On date one, he had to split the bill. By date four, he’d bought the restaurant

This is John Altazie.

John’s the best example of how “good guys always finish last”. Growing up as an introvert, he’s never really had a break with girls, or with a job he wanted. At 24-years old, John still works as an assistant supervisor at the local tech mall and has never had a steady relationship, ever – until a weekend that completely changed his life.

John had been working for 30 years in the public-school system in Virginia, starting out as a science teacher and later helping plan the opening of new facilities. Then, in 2002, she made a trip to see her daughter Deann in Sante Fe, N.M.

Ms. Dixon found herself captivated with the city’s eclectic restaurant scene, and longed to bring some of that foodie culture back to rural Troutville, Va. While the area has country charm, Ms. Dixon says, its restaurant scene has long been characterized by the fast-food outlets at two huge truck stops.

“I thought, ‘Why can’t we have Sante Fe’s tasteful style of restaurant décor and menus?” says the 63-year-old.

Ms. Dixon thought her neighbors would be ready for finer fare—if it were presented right. “I knew it needed to be casual, not stuffy-upscale,” she says. “I wanted the ‘wow’ effect, a place where people could be very pleasantly surprised, but still be comfortable.” Her dream restaurant would be for “people who might otherwise drive 30 miles from here to find a restaurant with music and good food, where they wouldn’t be rushed.”

Ms. Dixon immersed herself in almost daily restaurant planning. She began collecting travel-magazine photos of restaurants, along with reviews and other articles about their food presentations. “I started spending most of my time away from education thinking about the components of food, service and ambiance,” she says.

After retiring from school work in 2007, Ms. Dixon devoted herself to finding a likely location and financing. She tracked down a building with promise: an abandoned wine warehouse that had previously been an agricultural-feed store. Financing was trickier. To cover the costs of buying, renovating and furnishing the bleak 20,000-square-foot concrete structure, she had to refinance her house, borrow from a bank—as well as her father—and empty her retirement account. The $1 million price tag, along with her continuing costs of operation, is “pretty scary,” she says, adding, “I don’t have deep pockets.”

Hits & Misses: A look at some noted entrepreneurs whose restaurant dreams came true — or went awry.
Hits & Misses: A look at some noted entrepreneurs whose restaurant dreams came true — or went awry.
Debt and all, her restaurant opened in November 2008. The Pomegranate features Ms. Dixon’s take on gourmet fare, with an extensive wine list and delicacies such as prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, grilled rabbit sausage and stuffed chicken piccata. There’s also a dance floor that features live bands on the weekends.

Ms. Dixon quickly discovered that the reality of running a gourmet restaurant is a lot grubbier than she had imagined. There was a ton of work to be done behind the scenes and not enough people to do it. But that wasn’t a problem. She rolled up her sleeves and tackled a lot of the chores herself. “I don’t mind the grunt work,” says Ms. Dixon. “It’s a good feeling to do the little things that make it all come together.”

Her workdays usually start at 9 a.m., going over the books, and end at 3 a.m. after cleanup. Ms. Dixon regularly mops and sweeps the restaurant, mows the half-acre lawn, trims the hedges and frequently touches up the paint. “Customers, and bands especially, can be rough on woodwork. I don’t like a restaurant that looks beat up,” she says.

That’s not to mention hauling delivery boxes to the recycling center, doing the restaurant’s laundry and serving as general handyman. When a leaky toilet in the women’s room puzzled the plumber she phoned, Ms. Dixon drove to Lowe’s for advice, bought parts and fixed it herself. After a busy New Year’s Eve, a drain in the kitchen backed up and spread smelly food scraps far and wide. She sent the rest of her tired staff home, grabbed a hose and spent seven hours washing the place down.


How to Open a Restaurant

It’s not glamorous, she readily concedes, “but I have always been a frugal person.” Besides, “not making it isn’t an option.”

Her hard work has been rewarded. Customers have poured in, some of them from 30 miles away. Ms. Dixon, who can’t afford much marketing, has been helped along by word of mouth, as well as some favorable reviews in area newspapers and magazines. “Some people have actually thanked me for being here,” she says, adding, “There’s a joyous feeling when someone pays a compliment.”

A much deeper pleasure comes from putting her signature on the restaurant and making it a personal expression of the good life as she sees it. Part of that comes from setting up the menu, but music is a big component too. Ms. Dixon says she feels a creative fulfillment when auditioning and hiring bands—jazz, blues, classic rock and sometimes bluegrass, all of them according to her taste and mood. The music puts her in tune with her guests, largely “fortysomethings and up,” whom she enjoys visiting with when work allows. On some nights, an instructor gives dance lessons at the roomy bar; Ms. Dixon enjoys watching customers try the cha-cha and shag.

At times like those, Ms. Dixon says, the Pomegranate celebrates the kind of nights out she used to enjoy when vacationing from her old job. But the restaurant also offers opportunities to celebrate in ways she hadn’t considered before. For instance, Ms. Dixon always liked to make a big deal out of Christmas, but never on the scale allowed at the Pomegranate. Last Christmas, Ms. Dixon says, she went a bit over the top—for her—and bought an eight-foot-tall gold-colored faux spruce.

“I never would have bought a gold Christmas tree for myself, but it works here,” she says.
In that sense, the restaurant has brought out a part of Ms. Dixon’s persona that working in education didn’t. The Pomegranate “feels like I want it to—everything I would want if I walked in the door as a customer,” she says.

Thomas Sergio has been passionate about food his whole life. As a child, he helped his mother in the kitchen, preparing such family favorites as from-scratch pasta shells stuffed with mozzarella. As a marketing executive, he got a taste for world cuisine as he traveled the globe selling everything from cellphones to laundry detergent.

After a string of setbacks, Thomas Sergio gave up his dream restaurant to make bread.
After a string of setbacks, Thomas Sergio gave up his dream restaurant to make bread. TODD HULL/MARIETTA DAILY JOURNAL
Throughout his career, visions of a gourmet restaurant with an upscale wine list kept calling him. “The image of owning a great restaurant filled a dream niche,” says the 53-year-old.

He saved resolutely, took a year-long executive-training seminar and, while working in Atlanta for Siemens AG , started researching the food business. Well aware of the high failure rate among new restaurants, Mr. Sergio looked into franchises, which have a better record than independents. He came upon a then-fledgling chain called the Grape. The franchise’s wine-bistro format hit home for Mr. Sergio. “The one I visited was cozy, stylish, focused on food, with no television screens or burgers,” he says. “It was upscale but relatively reasonable in price and had received awards as the best wine bar in Atlanta.”

Mr. Sergio says the chain’s management guided him to a likely location in Raleigh, N.C., within walking distance of North Carolina State University. Both the chain’s brain trust and Mr. Sergio saw the market as one of affluent professors, researchers and others with cultivated tastes. Mr. Sergio says he felt good about assembling the $800,000—20% of it required in cash up front—to lease and furnish his dream restaurant and open in July 2006. He left Siemens and went into the food business.

But Mr. Sergio’s vision turned out to be at odds with his customers’ taste. Ms. Dixon lived in—and understood—her market. Mr. Sergio relied more on demographic studies and restaurant research. So, he found himself surprised and disappointed again and again by customers’ reactions.

For one thing, they shunned specialties in which he took pride, such as a hummus appetizer. “Too many people weren’t willing to try new things,” he says. “Even if we offered it for free, they wouldn’t so much as stick a potato chip in it.”

He adds, “There are some people who order the same thing every time they go out, whether it’s steak or blue-cheese dressing, and all they want is someplace different to order it.”

The Grape’s elegant small-plate portions also didn’t impress some customers, Mr. Sergio recalls. “They’d say, ‘Where’s the real food? Where are the mashed potatoes?’ ”

Mr. Sergio’s handpicked selection of wines didn’t fare much better. In fact, he soon discovered that many patrons didn’t want wine at all. He well remembers the first time a waiter relayed a customer’s complaint that there were no martinis. “The women in cocktail dresses, as it turned out, wanted cocktails,” he says.

It didn’t help that Mr. Sergio was obliged to stick with the Grape chain’s pricing guidelines, so he couldn’t slash costs to get diners to experiment with wine. Even before the recession hit, “my customers didn’t want to pay $15 a glass,” he says.

And some customers didn’t demonstrate the good manners that he thought would be the obvious standard of behavior. “One night a lady put her feet, with her shoes on, up on a chair at her table,” says Mr. Sergio, with lingering chagrin. “I went over and asked her, ‘Please take your feet down because your soles probably aren’t attractive to your fellow diners.’ ”

But she refused to put her feet on the floor. “She said, ‘No, I’m relaxing. Are you going to throw me out?’ ” Mr. Sergio recalls. “I said, ‘Of course not. I would never be that rude.’ ”

Then, controlling his temper, Mr. Sergio spoke softly to the woman’s male dinner companion: “My condolences.”

Things behind the scenes weren’t going smoothly either. Ms. Dixon embraced the scut work of restaurant ownership. Mr. Sergio, while not averse to getting his hands dirty, was more comfortable making sure the restaurant ran smoothly and handling marketing and media relations than stacking plates and silverware in the dishwasher. “Sometimes, when everyone else was busy, there was just me,” he says. “And you saw that you needed to scrape off the plates, taking off your jacket and tucking in your tie.”

Now he seems almost embarrassed about the business suits he wore to the Grape. “I probably looked more like a banker than a restaurant owner, but that’s what I thought I was supposed to look like,” he says.

Debt piled up, and Mr. Sergio couldn’t get an extension on his credit. The last rites for his restaurant came in late 2007 when he closed the restaurant and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
In retrospect, the wine-only format just “wasn’t right for the Raleigh market,” he says. Even though he was just a few blocks from a big university, he speculates that he and the Grape overestimated the Raleigh sophisticates’ taste for wine and gourmet food on a regular basis. Thinking back to his travels in Europe, he suspects that crowd is sometimes more earthy than he originally figured. For example, he says, “a lot of professors in Europe go out for beers after soccer games. Then they want food that goes with that.”

Marty Tahlman, who was a principal in the Grape chain when Mr. Sergio was involved but has since left the company, speaks very highly of the chain’s concept and his former Raleigh franchisee. “I have enormous respect” for Mr. Sergio, Mr. Tahlman says. “He put his heart and soul in this. Sometimes things just don’t work out and there’s no one or two main reasons—just a series of circumstances and some bad luck.”

Still living in Atlanta, Mr. Sergio now owns a small baking business, Olde World Artisan Bread Co. In this new venture, he’s applying “flexibility” that he didn’t have at the Grape as a franchisee. “I’m trying some new breads that the customers have suggested and they’re fabulous,” he says. “Customer feedback is helping a lot. I’m doing what I want the way I want—but making a bread the customer doesn’t want is pointless.”

He rarely thinks about the restaurant, he says. “I’ve taken my licks, learned my lessons. And I’m still trying to make my dream happen in a culinary concept, but very cautiously, one step at a time.”

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