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Sunday, June 09, 2013

So You Want to Run a Restaurant?

Blind Ambition Dept.: Such a fabulous dream, to see yourself helming a busy, successful restaurant. I can’t begin to imagine how much money has been wasted in ill-qualified pursuits of that dream. Here’s a piece from four years ago that looked at three new beginnings for some of the Albany area’s most acclaimed and experienced chefs. New World Bistro Bar continues to flourish, but Dale Miller now helms Sperry’s in Saratoga Springs, while Créo has burned through a couple of chefs since Andrew Plummer left the place – and he’s gone freelance.


IT WAS A “SOFT OPENING.” Ric Orlando’s return to Albany, the New World Bistro Bar (300 Delaware Ave.) quietly welcomed its first customers this week. On the first day, Orlando buzzes about the kitchen, tasting and correcting the sweet potato mash, streamlining the pantry prep station, sharing a delicious taste of his signature menudo (a tripe and posole stew). An electrician works in the middle of the kitchen, fixing the steam table’s outlet.

Ric Orlando at Albany's New World Bistro Bar
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
“Of course I have time to talk to you,” Orlando insists.

Running a restaurant is a peculiar dream, misunderstood by the many who succumb to the charm of a good food and hospitality without glimpsing the ferocious behind-the-scenes work. Many years ago, when I was cooking professionally and trying to assemble enough money to replace a dead car, I hitchhiked to work and back. Every other person who picked me up reacted to my destination by saying, “You know, as soon as I retire, I’m going to open a restaurant.” I hope for their sake that the madness passed.

But thank goodness that there are talented, determined individuals who nevertheless pursue that dream. Three of our finest area chefs have opened or will open in the Albany area lately, and shared their advice and experiences. Of course, I was talking to hospitality professionals, none of whom is going to say anything remotely negative about the business, other restaurants, or you.

Orlando made a local reputation at Justin’s, then opened New World Home Cooking Co. in the Woodstock area 15 years ago. He’s long talked about opening an Albany branch, and is now able to do so in partnership with Spectrum Theater co-owners Annette Nanes and Scott Meyer.

They bought the site of a plumbing supply store when it closed in 2003. “We always believed that the Spectrum should have a full-service restaurant and bar to complement the Spectrum,” says Nanes.

As to the actuality of getting such a place up and running: “It was more complicated than I would have thought,” she says, “especially as we’re concurrently running another business. I thought I was good at multitasking, and keeping six or seven projects going simultaneously. Now I can do twice that number.”

Orlando has been commuting his Woodstock home while working on the new New World, and the difference between the areas is striking. “Going from a smaller, easier to manage country market to a city market has been a challenge,” he says. “Here they do things by the book, which isn’t a bad thing. But I’ve gotten used to an atmosphere that’s more laid back.”

Orlando notes the other restaurants and food-supply places on Delaware Ave. and insists that it makes the location perfect. “This is going to be the new Cambridge,” he says.

Location, not surprisingly, is a vital concern. When David White and Mark Burgasser, who own and run many area restaurants, decided to add an upscale eatery to their family, they already had a good location: Stuyvesant Plaza, where they replaced one of their other units, Mangia. They brought in chef Andrew Plummer and general manager Paul McCullough from McGuire’s, creating a lot of anticipatory excitement.

“We were fortunate to have a lot of buzz in the beginning,” says Plummer. “And the location is terrific. We opened three and a half months after the Mangia building was torn down, so that was a pretty quick turnaround.

“There were problems, of course. Two weeks before we opened, the floors were still too wet to lay the carpet, so we had to move our training program to another location. For me, it’s been the contrast of going from a staff of four to a staff of 34, from ordering two cases of heavy cream a week to twelve.”

For Dale Miller, who opens his eponymous restaurant on 30 So. Pearl St. in Albany at the end of April, the location was discovered almost by accident.

“We’ve been planning this since September. Jim Linnan, who’s been a loyal customer over the years, approached me with the idea of opening a place, and we started scouting locations. We were looking at one that wasn’t going to work out when I got a call from a friend asking if I knew of anyone who might want to go into the Omni Plaza. We were just a short walk away. I’ve missed this city. I love it here.”

Among his many distinguished accomplishments, Miller ran the Stone Ends Restaurant for several years, served as executive chef at Jack’s Oyster House, and most recently was executive chef and general manager at the Inn at Erlowest on Lake George.

Yet with all that experience, he stresses the importance of research. “Things change quickly in this business. What worked 20 years ago or even five years ago has probably been replaced by something more efficient. It’s been a wonderful challenge. The most important thing is to keep planning everything down to the smallest detail, so when you get thrown a curveball, you can deal with it.”

“We went out and researched a lot of places,” says Orlando, “especially looking to see what Albany doesn’t have.” Every trip to another city also became a notes-taking mission. “We looked in Montreal, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles. And what we’re seeing is a great undressing of restaurants as places get more and more casual.”

Research at Créo included learning how to construct an energy-efficient building. “That was part of David and Mark’s concept from the beginning,” says McCullough. “So this place is green from the grass on the roof to the recycled carpeting on the floor. We spent a couple of months looking at restaurant concepts that we think are fresh and new, especially in Atlanta, where I worked in the business for 12 years.”

McCullough and Plummer ran the floor and kitchen of the acclaimed McGuire’s in Albany for several years, “so we already had a customer base there, as well as Andy’s following from the Allegro Café. And David and Mark have built up customers from their other restaurants, so our opening was pretty explosive.

“But loyalty goes only so far in this business. They’ll come in, they’ll support you, but you have keep on consistently delivering your product.”

That’s where a good team comes in, and that was the third necessity stressed by everyone.

“We’ve compiled a tremendous management team,” says Miller. “We have Phil Papineau, who taught at the Culinary Institute for 15 years and was Dean of Dining Room Services there. John Wisniewski, our bar manager, is a longtime area fixture – he was at McGuire’s, Mezza Notte and many other places. Maura Linnan, Jim’s wife, is our general manager and Tom Lilly, who ran the wine program at Provence and Milano is now doing it for us.

“We’ve already opened the banquet facilities here, and its busy. I must be a glutton for punishment, trying to open a restaurant at the same time. But it’s been a wonderful ride.”

McCullough echoes that thought: “We lucked into a terrific crew,” he says. “What they may have lacked in expertise at first they made up for in their eagerness to please.”

“I’ve got a great team here,” says Orlando, “and it’s been important to impress upon them that this isn’t a downtown white-tablecloth restaurant. This is a hip, global, soul food kind of place. We’re not keeping up with the Joneses here. We are the Joneses.”

Adds Nanes: “It’s a vision fulfilled. It’s great to see.”

Metroland Magazine, 26 March 2009

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