We met Mary in an earlier post. Her restaurants, Mary’s Of Course and now Breakfast of Course (recently renamed, Mary’s Gourmet Diner), are beloved in Winston-Salem. Mary is grateful to be working in a business she loves while employing her family and many others. Below, she gets real about the ups and downs of the restaurant industry and about being a business owner.
Did you always want to start a business? I wanted to have a restaurant. We used to play restaurant when we were kids. We didn’t eat out much, so it was a treat. I’ve always worked in restaurants because it was easy to come and go with children. With time, I learned how to cook; my mother taught me frugality. Then I started to work in restaurants that were into fine dining, where I learned from chefs. Thirty years ago I decided wanted to open a restaurant, but I didn’t have money. There was no way. I was in my early forties, and I was waiting tables and making good money doing that.
In terms of my dreams, I had two: one was to open a restaurant. The other was to get a degree and help people with substance abuse problems. So I went to a tarot card reader and told her these two things. And she said, “let’s look at them.” The reader said that I would be successful in both, but the restaurant was a blessed venture. But I ignored it and went to school. And yet, I still wanted to open a restaurant. I bugged my parents to put up something for collateral and began to look for a location, but I couldn’t find anything. It was hopeless. So I gave up looking and went back to school. Then a friend came to me that owned a café and said that she would like to sell her café so she could get a medical operation. So, that’s what I did. She got her operation, I got the restaurant. My parents put up their apartment building for collateral so that I could get the loan, which is really awesome because most restaurants don’t make it, but they believed in me.
Do you/did you have other ideas of businesses you want/wanted to start or that you think someone else should start? Any that you’d be willing to share? I’m actually in the process of developing something else, but I don’t know if it’s going to work. I want to have a vegetarian food truck. Vegetarian food is my passion – I love to cook it, and I love to eat it. I didn’t want to open another restaurant; it’s too much overhead. So I am in the process of pursuing it, and we’ll see what happens.
What’s the best thing about owning a business? The best thing is having complete creative license. I get up and go to work; I’m in my 13th year. I go to work every morning and love what I do.
I find that owning a restaurant is like having children – it’s the best thing you’ll ever do, and it’s the worst thing you’ll ever do. It’s that extreme thing all in one. I am so thankful that I get to do what I do. It’s so beautiful and yet so hard. You do it because it’s your passion; there’s nothing else I’d rather do.
I would have been bored as a counselor. As a recovering addict, I need an edge in my life, and I need a challenge. And this is a challenge. It’s never easy, but I guess this is what I like.
Any failure or hardship that you’d be willing to share? I don’t believe in failure. I’m a risk taker by nature. I’m telling you, over the past 13 years there have been so many times where my restaurant was two breaths away from shutting down. I’ve been to the edge so many times… it’s just part of being in business. And I’m sure that any business owner who is honest with you will tell you that. It’s always been hard, and it’s always been a struggle. What we did at the little location [Mary’s Of Course]: it was tiny, off the beaten path; it was crowded, the a/c never worked… it was a magical phenomenon what happened there. No matter what happens, I know that I was successful because we took a tiny corner spot and had lines out the door. We were in Southern Living! There have been so many unexpected things, and it’s so wonderful. So yes, I’ve had many hard times, but so many unexpected things have happened, too.
I see obstacles as a challenge. As long as they don’t lock me out, I am going to keep coming to work every day. You just have to be tenacious and keep going. Woody Allen said something I’ve never forgotten: “90% of success is just showing up.” No matter what, you get up, get in your car, and do your best. Every day I go, I am thankful. I do the best job that I can and put my heart and soul into it.
What’s the best piece or two of advice you would give to entrepreneurs just starting out in the restaurant business? Ask them: 1) Have you ever worked in a restaurant? If they say no, I tell them to go work in a restaurant for five years, in every type of business. People think it’s a glamorous job – it’s not. It’s just plain old hard work. It’s hot in the kitchen, you have to deal with angry customers, and people want money. Nobody understands how it changes when it’s your responsibly. You’re responsible to the city and your partners. Every plate of food that sits in front of a customer… I am responsible for every part of that – the music, the food temperature, etc. My name is on the door, and people associate this business with me, and it’s on my shoulders. So you better have some pretty big shoulders, because it’s a lot of responsibly. Don’t forget about it when you walk out the door, either. It’s with you 24/7. I’m a little bit of an insomniac, and sometimes I’ll wake up and write down ideas and new menus.
The second question I ask people is if it’s their passion. If you are looking to make money, then owning a restaurant is the wrong path.
What do you like best about owning a business in the Triad? Winston-Salem is a city, but it’s a small city. I feel like we were ground breaking 12 years ago. I really like being down on Trade Street now. We have a real tight-knit community in the Arts District; we are all really supportive of each other. My customers are loyal to me. Wake Forest is my number one supporter. There is also Salem College, the School of the Arts, Winston-Salem State, and the community in the Arts District. We also have the working people who come down to eat. Winston is filled with real friendly people. It’s a good place to have a business.
What is your biggest challenge? Right now, especially in this economy, it’s keeping enough people coming in to pay the bills. That’s challenging, keeping all that stuff going forward. People don’t know how much goes on behind the scenes just to keep the place open. There’s so much stuff – the insurance, payroll taxes are huge, to getting someone to come clean the grease trap. We don’t get corporate tax breaks. The city says they want small business, but I don’t think they look at how hard they make it for us with regulations. It’s really difficult. The second challenging thing is dealing with staff issues. But the number one challenge is the financial aspect.
Anything else you’d like to share? I hope people understand, and this is definitely something that’s come to the forefront: people in our communities need to support local food, which has always been close to my heart because I’m an old hippie. It’s so much better for your body and spirit. They need to support local businesses, no matter if it’s food or a store. If we don’t support these local businesses it’s going to be Applebees and McDonald’s. I wish people would stop shopping at these corporate businesses, but I don’t think it’s heading that direction, especially in the suburbs. Keep our cities live, interesting, and local.