April 16, 2014

"My Personality is on Every Plate"

Owning and running an independent restaurant is a high-wire act without a net, a new performance every day. It matters little that the chef made a great soufflé yesterday. Will he—and it—rise to the occasion today, or will they both fall flat, like failed tightrope walkers? Alex and Monika Bernard and their staff at Alexander’s are used to the pressure, but tonight is extreme. It is 5 p.m. on a Friday in late November, and show time will begin in an hour. Close to 70 patrons will start arriving to help the Bernards celebrate the 13th anniversary of their successful restaurant at 4077 Tamiami Trail N. in Naples. The charge is $85 per person (plus tax and gratuities), and Alex has promised to make it an evening befitting the occasion—and the price tag.

He has chosen a highly ambitious five-course classic French menu, and since Alex calls this a wine dinner, there is an appropriate wine for each course. Diners first will be served assorted hors d’oeuvres on the outdoor patio, along with a Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais nouveau. An hour later, formal inside table service will begin with braised rabbit prepared with red currants and chestnuts (Latour, Domaine de Valmoissine, pinot noir). The third course will be paupiette of sea bass (Domaine du Vieux Lazaret Châteauneuf-du-Pape blanc), followed by tournedos of beef Rossini, with foie gras and sauce perigourdine (Château Teyssier, St. Emilion 2003). Saved room for dessert? Then please try the crêpes Suzette, by all means (Jaboulet Muscat de Beaumes-de-Vinese).

By most standards, Alex has already put in a full day. It started early in the morning with Alex the Owner on the phone for more than an hour: working on advertising … ordering from suppliers … handling unexpected problems. By 10 a.m., it was Alex the Chef, stepping into his narrow kitchen to begin getting ready for the noon rush. "If you are a chef, you put it all on the line every meal, every day, all the time," he says, "and it doesn’t end until you sell the restaurant. My personality is on every plate." By 2 p.m., he had personally prepared or supervised close to 80 lunches. On most other days, it would be time to take a break—go home, refresh and spend a few minutes with his and Monika’s 14-year-old son, Alexander. But not this day. Today Alex is working straight through, tacking on extra hours to his normal 12-hour workload. There is too much to do and too much at stake.

It is every independent restaurant owner’s dream to be able to celebrate a 13th anniversary, and beyond. But very few will ever see that dream come true. High rents, undercapitalization, poor business skills, indifferent service, an uneven performance in the kitchen and, of course, long hours, can all take their toll over time. It has always been that way in the locally owned restaurant business, where it’s estimated that up to 80 percent of all restaurants will fail within five years. But now something relatively new has come along to make things even more difficult: increased competition from the ever-expanding national and regional chains.

"I’ve done some research," says Lisa Boet, who, along with her husband, Philippe, is co-owner of the French-styled Bamboo Café at 755 12th Ave. S. in Naples. "I found that in the 1970s, almost 90 percent of all restaurants were locally owned. Today that’s completely reversed."

There are plenty of reasons for the chains’ dominance, starting with instant name recognition. While it can take an independent months and even years to develop a reputation and a loyal clientele, a chain knows it will have customers from the day it opens a new door. Then there’s saturation: Where there’s one restaurant chain in a sizable market, many more will surely follow. For evidence, check out the number of chains that have flocked to the Coastland Center and Coconut Point malls the past couple of years. And if a chain chooses a poor location, no problem. Close it, as Brinker International did with its Macaroni Grill in north Naples this spring, and perhaps open five more somewhere else. Not so for the independent, all of whose eggs—including its nest egg—are in just one refrigerator.

Most crucial of all, perhaps, are the chains’ deep pockets that will easily fund all the costs required to launch a new venture. For the independent, his most prominent article of clothing tends to be his shoestring. Typical are the Boets, who between them worked for others in the food business for 30 years before acquiring enough capital and experience to open their own place five years ago.

"It’s very hard to start a new business," Lisa says. "You end up opening four or five months later than you planned, by the time your architect and contractor sign off on everything, and you get your permits in line. But that whole time you’re paying your rent, insurance, phone, electricity. So a word to the wise: As a start-up, be prepared to spend twice as much as you planned."

In the past few years, independents around the country have determined that if the chains have strength in numbers, then perhaps independents can, too, if they band together. Thus was born a national organization called DineOriginals, an arm of the Council of Independent Restaurants of America. There are chapters in a dozen cities, and their primary purposes are to help independent, locally owned restaurants (ILORs) market themselves as a group and to take advantage of group purchasing. But just as importantly, they want to emphasize the culinary, cultural and financial benefits that will accrue to a community that fully embraces its ILORs. "We will never be like a corporate chain," says Lisa, who founded the local chapter of Naples Originals last year and serves pro bono as its president. "We’re just trying to level the playing field."

Instead of paying dues, the more than 40 members have agreed to provide dining certificates that are then auctioned off at a 30 percent discount every three months on the Internet (www.naplesoriginals.com). A dinner restaurant, for example, will offer a $50 certificate for $35, while a breakfast-lunch place may offer two $25 certificates for $17.50 each. "It’s created so much excitement, right from the start, that many of the certificates are gone within an hour," says Lisa. "It’s also encouraged customers, who may have their favorites, to try new restaurants."

Discount coupons are nothing new in the restaurant business, of course, and even chains like Outback Steakhouse and California Pizza Kitchen use them to help keep the tables filled. But Naples Originals also seeks to market the unique character and variety of local cuisine. Lisa hopes that future events will include a weeklong culinary festival in various restaurants and venues, plus a variety of cooking classes and demonstrations.

"Sometimes we feel that people think of Naples as kind of a culinary backwater," Lisa says. "But our group believes there is a very vibrant, professional food community here, and we need to celebrate that. And the word is starting to get out. We’ve had people come into our restaurant for the first time and thank us for helping to preserve what’s unique about Naples. Our independent restaurants here are part of the region’s culture, different from even other parts of Florida."

There is also statistical evidence that the economic impact on a community can vary greatly between the chains and the independents. "There was a study done by Newrules.org," says Lisa. "They found that $68 of every $100 spent in a locally owned restaurant stayed in the community, as opposed to $43 for the chains. A big reason is that we work with local purveyors. For example, we use pink shrimp from the Gulf, and we work directly with the fishermen. Local shrimp is probably 40 percent more expensive than Asian shrimp, but there’s no comparison between the flavor or the texture. And helping people eat better is also one of our goals. I don’t know what all the chains do, but I’d much rather buy from a local produce company that is getting its fruit and vegetables from Immokalee, central Florida and Georgia versus California. Why? Because produce that travels three or four days can lose half its nutritional value."

With all the obstacles that an independent restaurateur has to overcome, the obvious question is: Why go into the business to begin with? For Lisa, the answer is simple. "It’s all about the personal relationships we develop," she says. "My husband has been in the restaurant business here for a long time, and people will follow him from place to place. They’ve seen my daughter grow up from a little toddler, and they’ve become a part of our family. These are people; these aren’t numbers. We’re passionate about what we’re doing. Bottom line, we’re all about feeding people as a labor of love."

Alex bernard, 47, has been feeding people since he was a teenager growing up in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, and it is all he’s ever wanted to do. He spent three years at Johnson & Wales University’s prestigious College of Culinary Arts in Providence, R.I., soon followed by three more years working at the Ocean Reef Club, a large resort in Key Largo. "I had exposure to lots of different cuisines," he says. "We worked 18, 19 hours a day and didn’t get paid much, but I didn’t care. I loved it, and I just wanted to learn as much as I could."

Alex’s opportunity of a lifetime came in 1987 after he had become the executive sous chef at the Radisson’s flagship hotel in Minneapolis. The chain’s food and beverage director wanted to open his own restaurant in Naples, and Alex agreed to be the chef and partner. They opened Margaux, on U.S. 41, and then added the original Mangrove Café on Fifth Avenue. After five years, Alex moved next door to Margaux and became chef and partner in Michael’s Café.

By then, Alex’s cooking had attracted a substantial following —enough to encourage him and Monika to strike out on their own when a coffee shop location on the west side of U.S. 41 became available. They converted it into a fine-dining establishment and opened Alexander’s on Oct. 20, 1994. From the beginning, they have made an effective business team. While Alex runs the kitchen and overall operations, Monika helps supply what she calls "the woman’s touch." She spends at least an hour a day at the restaurant—greeting customers, fine-tuning the ambience—in addition to teaching aerobics in Pelican Bay.

At the end of their fifth year, Alex and Monika paid off an outside investor and have been profitable ever since. Shrewdly, Alex has positioned himself well for the long haul. He has 13 more years left on his lease, and in the final term he will only be paying $32 for each of his 1,600 indoor square feet. Many restaurants in Naples, Alex says, pay much more than that right now.

Despite all of Alex’s training, experience, culinary skills and business acumen—and his proven ability to co-exist with the chains—there are many reasons why Alexander’s shouldn’t be the success it is. Consider these disadvantages: 1) The restaurant is hidden from street view and does virtually no tourism business; 2) It’s never had a liquor license; 3) Alex does 98 percent of all the cooking—a perfect recipe for burnout; and 4) the restaurant is closed a third of the year. Yet Alex has taken all these negatives and turned them into positives. Here’s how:

1) "I know I’m hard to find," Alex says. "I still have new customers who say, ‘I’ve been in Naples 15 years, and I didn’t know you were here.’ " Nevertheless, Alex’s dinner reservations between 6 and 8 p.m. will fill up a week in advance during season. His secret: Target nearby seasonal residents and keep bringing them back. "Maybe 10 percent of my customers come here four or five times a week, counting lunch and dinner," says Alex. "There are times when Monika will walk in and know everyone in the dining room."

2) Under state law, Alex’s place isn’t large enough for a liquor license; he can only sell beer and wine. "It keeps me from getting a younger crowd," says Alex, whose typical customer is over 50. "And there’s an older crowd that likes to have a martini and a steak, and I don’t get them either." But what he does get is a customer who appreciates good wine and value. "He’s a master at picking house wines," says one regular. At last count, Alex also offered 77 different wines by the bottle, topping out at $165. "Independents are the lifeblood of restaurants," says Alex’s wine agent, Lou Bernardi. "They keep the wine business going because of the variety they offer."

3) Despite the unrelenting pressure of turning out more than 100 meals a day, six days a week, eight months a year, Alex’s love for what he does helps pull him through. It also doesn’t hurt that he saves himself between $50,000 and $75,000 by not having to hire a chef. And who’s going to control costs better than a chef who’s also the owner? As I watched Alex artfully flute 70 mushroom caps during preparation for the anniversary dinner, I asked him what was going to happen to the shavings and the stems. "That’s mushroom soup for lunch on Monday," he said, grinning. "Watch the nickels and dimes, and the dollars take care of themselves."

4) How can Alex stay in business by closing all summer? Easy. "I don’t care what business you’re in down here," he says. "You make your money from January 15 to May 15. After that, business can drop off two-thirds or more. The season is such a grind that, for me, it’s good to lock the door, take a deep breath, enjoy ourselves, and then we’re ready to go again." Or, in the case of last summer, also put the finishing touches on a cookbook featuring 110 of Alex’s recipes, which is available in the restaurant or through www.amazon.com.

Despite the hectic pace of producing and serving five gourmet courses with military precision, the evening of the anniversary goes smoothly. It is as much a tribute to Alex’s calm and cool management style as it is to all his other skills. While he is strictly "old school" when it comes to adhering to classic cooking methods, he recognizes that the days of the chef yelling and screaming in the kitchen are long gone. That is, they are if you want to keep your help—and Alex does keep his help. Wislaine Desvartes and Theresa Simons have been with him in the kitchen since he started. But just to make sure his staff never forgets its mission, he also has a handwritten sign on the wall in the kitchen. It reads: "Food Critic Is Here." And that sign never comes down.

Finally, the last dessert has been served, the last glass of wine poured, and it is time for Alex and his assistant chefs to take their bows. They place the classic foot-high chefs’ toques on their heads and make their grand entrance amidst a standing ovation. As Alex stands there and nervously begins his thank-you speech, one can’t help but notice the embroidered lettering on his tunic. In two lines, it says:
Alexander Bernard
Chef/Owner

Whether by accident or design, the word "chef" is the one placed closest to Alex’s heart.

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