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Q and A with Pierre Bader

by Mark Peres

July 7,2008

Pierre Bader is the principal owner of the Sonoma Restaurant Group, which owns and operates Sonoma Modern American Bistro and Town restaurants, and Press Wine and Food. Along with his Executive Chef Tim Groody, Bader has created menus and spaces that have set the bar for culinary experiences in the city. Charlotte Magazine named Bader 2004 Restaurateur of the Year. A native of Lebanon, he studied engineering at Tulsa University. He is married to Tricia Childress, Assistant Professor at Johnson & Wales University and food critic at Creative Loafing.

What’s the truth about the restaurant scene in Charlotte?

The truth is it’s not about students graduating from a culinary school. It’s about that we are opening up restaurants left and right without the population to support it. No one is talking about the fact that for every new restaurant that opens up, they are 2 or 3 that are shutting down. We might hear about the upscale restaurant that closes, but the family-owned restaurants that are closing every day don’t make The Charlotte Observer. Eventually, the fallout will hit the headlines.

Why is it happening?

It’s mathematics. The economy is down, restaurant owners are undercapitalized, they are paying dearly for their lease, 3 slow months ruin them, we’re in a credit crunch, and banks despise lending money to restaurants.

What are your guiding principles when you launch a restaurant?

I don’t open anything that doesn’t make financial sense or doesn’t give me a way out if it doesn’t work. The lease is a restaurant owner’s biggest asset or biggest liability. I spend as much as I need to on lawyers to make sure the lease terms are favorable and I have a way out. I don’t fall in love with the location or what the landlord is telling me about the demographics. I make a business decision about my ability to make money and to cover my risks. I make sure I’m capitalized and I have cash to sustain operations past the honeymoon. After that, my second guiding principle is to give people great food with great atmosphere at a great price.

What part of the business do you enjoy most?

Adapting to change. Restaurants are a life style, and I enjoy inventing space and food to cater to customers. Society is always moving, and you have to understand it and get it right. I like designing décor, the interior, the lighting, the menu, the wine list. If you don’t give it to them, they’ll try you once and move on. It’s a great challenge to deliver an experience that customers value that is also profitable.

What does Charlotte have an appetite for?

Apparently, steak. I don’t understand the steakhouse thing. It puzzles me. It really does. We must have 16 or 17 steakhouses. The national chains are coming in ‘twos’ – trying to get market share. They are publically-traded, have deep pockets, and can afford to lose money for at least a short period of time before they close shop. We must have more steakhouses per person than any city in the country. It’s ridiculous. I’d like to see great authentic ethnic restaurants – a great Thai restaurant in a great building, authentic Chinese cuisine, a true Mexican restaurant that is not an Americanized version of Mexican food.

We have Johnson & Wales University, CPCC, the Art Institute of Charlotte, all graduating chefs. Can Charlotte absorb 1000 graduating chefs a year?

Culinary education is important. It raises the skill level and what is possible. We employ a lot of Johnson & Wales students, but they are young. They are just young. They’re pups on the line. We can tell the ones who are just passing through. We are always anxious to meet someone who will take charge, not someone who wants me to father them. Whatever school they come from, new chefs need to show and prove that they can be a leader. Skilled is one thing. Having vision, understanding people, the business, and giving direction is another. I’m waiting to see it.

You’ve opened 10 restaurants and never closed one. Luck or skill?

Both. A restaurant is a business and I’m happy to sell it. As much as I pour myself into every detail and constantly worry, I don’t get attached. Sometimes someone wanted it more than me. Other times the trend was against me, and I was grateful to sell. I’m seasoned enough now to know when and how.

What’s next?

We’re replacing Taverna 100 with a new restaurant. It will be part of the Founder’s Hall renovation on the street level at College and Trade Streets. We will announce the concept soon. It’s scheduled to open the first quarter of ’09. At the end of the day, our success comes from concentrating on our concept, taking care of loyal customers, and being part of the community.

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