JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
Thinking about leaving your day job to open Durango’s next dream restaurant?
Industry insiders suggest it will take more than just encouragement from friends and family who say you’re a great cook. Your skills as a butcher, a baker and a passionate plan-B maker also may be required. Add designer, food-cost estimator, investigator and project manager to the talents necessary for restaurant success.
First-time restaurant owners Michael and Birgitte Lutfy share an impressive skill-set and nearly a lifetime of experience in the retail food world, yet it took them years to find the right location and concept for their dream restaurant, Chimayo Stone Fired Kitchen, 862 Main Ave., which Michael describes as a contemporary, new-American bistro with a Southwestern flair.
“We went to hundreds of restaurants, actually sat at the bars and measured the knee clearance,” he said of the homework the couple did in addition to interviewing chefs, bartenders and kitchen crews from all over the country.
Michael cut his teeth in the restaurant business as a 12-year-old dish washer, potato peeler and prep cook in his uncle’s restaurant in the Poconos, before rising through the culinary ranks.
Birgitte obtained a culinary degree from a Danish school where she specialized in charcuterie. She later managed a catering department in a high-end food store in Newport Beach, Calif. The two met over a cheese counter, Michael said, when he feigned ignorance about artisanal cheeses.
“I was savory. She was sweet,” Michael said of the instant romance.
Earlier this decade, the Lutfys spent 10 months a year travelling across America as cooks for the Indy car racing team owned by Michael Andretti. They were responsible for preparing gourmet fare for 80 staff members and up to 400 sponsor guests and executives on the weekend racing circuit.
The couple eventually moved to Durango, where they catered occasional events while on their quest to open a restaurant.
Both agreed that it was critical to find the right location to establish a solid concept that would be supported by locals.
With help from Fort Lewis College’s Small Business Development Center, the Lutfys developed a business plan. Template in hand, they compared numerous restaurant locations before settling on a site on Main Avenue within the downtown historic business zone.
“We walked away from so many deals,” Michael said. Patience, knowing costs down to the penny and due diligence were equally important, and it also made sense to have a building contractor, fire department officials and health inspectors do a walk through before signing a lease, he said.
Vicki Vandegrift, senior planner with the city of Durango, agrees it’s necessary to search with eyes wide open when looking to open a restaurant in Durango.
“Once you’ve found a location, find out if there are any issues or requirements specific to that location. Talk to officials about code enforcement,” Vandegrift said, noting that a walk-through also is useful.
Exterior building changes, including restaurant signage, require design review, she said.
For Chimayo, a stylishly appointed restaurant that specializes in all things oven roasted, reworking, redrafting and refining the details before opening the door was the name of the game.
Two $40,000 stone-fired ovens turn out 75 percent of the prep work, including the almost-daily roasting of seasonal vegetables. Richly flavored sauces and toasted herbs and cheeses figure prominently in Chimayo’s diverse menu of about 30 items.
Stone-fired pizza selections range from a classic margherita pizza to savory mushroom pies made with not-so-classic fontina and Taleggio cheeses. Green chiles are paired with rice for risotto cakes. Roasted chicken, salmon, steak or shrimp can be added to four salads that all boast a Southwestern flair.
“We refined our original restaurant concept to fit the space,” Michael Lutfy said, crediting the sleek design of the 37-foot-wide storefront to Birgitte Lutfy’s artistic eye and more than 1,000 hours of daily attention to detail, down to where each wall outlet was placed.
The restaurant’s theme of merging old classics with new trendy twists extends beyond the menu.
A pair of garage-door-style rolling windows bring the outdoors inside. With weather being so unpredictable, this practical alternative to a patio made design sense.
“I design from a functional standpoint. It doesn’t matter how good things look if they don’t work,” Birgitte said.
The Lutfys’ design also incorporates an open kitchen, an efficient route from ovens to dining room and a wireless, iPad-based POS system that records sales from plate to pantry.
“No two employees cross each other,” Michael said of the traffic flow that allows his staff to provide quick and efficient service.
“The POS system is the nerve center. It’s how a business like this works,” Birgitte said, describing how servers use hand-held devices that look like iPhones to record food orders, track inventory and process payments.
Linear angles are softened with curves that showcase a dramatic bar that extends three quarters deep into the spacious dining room. Historic maple wood flooring and tin ceilings contrast with exposed steel support beams.
Curves are duplicated in a bold, faux-painted wall design. Conical, asymmetric booths contrast with traditional table seating.
During the early stages of construction, life-size cardboard cut-out design templates stood where booths eventually would be constructed.
Passion is what Mike Burns, regional president of Alpine Bank, notices when prospective restaurateurs come to him looking for financing.
“Location is important, capital matters, but the single most important thing is passion,” Burns said.
It’s required when one puts in up to 80 hours a week on the job.
Burns said that almost a million tourists make their way through Durango each year to ride the train and ski the mountains before seeking out a restaurant for a good meal.
“People are hungry and they’re tired when they return to town,” Burns said.
The failure rate of restaurants is no greater than the failure rate of any small business, Burns said, but “restaurants have lots of challenging, moving parts.”
Getting the bugs out before opening the door is important.
“Pretty much everyone will give you a chance, but you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression,” Burns said.
When former chef and restaurant owner Vince Ferraro entered Durango’s restaurant scene back in 1984, he describes it as “competitive, with only six to eight good restaurants.”
“Now there’s twice that many,” he said.
With partners, Ferraro owned Pronto’s Pizza and Pasta and later acquired Ariano’s, a fine-dining Italian restaurant that he sold after 10 years at the helm.
The retired chef, who now works as a meat cutter at PJ’s Gourmet Market, said he might return to a restaurant kitchen, but he wouldn’t own a restaurant again unless he owned the real estate with it.
Tim Turner, who opened Zia Taqueria in 2005, offered this advice to novice restaurant-owners: “Have your systems dialed in as best you can, so you’re not burning up revenues trying to create and implement systems on the fly.”
Focus then can shift to effective training and team building. Restaurateurs also must secure a food supply and establish pricing by running food cost evaluations through rigorous spreadsheets. It’s important to constantly challenge the numbers and have a system that allows for price changes, Turner said.
If he could flash back seven years, Turner said he’d look for more opportunities to grow greater quantities of the fresh, healthy, nutrient-dense food that is central to Zia Taqueria’s concept.
“Zia would have 10 greenhouses today. As it stands, we have three,” Turner said.
Running a restaurant is a long-haul proposition that requires reinvesting initial profits in the business, the team, and the community, Turner said.
“Don’t have large expectations for retaining earnings during the first 24 to 36 months,” he said.