Rookies Start Their First Restaurants
A passion for food and people draws newcomers Kristin Jackson, Bud Antonelis and Carri Loui into a challenging business
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Photo: David Croxford, Rae Huo
It was about two hours until dinner service, and there was a steady movement in, out and around The Grove, a family-owned restaurant that opened in Kailua in December.
As bartenders got organized and cooks prepped for dinner, there was someone in the restaurant who didn’t seem to fit in. Dressed in shorts and Quiksilver slippers with a pair of sunglasses sitting on a windblown mess of hair, Bud Antonelis looks more like a retired marine biologist from Ventura, Calif., than a restaurant owner in Kailua.
And, yet, he’s both.
For more than a decade, Antonelis, 64, was the chief of the Protected Species Division of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Honolulu, overseeing the monitoring of the state’s endangered Hawaiian monk seal and green sea turtle populations. He retired in January and joined his son, Troy, and accomplished chef Fred DeAngelo, who’s married to Troy’s wife’s sister, to open the restaurant on Aulike Street.
“I enjoy the company of people and feeding them a good meal,” says Antonelis. “Maybe it’s a Greek thing, but when you come to someone’s house, you show your love and appreciation by feeding them.”
What better way to share that love than with a 4,000-square-foot restaurant that seats 120 people between the indoor and outdoor dining areas?
“It just takes the right people,” says DeAngelo, who also owns the award-winning Ola restaurant at the Turtle Bay Resort. “We are a family and we approach (the business) as such. We treat everyone – the employees, our customers – as family.”
Like many newcomers to the business, Antonelis had long wanted to open a restaurant. But running a restaurant takes more than a passion for food.
“A lot of people who want to open a restaurant like the social aspect of it, but they don’t realize there’s a lot of back-office work you don’t see as a customer that needs to get done in order to keep your costs in line,” says Jerry Prendergast, lead consultant of California-based Prendergast & Associates, a restaurant consulting firm that has developed projects from New York City to Tokyo, and several in Honolulu.
“They think, ‘This can’t be hard. You make food, you bring it out, you put it on the table and somebody pays for it.’ But they don’t realize that, in some ways, a restaurant has more moving parts than almost any business you could get into.”
The moving parts include tracking inventory, managing workers, meeting health-department and building codes, balancing books, developing menus and everything else tied to owning a small business. Most people –including Antonelis – have little experience in these facets of the business, but they can make or break a restaurant.
“You are taking raw products and producing an end product. You’re setting up a delivery system to deliver that end product to consumers. And you’re doing all the accounting and bookkeeping and cost controls necessary for multiple businesses all in one business – and sometimes all in one night,” Prendergast says. “It’s not easy.”
Kristen Jackson perfected family receipes such as these biscuits
From all walks of life
It’s not a new trend for people with little or no experience in restaurants to buy, start or invest in them. Athletes, celebrities, politicians and other public figures have been doing it for decades.
Even those with extensive connections or sales and marketing savvy often enter the restaurant business, too, relying on their professional and networking expertise.
People from all business backgrounds – such as carpenters, baristas, lawyers, engineers and school teachers – follow their dreams of restaurant ownership, many quite successfully.
“(Restaurateurs) come from all walks of life, and I think that’s a good thing for the restaurant industry,” says Roger Morey, executive director of the Hawaii Restaurant Association, a nonprofit trade organization that represents more than 3,500 restaurant locations employing 82,000 people in Hawaii. “They bring different points of view and that’s a good thing.”
The association gets so many inquires about restaurants – how to start them, what’s needed, what the state requires – that it’s compiling all that information as a resource for newbies.
“Opening a restaurant is not like opening up any other business,” Morey says. “There are so many different things involved. … It’s a very difficult business. But it has been my experience that people who do start restaurants are highly motivated and sincere in what they’re trying to do, and the result has been a wonderful thing.”
Kristin Jackson thought she was being reasonable in her plans to open a restaurant.
The public relations and marketing veteran first wanted to operate a food truck because the startup costs and commitment were far less than opening a brick-and-mortar establishment. But plans fell through and, instead, she took over the lease of her friend’s small restaurant in Puck’s Alley near the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
After two months of renovating the 700-square-foot space – Jackson and her family did everything from install the church-pew seating to replacing the tile floor with wood – Kiss My Grits opened on Sept. 14.
Bud Antonelis at The Grove restaurant awaits the dinner crowd.
The restaurant, which features a menu of authentic North Carolina staples such as buttermilk fried chicken and oyster po’ boy sandwiches, was met with rave reviews. But the price of success was grueling 16-hour days. “In my life, I’ve moved in the middle of school years, my house burned down, and I went to (Marine Corps) boot camp and broke both my legs. And this has been the hardest,” says the North Carolina native. “It was the combination of stress, physical labor and everything costing more than I thought. But we’ve been lucky. We’ve been busy and doing well.”
She invested all her savings into the restaurant, and then devoted a lot of time creating an authentic menu by digging up family recipes and taking months to perfect one for biscuits.
Before the restaurant served its first plate of fried okra, Jackson created all its branding, logo and marketing materials. The website, social media accounts and identity were all ready by opening day.
Yet, she still runs her PR company on the side for needed, extra income.
“You really, really, really have to love it,” Jackson says. “And even then, I don’t know if I would do it again.”
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