Long-time restaurateurs dish on their secrets to success.
How did you get started in the food industry?
Jack Piper, co-owner of Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack and Basta: “Both of us started when we were like 16. [Co-owner] James [Adrian] started in the Hy-Vee Deli and worked his way up to a restaurant called Commander’s Palace, which won all kinds of accolades. I started as a busboy in a hotel and ended up working in five-star resorts in the mountains of Colorado.”
Jim Mondanaro, owner of Bread Garden Market, Joseph’s Steakhouse and ReUnion Brewery: “I was a bartender in college, and I was intrigued by the business. In the last semester of my senior year, I was supposed to student teach. An employer asked if I wanted to buy a closed restaurant from him. I had a little bit of money, and he sold it to me on a contract, and that’s how it all began.”
Faye Swift, owner of Red’s, Big Grove, Blackstone and Pullman: “1973, that’s when I got my first job in a bar. I opened Sluggers in 1988 in Coralville, Iowa.”
Ron Godwin, owner of Naso’s Pizza, Flamingo, Winifred’s, RG Books and Vino’s: “1962. I started making pizza in a little Italian place at 65 cents an hour in Cedar Rapids.”
George Elossais, owner Mikhael’s Restaurant: “My parents were in the business since before I was born. I grew up working weekends and summers alongside my four older sisters and extended family who all worked there. My father was a Lebanese immigrant and food, as well as hospitality is a big part of our culture. In 2012 my parents decided to retire after 29 years in the business. I couldn’t walk away from the opportunity to keep it in the family so I decided to take the plunge.”
Andy Diep, owner Ramen Belly: “I went to University of Illinois to study design and I was just like any other college kid, going to school and working as a sushi guy on the weekend to make money to get by. But, I love food. My family has always been in the restaurant business. My parents used to own a Chinese restaurant in California and back even in Vietnam, we are still serving food.”
What inspired you to open your first restaurant?
JP: “We wanted to take our knowledge, everything we’ve learned from trips and working in different places, [and] bring that awesome food back to Iowa City.”
FS: “At the time, the only things available in Coralville were a Bonanza and a Ponderosa Steakhouse. I thought that wasn’t enough because I had been living there since 1978, and I felt that there was a certain need for a family kind of sports bar.”
AD: “Justin Tran, the original owner of Three Samurai, asked me to come here and help him make sushi. I worked for Justin for a while and I then asked him if we could partner on a new project together. Together we opened Takanami with John Lieu in 2003.”
How did you expand?
JP: “Each of the concepts came from something we genuinely wanted to do, food that we were proud of. When we opened Atlas, we didn’t think there were certain food dishes here, so we thought we could bring them. Then we didn’t see barbecue, so we opened a barbecue restaurant. Later, there were lots of Italian places and pizza places. We thought if kids want pizza and parents want pasta, we can try to put it together for everyone.”
JM: “In ’94, we built the Bread Garden as a bakery because we wanted to have the best bread, the best buns. That’s a big difference between us and all the other restaurants that buy bread from a mass-produced factory. We’ve made our own homemade ravioli, tortellini, our own pasta and things like that for over 25 years. We grow because what we did was better than what you’d get at an Olive Garden.”
FS: “Opportunities come your way. When the Reds building became “for sale,” I was in real estate and realized that would be a good thing for us to buy. There were no restaurants in North Liberty at the time that were neighborhood joints. We had a Slugger’s following, and people were very encouraging. Later, we ran into a really good brewer and realized we should start brewing beer. More partners came my way that were old friends; all great talents. Little by little, more partnerships formed, and more restaurants appeared.”
RG: “I had seven brothers and sisters and my mother and father that worked for me. I just started buying things and had a good attorney who consulted me. In terms of why, it’s the American dream to have more. I came from a poor family. My grandfather worked for WPA during the Depression and fought for World War I in the trenches in Europe. You just want more.”
What does your job look like these days?
JP: “We use a simple philosophy that if my top management teams have everything they need and their questions are answered, they will do the same with our servers, cooks and the guests. We do a lot of walking and asking, ‘What do you need?’”
JM: “In the beginning, I did everything from morning till close. I was the manager, the cook, the bartender, I did everything. Today, I have people that are doing those things, but I have to be available 24 hours a day. It’s a chain of command.”
FS: “I am not a hands-on person anymore, but I have the experience that the rest of my team doesn’t have. They’ll come up with ideas, and I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I did that 20 years ago.’ I’m more of a consultant, a leader.”
RG:“I still make pizza. It’s still the same old business: quality service and quality product, just taking care of the customer.”
GE: “My day starts off around 5:30 a.m. when I begin cooking breakfast for my early birds. Although I do most of the cooking, I also deal with vendors, stocking, hiring, billing and pretty much any issue that arises on a daily basis. It’s never a dull moment around here.”
AD: “I’m more behind the scenes than up front. I’m the guy in the kitchen making the recipes.”
What’s your secret to success?
JP: “Our success comes back to giving people just good, honest, flavorful food with a big smile and good hospitality. That’s really golden all the time.”
JM: “We don’t cut corners. The name of our company is Fresh Food Concepts, and that tells the tale right there. We buy the best products that we can, we make everything from scratch and we use those products as building blocks for end products.”
FS: “I would like to believe that we treat our customers like family. We treat our employees like real people and give opportunities for people to move up. We love what we do.”
RG: “Having a large family and buying the buildings that I own.”
GE: “I think it is important to be on site to manage your business. Especially in the restaurant business where there is a lot of opportunity for errors. I’m the first one to get there and the last one to leave. Also even more important is the way you treat your employees and your customers. Make sure you let everyone know you appreciate them because ultimately they are the ones that allow you to do what you do every day.”
AD: “I don’t give up. If there’s something I really want, I will try my best. I’m a pretty good fighter.”
JP: “Right now, we’re pretty happy. At this point, we’re really just trying to make sure that [our restaurants] can do the best for everybody. The latest thing we’re doing is our sauces at Jimmy Jack’s, which will hopefully go into retail.”
JM: “Right now, we’re expanding our brewery. Within the next 10 years, I’ll be completely out of the business.”
FS: “Retirement. I am 67, so it’s time.”
RG: “I’m 73 and my father’s 96, so my goal is to get to the age of 96. [Business goals] come along automatically. A month ago, the Democratic Party called and wanted to know if we could feed 900 people fish. That was the goal, to feed 900 people 600-700 pounds of fish in about four hours and fry it on-site. That goal happened two weeks prior, so you don’t know what the next day’s goal is going to be.”
GE: “My goal is to maintain a quality product and happy customer while continuously adding value to my customers experience.”
What advice do you have for aspiring restaurateurs?
JP: “I tell young folks, don’t worry about the money. Go to the place that you think is putting out the best and ask them. Good restaurant people will help you. Someone listened to me, someone helped me, so we always try to pay it forward with anyone else doing anything.”
JM: “Be careful about trying to get into something that you can’t get out of. Anybody who wants to be in the restaurant business better have something that not just they themselves believe is good. There are too many restaurants today compared to when I started. So the key to success is differentiating yourself from everybody else in a way that brings you as much revenue on your concept as you can get.”
FS: “You have to have a passion for it. If you think you’re a good cook and that’s a good reason to open up a restaurant, it’s really not. You have to realize that your path and passion is really in hospitality. We want everybody to have a good time.”
RG: “Everybody seems to want to get into the restaurant business. I’d say, find a new line of work … but if you’re going to get into it, you should go somewhere like Kirkwood’s Culinary Arts program instead of taking your mother’s or grandmother’s recipe. Learn the basics of cooking.”
GE: “Offer a quality product. Know your competition. Know your market and listen to what people want. Work hard and never give up!”
AD: “Don’t be scared. And don’t think too hard. What is a great idea? If you have a good idea, go for it. If someone handed you a business–a very successful business–if you don’t put in your work to understand it and are scared of doing things, you’re going to fall behind. Everyday somebody is trying to be better than you. People might give you an opportunity, but at the end of the day, it’s all dependent on you: how you take that opportunity and bring it up to the next level.”