Restaurants: Old-fashioned hard work remains key |

Restaurants: Old-fashioned hard work remains key

John Seelmeyer

Linda Winchester has big plans for this summer a day sailing with her husband, Dave.

If they’re truly able to break away from the restaurant they own in Sparks, it will be the first time that the Winchesters have managed to get out on the lake in five years. It hasn’t even been that long, for that matter, since they began to feel comfortable taking days off from their Black Rock Pizza Co.

Across town, Susan Sardina and her husband, Brett Whiting, almost never take a full day off. They keep their Sardina’s Italian Restaurant open six nights a week. On Mondays, the day the restaurant is closed, they’re usually busy with a catering job.

Independent restaurant owners in northern Nevada can succeed, despite a wave of competition from national chains and despite an economic downturn that’s left consumers with less disposable income.

But owners of independent restaurants are working brutally long hours, battling to find marketing tools that will allow them to stand out in a crowded marketplace and closely watching every dime.

And they learn quickly that restaurants are no way to get rich quick.

“It’s a real slow process,” says Dave Winchester. “Early on, it was difficult.”

He and his wife launched Black Rock Pizza at Pyramid Highway and North McCarran Boulevard five years ago. The restaurant wins plaudits for its menu a Thai-inspired pizza won fourth place in a recent national competition sponsored by a trade publication and the couple has paid close attention to maintaining consistent quality.

The challenge for the Winchesters has been marketing.

Although pizza restaurants typically draw customers largely from nearby neighborhoods, Black Rock Pizza sees relatively little traffic from the neighborhoods along North McCarran and Pyramid Highway in Sparks.

But the restaurant draws heavily from the middle-class developments in Spanish Springs a couple of miles to the north as well as Reno neighborhoods.

To keep those customers coming back and driving past competitors’ locations on their way to Black Rock Pizza the Winchesters developed a customer-loyalty program, and they carefully target direct mail advertising into the neighborhoods from which they’ve been successful drawing customers in the past.

At Sardina’s Italian Restaurant at Mira Loma and South McCarran, Sardina and Whiting have built their business one customer at a time, keeping a close eye on expenses while they slowly built the restaurant’s traffic during the past four years.

It’s only been within the last year, Sardina says, that neither she nor her husband has held a day job while they worked at the restaurant each evening.

“We’ve slowly built our customer base from scratch,” she says. “It’s taken time.”

Sardina’s draws largely from the nearby Hidden Valley and Donner Springs neighborhoods, and the restaurant’s owners say they succeeded with a highly personalized approach. Sardina does almost all the cooking; her husband works the front of the house.

Even the smallest financial decisions the purchase of cloth napkins or replacement of glassware requires careful consideration.

“We try not to take on a lot of debt because that can be dangerous,” says Whiting.

The biggest step the couple took to ensure the restaurant’s success, Sardina says, was the introduction of catering services.

That’s work that Sardina and Whiting can do on their own without much help from the restaurant’s staff of four. Daytime catering for corporate clients allows productive use of the kitchen while the restaurant is closed. And catering jobs, Sardina says, help spread the word to potential customers who otherwise might not be aware of the restaurant.

On the other hand, it adds hours to the couple’s workweek. Sardina says she doesn’t mind.

“I like cooking,” she says. “I like to make people happy.”

Long hours don’t discourage newcomers to the restaurant industry, either.

Eric Huber, who with partner Joe Wong launched The Green Onion at Damonte Ranch Parkway and South Virginia Street in January, says the two owners were working 17 hours a day, seven days a week as they got the soup-and-salad restaurant open.

“We’re both Type-A, workaholic types,” says Huber. The two partners left careers with a financial management company to launch the restaurant in a 4,200-square-foot shopping center space.

The work, Huber says, includes lots of grassroots marketing handing out flyers to families at soccer games, for instance and lots of time visiting with customers.

“You have to listen to your guests. The guests are always right,” he says. “Customers have taught us a lot, and we’ve evolved over time.”

Working next to a staff of 16 full- and part-time employees, Wong and Huber managed to get The Green Onion over the break-even line within weeks of its opening, and they continue to think about scaling up the concept into a chain of locations.

At the same time, however, Huber says the partners are grateful almost every day that they didn’t follow their original inclination to open two locations simultaneously.

“We want to take baby steps,” he says.