When Bill Roberts was scouting for a site to open Town Tavern, he settled on a former Italian restaurant in downtown Royal Oak. Sounds easy, right? Redesign the space, tweak the kitchen, and open the doors, not so bad.
But there’s so much more to operating a successful restaurant. In addition to developing an array of delicious appetizers, soups, salads, entrees, and desserts, the offerings from the bar must complement the food. And the prices have to be just right — there’s only so much of a markup patrons will endure for Scottish Salmon or a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon.
What’s more, the overall design must be unique, the location must be easy to access with as much nearby parking as possible, the lease must be highly competitive, veterans are needed in the kitchen and throughout the dining space, and the budget has to be realistic with funding to operate for up to three years before showing a profit.
“When you consider the food, service, and décor, the first two can make it on their own. Good design takes it to another level,” says Ron Rea, left, principal with architect Roman Bonislawski of Ron and Roman in Birmingham, which has designed some 250 restaurants over the last 30 years. “People will go to a cool place once or twice, but they will always go back to where they can get great food.”
Still, a remarkable steak or an unforgettable lobster can only go so far. If the rent is too high or the kitchen staff is poorly managed, things can go south in a hurry. By most counts, up to 60 percent of restaurants close within the first three years of opening, with the first year drawing the most casualties. The closure rate is greater in highly competitive markets like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco.
The most cited study of restaurant closures comes from Ohio State University, which tapped data from the Columbus Health Department over a three-year period in the late 1990s. Of some 2,400 restaurants operating in the city at the time, 26 percent failed in the first year, 19 percent in the second year, and 14 percent in the third year. That works out to 59 percent, which is higher than the overall business closure rate.
According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, 70 percent of businesses last two years, 50 percent are still around after five years, 33 percent make it to 10 years, and 25 percent last 15 years or longer.
Put another way, there are around 150 companies in Michigan that have been operating for a century or more. In other words, longevity is a rare thing.
So what’s the secret sauce for an extended lifespan in the dining sector? “Most of us who have been in the restaurant business know how to hire the right people, offer them continuous training, buy the best meat or fish and have it prepared and served properly, and all the little things that you deal with, but if the location or décor isn’t right, that can get someone in trouble quickly,” says Joe Vicari, president and CEO of Andiamo Restaurant Group in Warren.
That’s why, since 1997, Ron and Roman has designed 15 restaurants for Vicari and his various partners, starting with Andiamo Bloomfield Township. “Ron knows how to take a large space and separate it into cozy, distinctive rooms so whether you have 300 people or 100 people, it always looks busy,” Vicari says. “But when you turn over a space to him, I think his favorite line is: ‘Just trust me.’”
For Joe Muer Seafood, which Vicari considers Rea’s finest work, replacing the former Seldom Blues inside the Renaissance Center with a legendary fish house that got its start in Detroit in 1929 was as complex as it was challenging. Hosting every manner of family celebrations, corporate groups, entertainers, and royalty, recreating the original Joe Muer for modern tastes wasn’t easy.
“With Seldom Blues, they really cut most everything off from the Detroit River,” Vicari says. “The bar backed up to the windows, but Ron placed the tables across the whole expanse of the windows so almost everyone has a view of the river. Location is important, along with great food and exceptional service, but in today’s world the feel and vibe of the restaurant is very important. Ron gets that.”
Ron and Roman aren’t the only game in town. When Nino and Liz Cutraro acquired Bella Piatti in downtown Birmingham in late 2012, they turned to Jeff Fontana Designs in Royal Oak to redo the dining room. They also redesigned the kitchen to make it more efficient. When the restaurant reopened in February 2013 following six weeks of work, patrons trickled in at first before growing to a steady stream. Today, dinner reservations are all but mandatory, especially Thursday through Saturday (the restaurant is closed on Sundays and Mondays).
The cast of diners includes all manner of doctors, lawyers, and professionals as well as numerous guests from the Townsend Hotel across the street, including actor Mark Wahlberg (he and his family dined at Bella Piatti five nights in a row last summer when he was in town filming Transformers 4), the Beach Boys, Adam Levine of Maroon 5, producer and director Michael Bay, and new Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus and his family.
“I wasn’t looking to get back in the restaurant business, but Liz really wanted to do a restaurant,” says Cutraro, a native of Sicily who immigrated to Detroit to work for his uncle when I-696 was under construction 30 years ago. He went on to open and operate Taboo, a nightclub along Detroit’s east riverfront district that operated from 1985 to 1994 and attracted such stars as Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson, and James Brown. During the 1990s, he operated Metropolitan Music Cafes in Royal Oak, Farmington, Wyandotte, and Columbus, Ohio, as well as the Ultimate Sports Bar and Grill in downtown Pontiac.
“I have a successful fire restoration company, so I wasn’t looking to get back in the restaurant business, but everything worked here,” Cutraro says. “It’s the best location I’ve ever had, we have been able to hire people with great credentials, and we made the right choice and didn’t try to redesign the interior ourselves.”
Enter Fontana, who worked with the couple to select Italian Renaissance murals to cover the walls — one print of a teenager reminds people of Sylvester Stallone — along with black leather chairs, white linen tablecloths, exposed brick walls and ceiling, and a translucent metal drape that wraps around the middle of the dining room.
“The fact that we had great business this past January and February with all of the snow was amazing to me,” Cutraro says. “Yes, we are surrounded by wealth, and we have the Townsend Hotel across from us, and they do a great job, but you have to operate a restaurant like a symphony with a lot of moving parts that are organized and working together. If you don’t perform, you will go down as quickly as the Titanic.”
Still, Cutraro says even with his experience, he and his wife left the design to the professionals.
“We couldn’t have done this all ourselves. Believe me, I will never expand this restaurant, and we will never open a second location,” he says. “Liz and I are here almost every night meeting and talking with our guests. It’s like our second home, so the décor was very important to us. If you have great food and wine, great service, and great décor, you’re going to be that much better than everyone else. And let’s face it, the restaurant business is very, very competitive.”
Roberts, president of Roberts Restaurant Group in Beverly Hills, which operates Town Tavern on Fourth Street in Royal Oak, Café ML and Roadside B&G, both in Bloomfield Township, Beverly Hills Grill in Beverly Hills, and Streetside Seafood in downtown Birmingham, says even after running restaurants for nearly 40 years, he wouldn’t open an eatery without Ron and Roman. “I’d be asking for trouble,” he says with a laugh.
This summer, Roberts will open his sixth restaurant, to be called Bill’s, in the former space occupied by Fox Grill along Woodward Avenue, south of Long Lake. The 100-seat eatery will include a 30-seat patio covered by an expansive awning, a bar, and a dining room. While the menu is still in development, Roberts says the décor will be retro, comfortable, and casual.
“Ron and I have great camaraderie,” Roberts says. “We talk about what each restaurant is trying to accomplish. What is the food? Then we talk about design. I’ve always felt that smaller is better. There’s nothing less appealing than walking into a huge room that is half empty. It doesn’t have a buzz and feel to it, and people wind up thinking they’re being overshadowed.”
Fresh from Michigan State University’s hospitality program, Roberts got his start working for the former Machus restaurant chain — the Red Fox in Bloomfield Township (now Andiamo) and Sly Fox in Birmingham (since demolished). In 1975, he switched to overseeing the Main Event restaurant at the Pontiac Silverdome, along with the banquet facilities and suites. He struck out on his own in 1983 when he acquired Richard & Reiss. Rea oversaw two remodeling projects before Roberts switched the name to Streetside Seafood in 1995, which has since gone through two other renovations.
“There is a certain trust you have to have with Ron,” Roberts says. “When we did Town Tavern, we were getting close to opening, and the restaurant seemed really big, and I was really worried if it all would work. The space was so open. And then we got the long piece of glass in (that separates the settee from the bar) and everything came together. It really created that cozy atmosphere.”
Rea laughs after hearing Roberts’ reaction. “I get that all the time,” he says. “The thing is we have to work harder in metro Detroit, and I’m talking about the entire restaurant scene, because we don’t have a lot of foodies here and we don’t attract a lot of visitors. In New York, you have lots of restaurant designers, but there aren’t a lot in Detroit.”
Apart from design, which Rea handles, Bonislawski and his team see to all the architectural details — drafting, field measurements, working with kitchen contractors, and submitting municipal plans.
“We work on a fee basis, and not a percentage of the project,” Bonislawski says. “It’s just easier that way. The scope of each project is completely different, and is always budget driven. A remodeling might take 10 days to two weeks, while some new restaurants take as long as a year and a half (to complete).”
In addition, Rea and Bonislawski often appear before municipal leaders, whether it’s a planning commission or a city council. The meetings often run late into the evening given planning and city commissioners are volunteers. By contrast, the Detroit City Council meets during the day.
“Once we come to an agreement on the fee, whether it’s a restaurant going into a grand old building or a former restaurant that will be gutted and redone, we put the initial plan together (within one or two weeks), and then sit down with the client and make a design presentation,” Rea says. “Sometimes an owner may have a space in mind, but then it might not work because of the location. So we find another space.
“The we get down to the details. What’s the right attitude for the space? What will it cost? We prepare and go through renderings and sketches, and the process begins. Then we go into more detail on the design. We’re the first ones in and the last ones out, and we see everyone in between.”