Born and raised in rural Tuscaloosa, Ryan Glass ventured out of Alabama to refine his cooking skills at the New England Culinary Institute and at the upscale Martini House in Napa Valley, California. With his family, heart, and cooking style deeply rooted in the south, Glass said he decided to take what he had learned and head back home in 2005 to open his own restaurant. Ironically, at the time he thought he was taking the easy road.
“I figured it would be a heck of a lot easier than trying to open a restaurant in Napa Valley,” said Glass, 33. If only he could have foreseen the future.
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Fast forward to 2009, and Camellia Cafe was now an established "local favorite" in Daphne, Alabama.
Glass nightly was preparing braised veal, oysters, steak tartar, and triggerfish in a space that looked like a grandmother’s kitchen, explained one regular. But the easy road was nowhere in sight.
Meals were prepared for the 32-seat house on one six-burner stove in a cooking area that was only big enough for Glass and one assistant. Most of the ingredients were kept in cold storage outside of the building. The 150 square-foot dining room could not hold enough paying customers to turn a significant profit, Glass said, and despite the delicate food dishes being served, the restaurant couldn’t afford matching plates, silverware or glassware.
“I was burnt out,” said Glass. He realized the business could not grow if he didn’t move into a bigger space and hire more help.
The Dream: Good fortune seemed to smile on Camellia Cafe. Glass was offered the opportunity to move his business into a large unoccupied historic building in downtown Fairhope, a nearby city where about half of his customers already lived.
“I wanted to buy this new building so I could move my restaurant to a better location, add a bar, and grow it to a point where I could hire a general manager and didn’t have to do everything myself,” said Glass. The chef and his staff even created a campaign slogan to get the community excited about Glass’ vision: “Team work to make the dream work.” For about a year, Camellia Cafe employees could be spotted wearing t-shirts donning the phrase.
Obstacles: As the chef began figuring out ways to raise the necessary funds for expansion, Glass said he suddenly received jarring news. Customers told him that a foreclosure notice for the building that housed Camellia Cafe had appeared in the local newspaper.
“I didn’t think it would actually end up happening,” said Glass, who was sure the landlord would find a way to save the building. As the eviction date neared, Mother Nature delivered another unexpected blow: the Deep Horizon oil spill erupted in April of 2010. According to Glass, the crude crisis tightened up most of his potential lending sources and dried up the supply of construction contractors, many of whom were hired by oil giant BP to assist in the clean-up. Customers’ fears about the contaminated local waters forced Glass to source seafood from places as far as the Northeast, which added unforeseen shipping costs to his budget.
“It was a scary time,” Glass said. “No one knew what was going to happen or how many people were going to lose their jobs.” Investors who had verbally pledged to support the expansion effort began to back out, he said.
How did you push through?: It was then that one might say that Glass learned the true meaning of southern hospitality. His loyal customers came to his rescue. A friend and Camellia Cafe patron offered to owner-finance the new building in downtown Fairhope. Glass was able to secure the space for just $10,000, which was covered by a loan from another customer. A group of five regulars who had not previously known one another, pooled together their funds and lent Glass $240,000, enough to take care of the cost of construction, equipment, furniture, insurance, permits and liquor and wine inventory. Devoted customers donated everything from a 350-bottle wine refrigerator to legal services to silverware to photography sessions. When Glass needed a contractor to oversee construction of his new space, he hired a customer who ended up handling the project for a discounted fee.
“These people weren’t restaurateurs,” said Joan Dunlap, a Camellia Cafe supporter who helped organize the customer effort. “They wanted to see [Glass] succeed and keep this quality restaurant in the area.” During the two months that Camellia Cafe was closed, customers even helped the restaurant’s service staff make ends meet by hiring them for odd jobs, such as house cleaning and baby-sitting. “They all feel like a part of the business in a way,” added Dunlap. “They really own a part of its success and future.”
Today: The numbers speak for themselves. According to Glass, Camellia Cafe’s chic new 67-seat venue made more than $50,000 in December, which exceeded sales from his best year in the old space. Projections for 2011 have the restaurant nearing $1 million in revenue. Glass said today he can produce food faster from his larger, more modern kitchen. And the additional storage space allows the chef to cut costs by buying ingredients in larger qualities. Gary Englade, a seasoned restaurant manager, was brought on board to run the front-of-house business and staff, leaving Glass more time to focus on the culinary aspect of his eatery. With a bigger dining room and expanded wait staff equipped to handle more than double the number of diners each night than in the original location, Glass said he finally has a space that’s turning a considerable profit. The chef believes that the incredible success of the new space will enable him to accelerate the pace at which he can repay his generous supporters.
As Camellia Cafe attracts new fans, Glass said he remains forever grateful to those who started out with the restaurant back in that little house surrounded by Camellia bushes in Daphne and stuck around with helping hands out when the going got tough.
“I really had to rely on my customers,” said Glass as he reflected on the past year. “It makes me feel really blessed.”
Now, there’s a great example of customer service.
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