New Signal Mountain restaurant owners look back at first year

New Signal Mountain restaurant owners look back at first year

July 18th, 2012 in Local Regional News

Restaurants are one of the most difficult types of businesses to open, with approximately one in four closing within their first year, according to an Ohio State University study. Since 2011, Signal Mountain has had six restaurants open, one of which is now closed, and others are on the verge.

Nancy Adams, owner of Southern Star Take-away, stands in the former Seventeen Ninety, her more upscale Signal Mountain restaurant that closed in February after just 14 months.

Photo by Emily Crisman

Even national fast food chain Taco Bell decided to shutter the doors of its Signal Mountain store earlier this year due to low sales. However, location may not be entirely to blame.

Rafael's, part of a chain with 10 restaurants in the area, moved into the old Taco Bell in February. Manager Ashley Corley said she is pleased with sales thus far.

"[The Signal Mountain store] is doing better than some of the others [Rafael's locations]," she said. "Business is good, customers are friendly and they come back."

What causes one restaurant to fail and another to succeed? The following is a look at the unique challenges Signal Mountain poses for restaurant owners, along with how some have been able to overcome these challenges and possible reasons others were not so lucky.

Laura Powell and Virginia Cofer, owners of Petunia's Silver Jalapeno on Signal Mountain Road and in Warehouse Row, opened Gin Gin's in Walden November of last year.

Powell said Gin Gin's has been very well received, but operating a restaurant on Signal Mountain isn't always easy.

"Because it's a small community, you have to keep it interesting, or [residents] just won't go out or [will] go to the other choices they have," she said. "It's a tough market in that it keeps you on your toes all the time."

Powell said 70 percent of the customers at Petunia's Airstream trailer across from Baylor School are Signal Mountain residents. When SMMHS opened, their business was affected, as fewer parents were passing their establishment while picking their kids up from school.

"Signal Mountain people had been asking for three or four years for us to come up on the mountain," said Powell, herself a Signal Mountain resident along with Cofer.

They therefore knew there was a demand for their product and an existing customer base on Signal. But serving people you know sets the bar high in terms of expectations.

"I feel like I'm always feeding my family, and there is no one I'd rather feed than my family," said Powell. "I always want everything to be A-plus."

Nancy Adams, owner of the successful Southern Star Take-away, also had people asking her to open a sit-down restaurant on the mountain. She may have missed the mark in terms of the type of customer she was targeting when she opened the upscale Seventeen Ninety last year, as it closed 14 months later.

"It probably needed to be more family-friendly," said Adams. "That was never what we were going for, but maybe what we should have been going for."

"You have to cater to families and children, yet also to the adults," said Powell. "Therein lies the challenge."

Signal Mountain residents expect food to be high-end, but still affordable and served in a welcoming atmosphere, she said.

Nino's owner Nino Piccolo, who has owned a restaurant on the mountain for 18 years, agrees.

"A lot of restaurants think because they're on Signal Mountain they can charge a lot more money," he said.

Good food at a good price and good quality wine are the secrets to success, said Piccolo.

"Make the dining experience excellent and people will come," he said.

Powell pointed out that because so few restaurants existed for a long period of time, many Signal Mountain residents are accustomed to eating well at home.

"These people are good cooks and know good food," she said. "You really feel the pressure to please 100 percent of the time."

Skip Welsh and Jennifer McSpadden opened their first Pie Slingers restaurant in Chickamauga, which they followed with their Signal Mountain location. Even though they just recently opened their Fort Oglethorpe store, Welsh said the Signal Mountain location is still "dead last" in terms of sales.

"That's a quandry," he said.

Welsh said one possibility is that they know more people in Chickamauga, where their kids went to school.

Another factor was not emphasizing enough to customers that their product is gourmet, he said.

"I think we turned a lot of people off because we take longer," said Welsh.

Signage requirements in the town are another issue, he said, as his restaurant's location is nearly invisible to passing cars.

"They've got to understand there's money driving up and down the mountain," said Welsh. "When the city decides it wants to be an economy and not a destination, then you'll see things start to change."

Adams said she knew when she opened Seventeen Ninety that she would need to draw patrons from off the mountain to keep the restaurant afloat.

"We would have never made it 14 months without people from off the mountain," she said.

On weekends, Adams said 40 percent of her customers were nonresidents. Without those patrons driving up the mountain, weekdays were considerably slower.

"People just don't think about driving up Signal Mountain on a Tuesday night," said Adams.

She said Southern Star Take-away has been so successful because the food is good and reasonably priced, and nowhere else on the mountain offers anything similar.

Poppy's Smokehouse owner David Soloff said he was initially nervous when Gin Gin's, which also sells barbecue, opened nearby in Walden. But the other offerings at the two restaurants are so different, he does not feel his business has been hurt.

His restaurant's sales have actually exceeded his expectations, he said, and listening to what his customers want - such as adding more vegetable offerings - has gained Poppy's even more supporters.

Powell also believes customers are the best learning tool when it comes to running a successful restaurant.

"We want people to tell us what they want, because we want to stay here for many years," she said. "If you listen to the needs of the mountain, they are very willing to support your business."

Welsh said that despite there being several other pizza restaurants already in existence nearby, he doesn't feel an overcrowded market is the problem.

"We're not just pizza; we want to be a gathering place ... where people can congregate and speak and converse," said Welsh. "I believe people are conditioned to go down the mountain for these things."

Adams said she feels seventeen Ninety may have been more successful if she had opened it elsewhere, but as a Signal Mountain resident she wanted the convenience of working close to home.

"If we could have hung on longer, we could have made it work," she said. "It's a slow process to get the name out and get people to try us."

Her main challenge was the difficulty in finding kitchen staff, which meant she was basically cooking non-stop, she said.

"A good chunk of the decision to close was due to staffing back of the house," said Adams.

Powell said her employees at Gin Gin's are some of the best she's ever had. Her biggest complaint is the restaurant's lack of parking, of which Seventeen Ninety had plenty.

Adams said one of her mistakes was spending too much money on the front end giving the restaurant its upscale appearance.

One thing she would do differently would be to offer liquor at the restaurant. Seventeen Ninety had been approved by the town to sell liquor but closed before it served its first drop.

"Beer and wine helped a whole lot," said Adams of the restaurant's sales, 15-18 percent of which came from such libations.

Located next to the Pumpkin Patch playground, Gin Gin's is unable to serve alcohol, but customers are allowed to bring in their own.

"A mix of sales with alcohol and food is very helpful to a restaurant," she said, although she's not too worried about the lack of booze affecting business.

Piccolo said Nino's derives only 5-10 percent of its sales from alcohol.

Stacey Skidmore opened restaurant and sports bar Pepper Jack's with her husband Lee in May. Despite the sports bar theme, she said beer amounts to less than 10 percent of the restaurant's sales.

"A lot of people are just trying the food out right now," she said, adding that she and her husband expect beer sales to pick up with football season. "We've had a lot of families coming in, and not too many people order pitchers of beer when their kids are sitting there."

Welch has found the same to be true at the Signal Mountain Pie Slingers, where most customers order bottles or single drafts. Sales of tubes, the Pie Slingers version of a pitcher, are significantly lower than at the Chickamauga store.

Skidmore, a Montlake resident, had managed several area restaurants before opening Pepper Jack's. She said she prefers operating a restaurant on Signal because of the small town atmosphere.

"You get to know your regulars, which is very nice to have," she said, adding that the restaurant is about to advertise outside Signal Mountain for the first time. "Hopefully we'll have people who don't know we're here coming up and checking us out."