submitted by John Roussos
April is New Orleans Take Out’s 25th anniversary month, and IB asked John Roussos to reflect on his 25 years in business, for a look at the restaurant business.
Each day has been a lifetime of intense creation and confrontation. Major transformations occurred every five years. The first five years were all learning. I had years of training, education and experience but nothing prepared me for opening my own business, especially a retail one, especially a restaurant. Not only do I have to expertly, consistently prepare food, but I also have to manage employees, handle ordering and suppliers, handle customer relations, do the paperwork and satisfy the government. I am an accountant, attorney, chief financial officer and advertising executive. I always knew that I would be successful, but this was probably because I didn’t know all of the ways that I could fail.
I learned how to cook, run a business and run a restaurant before opening. I was a chef at a local fine restaurant for a year while I tried my recipes to gauge hotness and food preferences. I learned that people would not peel shrimp, so I had to adapt my BBQ shrimp recipe to include peeled shrimp. Before I opened, I knew how, when, what and the cost of meals eaten in Madison each day. The first task of opening a restaurant is setting the menu. Everything flows from this: kitchen equipment and layout, staffing, food cost and menu prices, food providers. I put my limited resources into my kitchen. I bought expensive copper clad pots and pans. I knew that they would save me money over time in terms of convenience, food saving and longevity. Some restaurants go though six sets (or more) of pots and pans over this time period. I just replaced my first oven, but still have the refrigerators — most with the original condensers. Like most small business start-ups, I had no money and a lot of debt, but as a chef I knew that the kitchen had to be right in order for the food to be right.
My first day of operation was supercharged with anticipation. First time for New Orleans Take Out. First customer. How would we handle the day? When I turned the “open” sign around, I realized that everything that had been in my control was now out of my control. The restaurant belonged to the public now, not me. I created, designed and built the restaurant. It was my menu, recipes and kitchen. Years of planning were now transformed into a living entity with its own personality — different from the one that I saw. Yes, it is similar to raising a child. I raised two the past 23 years. That in itself was a major accomplishment as I supported my wife’s dietetics career. My children taught me how to be human, which enabled me to be a much better manager. Management is the most difficult part of running a restaurant, and a skill you can’t prepare for. You must do it to learn it — and I had a lot to learn. I was taught in a transition from the military-like kitchen to the new age one. When I cooked and trained, it was all business. No talking except for business. Respect went up the chain of authority, as I had learned in the Coast Guard in the early 70s.
Chefs’ reputations are tyrannical and emotional, yelling at and berating cooks as they prepare meals. This was — and can still be — true. Culinary art is the most difficult and demanding art. It must satisfy all five senses. The chef relies on his staff to be exactly like him or her. The difference between expectation and realization causes the chef anxiety. Yelling and screaming ensues. I did this for the first 10 to 15 years. I was not keeping up with social changes. Now, it’s all touchy-feely. How are you feeling? Oh, you need a day off? Texting at work. It’s a new world in the kitchen. There were no days off, so you didn’t ask, not even for your girlfriend’s birthday. Every job attracts certain types of people. Restaurant people are creative with varied interests. Turnover tends to be high. Chefs are people-pleasers, however. This is what they do for a living.
To serve your creations to customers is an intimate act. There is a deep trust. My customers are not here merely for sustenance, but for emotional, psychological and sentimental satisfaction. Our food becomes physically part of our customers and part of their memories, sometimes lifelong memories. After 25 years, I’m feeding third-generation customers. I have many original customers. There has been too much history for me to review. (I’ll try to remember the next five-year period in a future note.) I worked 90 hours a week the first two years, then 80 the next five with few days off and fewer vacations. My first child was born after three years of business, the same time that I met Wynton Marsalis. Things changed rapidly after that. We sponsored more bands at the Barrymore and The Crystal Corner Bar. Brett Favre became a fan, Bo Diddley, Tito Puente, the Nevilles. Hanging out was an upside to my brutal routine. I’ve gotten to serve a good part of Madison. Every customer is equal and important to me, although I do especially like to hear praise from Louisiana and Mississippi residents.
Now my children are grown and I can turn my attention to building my business. The first change that I made after 22 years was to put in a dining room and tables. I originaly opened for take-out because to serve two-income families that did not have time to cook and clean up. It also reduced overhead. Seating requires additional work, but people like to see progress. Every 22 years is rapid change by New Orleans standards. Some people view us as just a “take-out” restaurant. Others think that we are a world-class restaurant, despite our style of service.
I’ve been encouraged to franchise my business, but it is impossible to maintain quality on a large scale. I did open a second location, owned by Ken Kopp IV, seven years ago on the West side. Ken worked at NOTO for seven years prior to opening so I had supreme confidence in him. He has justified my esteem. Instead of opening other franchises, I’m expanding in a different way. I’ve decided to sell products in-stores and online, starting with pralines, red beans and rice and corn bread.
There are many people that I have to thank for my success: family, friends, suppliers, the Town of Madison, customers and strangers. I especially needed my wife, brothers, brother-in-law, partner and construction manager and the media.
That is the news from the front. No political forays planned. My one adventure in politics was one issue, to preserve Lakeview Hill from planned development. This has been accomplished but not without business cost. Business people should never engage in politics. You always lose. We are planning an anniversary show at the Crystal and a Hot Food Fest fundraiser for this year. It will be a fun year.
Sign up for the free IB Update — your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices and the names you need to know. Click here.