October 22, 2014

Can This Hot Chef Make It Here?

Yes, Charles Mereday is getting rave reviews for his cooking, but the question is whether his expanding enterprise is the right business model for success in Southwest Florida.

Charles Mereday at Alto Live Jazz Kitchen

Charles Mereday at Alto Live Jazz Kitchen

Alex Stafford

 

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then Charles Mereday is certifiable. On the cusp of opening a second location of his namesake restaurant, Mereday’s Fine Dining, at Coconut Point this summer and his third total in the past year, the chef/restaurateur is heading down a path he’s been treading to varying degrees of success since the late 1990s.

But in Southwest Florida, and Naples in particular, he believes he’s finally found the perfect home for his blend of obsession with the highest-quality ingredients and impeccable cooking skills. His journey has taken him from rural North Carolina, where actor John Ritter—of all people—inspired him to be a chef, to culinary school in Charleston, South Carolina, to Atlantic City to Philadelphia to the Virgin Islands (on multiple occasions) to Birmingham to Indianapolis to Captiva and, finally, to the Naples Bay Resort.

Along the way he’s seen success (his first solo restaurant was named one of the best in the city by Philadelphia magazine) and failure (a stint as executive chef at a swank new restaurant at the Loews Hotel in Philly ended not long after famed restaurant critic Craig LaBan skewered Mereday’s food in the Philadelphia Inquirer.)

“There are definitely things I have disagreed with (LaBan) about over the years,” Mereday says. “But he was absolutely right in that review. And I needed to hear it. I was at a point where I was so worried about being creative with my presentations and making everything look perfect that I wasn’t paying as much attention to how things tasted.”

In many ways, that review set him on the path leading to Naples. After fits and starts with his own restaurants, Mereday had gone to work for the hotel because he realized he could make more money as an executive chef in the corporate world. “But I wasn’t really cooking my food,” he says.

And he also realized that maybe he didn’t know as much about cooking as he thought he did. “I tell all the young people that come through my kitchens to be careful of early success. I had success that came too quickly.”

Now, his skills in the kitchen aren’t in question. Mereday’s Fine Dining arrived to raves. But there is the small matter of whether his business model of expensive prix fixe meals will work.

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Mereday, 41, grew up in Dudley, North Carolina, on his father’s piece of what was a large farm owned by his grandmother. By the time he was a kid, it had been divvied up among her children and was something of a family compound. “Every weekend we were all outside cooking,” Mereday says. “Someone would be cooking up a whole pig or have a cauldron on making some fish chowder. Food was just always part of my life.”

And then there’s John Ritter. His Jack Tripper character on Three’s Company made young Mereday realize that you could actually cook for a living. Of course, this was after he realized he wasn’t going to play basketball professionally. “I’m an extreme North Carolina Tar Heel fan. I wanted to be Michael Jordan,” he says.

Mereday got a few offers to play

Division II or III ball, but by that point cooking was his passion. So when he got a letter from Emeril Lagasse—well before he was a household name—saying he’d been accepted to Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, it seemed like destiny. He had already been working in a local restaurant under the tutelage of Nadir Sherwani—whom Mereday tapped to be the executive chef of his second Naples restaurant, Alto Live Jazz Kitchen, earlier this year. (That relationship was short-lived, however, as Sherwani left Alto in May after some close to Mereday said the food wasn’t up to snuff.) And when he got to Charleston, he immediately found a job as a line cook.

“The tuition was tough on my family,” he says. “Even back then it was still $20,000 a year.”

From the start, the entrepreneurial drive was strong. “Even in school I was looking for my own space,” he says. “That was always the dream, to have my own restaurant.”

Instead, he ended up managing kitchens at a casino in Atlantic City, a job he took for the money and because he could live with his aunt and uncle for free. After working his way up to the leader of the entire culinary operation for the overnight shift, he realized he was making decent money, but not growing as a chef.

Thus began his years of wandering. He took a job in Philly only to leave it before he started for something in St. Croix, which would be a spot he’d return to again and again. A year later he was back at that same Philadelphia restaurant, Zanzibar Blue, which is the inspiration for Alto. After a couple of years there he saw an abandoned hoagie shop next to a state-run liquor store and hurriedly signed the lease. With the $10,000 he’d saved thanks to working every day the Zanzibar Blue was open and with the help of his carpenter uncle, Mereday turned the space into July Grille & Gallery.

With 50 seats and no liquor license, the proximity to the state store helped out some, but the margins were minuscule. “I thought, there’s no way I can make money this way,” he says.

So he started his first experiment with running a restaurant empire, opening a second outpost in the Virgin Islands in a much larger space. The overhead killed him. “I got my first (utilities) bill and it was $10,000,” he says, adding, “I didn’t do $10,000 in sales that month. I wasn’t making any money. But I was having a lot of fun.”

Eventually, though, the practical side kicked in. He took the job at the Loews Hotel. After LaBan lambasted him, Mereday set out to rethink his cooking. He went to find someone who cooked with authentic French techniques.

He found it at the Ryland Inn. He wasn’t there for a long time, but he found a mentor and inspiration in Chef Craig Shelton.

“I learned to cook there,” he says.

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Sarah Elle Emm has given up the idea that she’ll ever have what most people would consider a normal married life. But considering that she met and fell in love with Mereday when she went to culinary school and worked for him at a restaurant, she admits to knowing what she was getting into.

“It’s still hard sometimes,” the 35-year-old young-adult fiction writer says. “There are definitely days when I wish he was going to be home in time for us to all go out to dinner at a normal time or the movies. But this is who Charles is. He is a chef.”

Her total faith in his ability is what keeps her positive about his newest ventures, even after being with him through missteps in other places.

“I joke around when someone asks what Charles wants,” she says. “I say ‘world domination.’ He’s always had a drive and ambition.”

Sarah’s belief in her husband is so strong she chose to publish not under her married last name so that anyone searching “Mereday” online would find only the restaurant.

But faith alone isn’t going to be enough. Neither is initial success. Southwest Florida, and especially Naples, has seen plenty of flashy new restaurants fade quickly.

“It’s hard once you are no longer the hot new thing,” says Tony Ridgway, who has been running restaurants in Naples for more than 40 years. “There’s a lot of competition. You can work very, very, very hard and seem successful and not make any money. And you can work very hard and make good money.”

Mereday admits that even after 20-plus years in the business, the strain of making money still butts up against his desire to put the best possible product on the plate. He ships in a lot of his vegetables from the Chef’s Garden in Ohio. This means just three pink blush asparagus, which he serves with his Miyazaki beef and ramps, cost him $5 just to put on the plate. And that doesn’t include the time it took his staff to cook it, serve it and wash the dishes, nor the money he pays out for power or gas.

“There are definitely times when I think, ‘Is this worth it?’” he says. “But I believe that it is. And I think that Naples is the place where this concept will work, where people will see the value and be willing to pay for it.”

And therein lies Mereday’s biggest problem. I’ve yet to talk to anyone who doesn’t rave about his food—to the point that the biggest criticism of Alto has been that he needs to assert a little more influence over the product. But I’ve also not talked to many restaurant insiders who are bullish on the long-term prospects.

“The food was phenomenal,” says one local industry veteran who’s about to open up his first restaurant. When I mentioned my particular affinity for Mereday’s scallops, he agreed that they are among the best he’s ever had. “But I’m just not sure if he gets enough people through the doors, especially at those prices.”

It’s true that a dinner at Mereday’s Fine Dining isn’t cheap. A two-course meal, which includes a complimentary dessert but not wine, is $55. The full Mereday’s experience, four courses plus dessert and wine pairings, is $145 per person. A la carte dining is offered only at the bar.

Mereday thinks the affluence of Naples is great enough to support a prix fixe concept that isn’t uncommon for fine dining establishments in New York or Chicago. But it’s a big risk. He’s mitigated some of his upfront exposure by opening only in spaces that have already been restaurants and doing minimal remodeling. He calls it “second-generation hospitality.” But that only means he has less to pay himself back. The month-to-month nut is still a big one to crack for any restaurant in Naples. And then there’s a question of how he’ll manage the summer.

When I sit down with him at Alto in mid-May, he admits that business has dropped considerably in the past week.

“It was a bit more sudden than we expected,” he says. “We had hoped that things would hold steady through the end of the month at least.”

Yet he’s undeterred. He’s excited about the new Mereday’s that will see him elevate his longtime No. 2, Joe Pittman, into the top culinary role. He’s filming a pilot episode for a cooking show that he hopes to run first locally and then shop to national networks.

After filming in the kitchen before the dinner crowd arrives at his Naples Bay eatery, Mereday kicks back at the bar with his sommelier and a local wine distributor. He’s trying some new wines that are just coming into the market. There’s a perfectly balanced rose and a Barolo that needs another year or so before it’s ready.

Although he’s got dozens of other things on his plate, Mereday makes time for the tasting because he wants to personally sign off on every wine on the menu. It’s part quality control and part desire to learn more about wine.

Every so often, he takes a few minutes and jets to the kitchen. He’ll pop back out with a plate of pasta with morels or make sure to have someone try his pastry chef ’s bread. There’s a sense of unbridled joy as he runs back to his personal wine collection to grab a bottle of a California Cabernet he particularly loves.

And it’s in this moment that you see what his wife sees when she says you just have to have faith it’s all going to work out. Because if Mereday’s Fine Dining fails, if Alto Live Jazz Kitchen plays the wrong notes, it’s hard to imagine Charles Mereday doing anything but this.

 

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