CEO. Owner’s Husband. Good Shot.
I started washing dishes when I was 15 years old, in Rochester’s Perkins Restaurant. Today, I have mastered many of the toughest dishwashing techniques. In a quest to be promoted to line cook, I left my dishwashing job at age 16, and started to cook at the, now defunct, Embers restaurant. It was there that I was taught by my manager, Mike Currie, all phases of restaurant operation, including line cooking; waiting tables; hosting; cashiering; inventories; food ordering; menu costing; sanitation; personnel hiring, training, and scheduling; and restaurant management. I also regularly cooked breakfast, alone, for over 150 people a day. That was the deal I made with Mike to earn $4 an hour wages — double the going rate.
It was not much training towards culinary expertise, but, I am now able to organize myself and do twelve things all at once. I also further honed my skills at dishwashing. My manager, Mike, and I eventually decided that we could run restaurants better than our employers, so, we ventured off onto our own.
In 1978, after dropping out of college with promises to my father that I’d finish “some day” and talking my father out of a lot of money (as well as his IBM retirement), we started our first restaurant, The Bank, in downtown Rochester. We soon realized how much we really did not know about running restaurants, and we also found out that hundred-hour work weeks could make up for a fair amount of ignorance. The Bank fit the 1970’s style of restaurants as a supper-club-in-an-unusual-environment, aka, “themed” restaurant. It was in the day when people ate the same steak & potatoes as they always had, but, in a “train” or an “airport” or a “cave” or a “gold mine” or some other more clever venue. The Bank was a suit & tie, classy place, that ended up falling into the category of an occasional dining spot — i.e. birthday and anniversary only. The most frequent comment was I ate there once and I really loved it! Emphasis was on “loved it” but I only heard “once.”
In 1980 we transformed our dying upstairs lounge into a burger and beer restaurant called Newts. Originally, we sold tap beer for 75, mixed drinks for $1.25, and half-pound burgers for $2. In our 70 seat bar we could sell 1000 beers a night. We sold a few burgers too. Eventually, The Bank gave way to Henry Wellington, a name we made up, with many of the food elements of The Bank (prime rib, steaks, sirloins, etc) and some bar elements like nachos and onion rings, in a much more casual setting, complete with 2-for-1 drinks in both the afternoon and late night. It was a cross between the then thriving (but not yet in Rochester) Bennigan’s and TGI Friday’s. The success of both Newts and Henry Wellingtons was huge.
We then continued with other business pursuits, some successful and some not, like Emerald Coast Ocean Products, a wholesale/retail seafood market; Henry Wellington of Battle Lake, a smaller version in a northern Minnesota town; Broadstreet Cafe and Redwood Room a very high end restaurant with a more casual cousin; Jerry’s Diner what the name would imply; Henry Wellington of Bloomington, a huge restaurant and also my biggest business failure; JP Zubay’s City Market, still a thriving Rochester deli; City Cafe, a modernized version of the outdated Henry Wellington in Rochester; and 300 First which replaced the aging Broadstreet Cafe.
During that time I was also a paid consultant for several operations but most notably Walt Disney World, in Orlando, after I submitted to them a 17 page letter of complaint/job application, regarding their food service operations. In my two year stint there I saw the Illuminations fireworks and laser show in EPCOT about a hundred times, and I think I cried every time. I also gained a special appreciation for Dilbert cartoons because I now personally know each character.
It was also at The Bank that I met my wife, LeeAnn, one of the first waitresses and probably the best. Mike warned me not to fool around with the help, but, I refused to listen. She shared and nurtured my passion for all things food and restaurant, and she gained a huge insight into the culinary world while I focused my efforts on restaurant management and operations. When I’d come home and ask her “what’s for dinner?” she would have to consult Bon Appetite and Gourmet magazines, Epicurious.com, and then scan through the last episode of Iron Chef (still the Japanese version) before she could answer.
She taught me appreciation for the world of food beyond Kraft, Heinz, and Sysco, and also taught me the need to respect food trends, so we would not become the leisure suit of the culinary world. She served a long time as Consulting Chef doing menu research and recipe development for our restaurants, as well as scouting out hard to find ingredients. She also stayed home to raise our three kids, a feat much more difficult than restaurant operations. And did it, for the most part, single handedly, while I focused on food costs and training, in our restaurants.
After I sold my restaurant interests to Mike’s kids, I successfully retired for the better part of two weeks. LeeAnn then insisted on following her dream to find the finest in culinary ingredients as well as a cafe to showcase the effective use of the best products on the planet. When a local restaurant failed the landlord contacted us and he made us an offer we could not refuse. It is today that I spend my life now having more fun than I ever did, selling products I cannot pronounce but that I can savor and enjoy, with a wife and staff that I love and respect for their passion and drive to become the ultimate foodies. And, I still get to wash dishes every day. What could be better?! Eventually, I did pay back my father, but, I have not finished college. Not yet a broken promise because I hope to have a few more “some days.” And I dedicate my dreams and successes to my father, Ken, who died in March 2010, always my biggest fan, biggest supporter, and biggest critic, and my mother, Mary, who followed him six months later.