get into and one big party they'll enjoy with friends who patronize the establishment.
Brach Myers of the new Catahoula's Steakhouse can relate to Blanchard. "I've been there," he says, admitting to having stars in his eyes a year ago when he signed a lease to open a franchised location of Simply Fondue in an old building on the 400 block of Jefferson Street. "It does look attractive, especially when you're looking at a franchise, [but] there are a lot of things you've got to do. You've got a lot of responsibility when you're dealing with investors," says Myers, who walked away from the Simply Fondue deal and is about a week shy of subleasing the spot to Bonsai's Le.
The Catahoula's project came about in the midst of Myers' attempts to put the Simply Fondue deal together after Doe's of Lafayette franchisee Barr Brown was killed in a plane crash in December 2006. Brown at one time worked for Myers' father's thriving home health company, LHC Group, and his widow offered Brach Myers the opportunity to take over the lease. That's when he turned to the Slaughter family, founders of Catahoula's in Grand Coteau, to consult about potential concepts to replace Doe's. The Slaughters were in the process of selling their restaurant to their chef, Jude Tauzin, and a deal was soon negotiated to bring Tauzin and John Slaughter Jr., who managed his father's Grand Coteau restaurant from 2001 to 2006, in as partners in a new Catahoula's on Pinhook. (Tauzin is the sole owner of the Grand Coteau restaurant.)
The challenge was to change the menu of the Lafayette Catahoula's enough that the two restaurants would not compete with each other, but the trio wanted to play off the good reputation of the Grand Coteau eatery. Since its name was primarily built on seafood, they turned more to steaks and other meats like lamb and duck. "We had a great response, and that was largely on the back of the Grand Coteau store," Slaughter Jr. says, noting the invaluable experience he gained from working at his parents' restaurant. "A lot of that knowledge we brought to the Pinhook location, and it's helped."
By backing away from a Simply Fondue in the downtown space (he's looking at other sites), Myers is opening the door for Le, who turns 40 this July, to fulfill his dream of expanding Bonsai to Jefferson Street. Bonsai Sushi Downtown, which Le says will have an upscale bar as its focal point, should be open in October at the corner of Jefferson and Garfield streets, catercorner to Dwyer's.
Local restaurant owners say the proliferation of chain restaurants in Lafayette in recent years has heightened the level of competition, making opening a new restaurant a much bigger gamble, and ' as Myers points out ' construction costs are through the roof.
Le says it will cost him about $450,000 to do the downtown location. "I'm finally getting financed," he says, noting that his parents won't have to mortgage their home this time around. "Regions Bank is financing the whole thing."
Without Bonsai's reputation under his belt, however, Le says there is no way a bank would give him the time of day. Banker after banker showed him the door eight years ago, citing his lack of collateral to back a loan along with the crazy idea of sushi in Lafayette. iMonelli's Blanchard says his banker laughed him out of the door, and "almost humiliated me," so he borrowed the money from his grandfather. He paid it back in three years.
Le also warns that anyone who has scraped up just enough money to open the doors will run into trouble. "Don't max yourself out to open a restaurant," he says. "You always should plan for spending more. You always need more money." He also advises aspiring restaurateurs to set aside funds as working capital once they open "or have a way to get it."
Blanchard serves up similar guidance: "Pay very close attention to cash flow, because it's here today and gone tomorrow. Just because you have a really good month, or even a really good six months, doesn't mean you go create a lifestyle around it." He says bustling business is common in a restaurant's first few months, leaving the owners to think they have a hit on their hands. Sustaining a healthy revenue stream, he maintains, is the real challenge: "Macaroni Grill had 'em standing in line, and it failed in the first year."
When a restaurant like that closes, the losses can be substantial. Go to zoeskitchen.com and before you can even start inquiring about a franchise, there's one question: "Do you have access to 400 thousand dollars in cash to invest to open a store?" To get to the next step of the online application, you'll have to answer, "yes."
Another Broken Egg's Web site pegs startup costs at $200,000 to $500,000, and while Alleman won't say where his River Ranch location falls in that range, he acknowledges his 3,742-square-foot store will be the biggest of the company's existing restaurants. Both Catahoula's and Another Broken Egg's owners say family money is making their ventures possible, but the Trotters ' who are entering a partnership with ZoÃ«'s Kitchen's first franchisee in Destin ' declined to comment on their financial arrangement. "We'll keep that private," says Logan, who has a business degree from Tulane. He most recently was doing condominium development in New Orleans but relocated here after Hurricane Katrina; because he lacks restaurant experience, Logan plans to hire a co-manager for the local restaurant. Brother Jason, who also has experience in residential development, works at the Destin restaurant.
The Trotters' father is Billy Trotter, a wealthy former business partner of Lafayette's Moody family. He, too, returned to Lafayette after Hurricane Katrina.
Catahoula's Slaughter Jr. notes that the new restaurant's financing is a family affair. "Everybody's on the hook here," he quips, explaining that his parents and Myers' parents have a stake in the restaurant. (Brach, who has a degree in business, has another professional relationship with his father as a part-time employee in LHC Group's marketing department.)
Alleman, who worked for his uncle's Another Broken Egg locations in Mandeville and Sandestin, the resort restaurant that introduced so many Lafayette vacationers to the eatery, was seeking out potential franchisees for a Lafayette store when he and Crowley native Cody Gielen, his longtime friend, decided to test the potential pool of investors themselves. They approached Cody's grandfather ' John Dan Gielen of Crowley, a successful businessman with numerous Shop Rite and Tobacco Plus stores ' about financing them. Much to their surprise, he went for it.
"I just asked, not even thinking Mr. John Dan would help us out," Alleman says, "but he said yes." Alleman and Cody, who is still in college, will run the day-to-day operations and hope to do more stores down the road. "We have a few other locations that we can do once we pay this massive debt off," Alleman says.
Though the restaurant, which offers a 130-item breakfast and lunch menu, closes daily at 2 p.m., Alleman is well aware of the effort needed to pull this venture off ' including morning food prep that starts at 5 a.m. "I've done it all," he says. "I've cooked, I've managed, I've washed dishes. I watched the company grow from the first restaurant all the way to the eighth," he continues. "I've been a part of it. I know what it takes."
And while Lafayette's familiarity with the concept may make it easier to get customers through the door, these young restaurateurs are far from home free, warns Bonsai's Le. "I was lucky because I was overwhelmed [with business]," says Le, a Vietnam native who moved to Lafayette at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. "It wasn't the money problem; it was the labor problem. I basically slept at the restaurant, and I only lived five minutes away, because I thought if I drove home that was 10 minutes I could be sleeping."
Le's Bonsai is a dinner-only concept, which helps tremendously with the issue of labor. "I want people who work in my restaurant to have a normal life," he says. "My employees work only 40 hours a week."
For restaurateurs like iMonelli's Blanchard, who serve both lunch and dinner, "normal" is a relative term; the 41-year-old often works 70 hours a week and cites labor as the biggest challenge facing all local eateries. "My wife recently bought a lottery ticket and said she was going to win and buy [my restaurants] and fire me," Blanchard says. He maintains that anyone who thinks he or she can hire a manager to run the business is asking for trouble. "An absentee restaurant owner is definitely going to fail," he says.
Adds Le: "When you're sitting down talking numbers, the concept, the restaurant, no one's ever talking about labor. It is such a high percentage of your time that becomes a big headache." For those 20-somethings just getting into the business, Le offers: "Make sure you have a couple of major people you can depend on ' and not just your friends (whom he says will agree to help until they realize how much work is involved). You would not believe, having one very good waitress on the floor, how much that helps you out."
Ezell cautions up-and-comers to adjust to the fact that the business is often a roller coaster ride that can be less jolting as they gain experience and mature. "I have learned to let the crowd carry me through waves of good and bad now," she says. "With age, however, I have learned to do things smarter. Hire better and negotiate wiser."
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