Early-morning sunlight streams through the front windows at Huntington’s Restaurant in Marion.
Owner John Huntington is already at full-speed, with a smile.
“How’s breakfast, guys?” Huntington asks two men in a booth, who both give positive responses.
It’s Friday, the end of the work week for some. But Huntington is gearing up for one of his biggest nights of the year. Some 270 customers are expected for dinner on this Good Friday, more than some entire days.
Huntington knew the odds were against him when he bought and renamed Tommy’s Restaurant, 1107 Seventh Ave., in 2001. Around 80 percent of start-up restaurants fail within the first two years.
What may appear to be a fun job sometimes isn’t, Huntington acknowledged, but if you can make it work, he’s proof that it can be a rewarding job.
“There are days, but I love it,” Huntington says. “There’s a saying in this business that it gets into your blood, and you can’t get away from it. That’s true.”
ALL BY DESIGN
Water trickles out of the faucet in the dimly lit back corner of the building. Huntington unpacks frozen walleye from boxes and sets a pan under the water so it can thaw. Fish is one of his best-sellers.
“On a slow day, we’ll go through 20 pounds of fish,” Huntington says. “On a busy day, we’ll go through 150 pounds.”
A few minutes later, Huntington packs away boxes of sausage into the freezer. By now, after more than a dozen years serving food in one location, Huntington knows what to plan for most of the time.
Waste, both in product and payroll, can turn the business upside down quickly.
“Learning to set par values is huge at first — what to have on hand, what to bill to and what to prepare for that day,” says Huntington, chairman-elect of the Iowa Restaurant Association’s board of directors. “Do you need 5 pounds of tomatoes diced up or 15 pounds?”
Huntington circles back out to the dining room and chats up a couple waiting for their breakfast to arrive. The conversation is light, and Huntington lets out a deep laugh as oldies play over the speakers.
Everything is deliberate, including the atmosphere. Huntington picked that genre of music because his many of his customers are older. The volume at which the music is played, what’s on the TV behind the bar and how the tables are arranged – all of it is by design.
“The temperature, the lighting … ,” said Huntington, as “Secret Agent Man” plays. “You’ve got to make sure it’s comfortable so they feel at home.”
AND THEN THERE’S THE MONEY
Much as with any small business, restaurant owners wear many hats. Huntington was a plumber a couple days ago, trying to fix a floor drain that was backed up. The next day, he assumed the role of electrician when the vacuum stopped working – a short circuit in the cord.
Huntington’s list of responsibilities also includes teacher, customer service, human resources, carpet cleaner and snow-shoveler, just to name a few.
“It’s definitely a hands-on business,” Huntington admitted.
Awareness is key characteristic for any restaurant owner, he added. He watches the weather, for example, because bad-weather days usually result in fewer customers, and therefore fewer employees are needed.
Food costs can fluctuate daily, and must be monitored. Codes and regulations change, too.
Managing inventory can be a challenge itself. Some products arrive a day or two after they’re ordered, but others take two or three weeks. Huntington orders twice a week, usually on Saturdays and Thursdays.
And then there’s the money. Each week, Huntington closely reviews different sales categories, such as sandwiches, salads, breakfast foods, liquor and beer. He sets goals each quarter and tries to make the margins he has put in his budget.
“People think us restaurateurs are making money hand over fist,” Huntington said. “We’re lucky to make two percent. Lucky to.”
For much of the morning, Huntington greets and seats customers. As he carries a tray of drinks to one table, his foot catches on a floor mat, nearly causing him to trip. A near miss.
With so many variables, mistakes are bound to happen occasionally, Huntington said.
“When I was younger, I used to get mad and chew people out,” he recalled. “But then you realize that it isn’t really anyone’s fault. It’s just part of it.”
Later, Huntington steps behind the bar and makes Bloody Mary’s for two customers. Then he’s back on the phone near the front door, taking an Easter reservation.
He’s anticipating close to 400 people between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. It’s one of the busiest days of the year, along with Mother’s Day.
“Charlie, how are you?” asked Huntington as one of the regulars arrives and glances into the dining room. “Yes, you can have your table.”
Charlie Ziesemer, 90, of Marion, stops by for breakfast almost every day. Today he ordered the No. 7 — one egg, bacon, hash browns and toast. He likes the waffles, too, and the tuna melt, and the fact that the TV is tuned to Fox News.
“I don’t get it at home,” Ziesemer said.
Bob and Marilyn Meyer of Marion are in a booth nearby. They came across Huntington’s randomly several years ago, and now they come back almost every week. They say they feel welcome.
“It’s kind of a joke with our family,” Marilyn said. “‘Yeah, OK, you’re going to Huntington’s.’ It’s an automatic thing.”
MARRIED TO THIS BUSINESS
Prospective restaurant owners are often advised to secure financing for their first three years of operation. In addition, Huntington said he recommends having six months’ worth of cash in reserve for the unexpected.
Most new restaurant owners can’t take a paycheck in the beginning. If the place survives five years, you have a good shot to succeed, Huntington figured.
During the first six months of his restaurant, Huntington worked about 100 hours a week. Even now, 12 years later, he still works at least six days a week.
“You’ve got to be a people person, and you’ve got to have a thick spine,” Huntington said. “You’ve got to keep it personal but don’t take it personal. And be ready to work your butt off.”
As daunting as it all may seem, Huntington said he’s not sure he’d ever want to do anything else. He enjoys interacting with customers and employees, and he’s thrilled when someone he has guided succeeds on their own.
The variety in his day keeps it lively.
“You have so much to keep track of, and you wear a lot of hats,” Huntington said. “You’re married to this business, but it’s rewarding, too.”