May 2007

The New Face of Food & Beverage

Author: Craig Hysell

Food and beverage jobs have long had a stigma about them, at least on Hilton Head Island. They are considered something other than a “real job”—the type of employment where work is easy, shifts run late into the night and shift drinks are mandatory.

The men and women who make up the corps of servers, bartenders and kitchen staff are pre-judged by many as holding certain degrees of irresponsibility, immaturity and lack of drive. After all, exactly how important can a cook be to the world? Well, that depends on the individual’s need. How important is it for you to go out, eat, drink and be merry?

According to the Town of Hilton Head Island’s website, the local hospitality tax—“two percent of the total gross sales price received for prepared food, meals and beverages sold”—generates approximately $4.8 million per year. That represents a staggering $240 million dollars a year spent on food and beverages within the 42 square miles of Hilton Head Island. It seems like hitting the town is actually pretty important.

Of the more than 250 restaurants on the island, very few are national chains. An extensive majority of them are small businesses, built with care, pride and hard work by people who have worked in the food and beverage industry for a number of years as servers, bartenders or chefs. Can all the notoriety associated with a career in food and beverage be more myth than fact?

Mike Murray bought Stu’s Surf Side three years ago after moving back to Hilton Head with his wife. He grew the tasty little sub shop’s business by 30 percent in the first year and opened his second location in December of 2006. His path has wound him in out of the Lowcountry, through various food and beverage jobs, to director of sales and marketing for various prestigious hotels including the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Naples, Florida, and the posh, five-star Tides Inn along the Chesapeake Bay in Irvington, Virginia. He is not alone.

Dave and Colleen Pike, owners of Taste of Thailand, have worked their way in and around Hilton Head Island’s food and beverage scene since 1993. Colleen alone has worked at seven different restaurants on the island in the past 10 years. Dave has bartended at his share of island icons over the years as well, including the now-demolished Mardi Gras—a renowned late night dive for people like Hootie, Edwin McCain and easygoing local revelers.

Pete Bernstein, co-owner of Fat Baby’s Pizza and Subs, started as a line cook in 1982 for Chi-Chi’s. In December of 1990, he opened up the bygone Original Big Dog’s Grille across from Coligny Plaza (where Dave Pike got his first food and beverage job as a server) before going to work at Wild Wing Café while it was still on the duck pond in Coligny Plaza and the only wing place in existence.

Both Bernstein and his partner, Tom Baltz, moved around a bit as well before finally settling back down on the island. Bernstein went back home to Baltimore, selling mortgages while Baltz graduated from the College of Charleston and moved out to Colorado to try his hand at the nine-to-five game. But Bernstein, Baltz, and the Pikes all came back to the island and went back to work in food and beverage.

“It’s just a better living,” said Colleen, de-bunking the myth that it’s a lowly profession. “I have my days to myself, work nights, and wear the same clothes as my customers.”

TJ Niehaus, owner of Rider’s Lounge, started out barbacking at the Harbourside Café in 1993, and eventually moved to bartender at the original Wild Wing Café. He relocated to Boston in 1998, graduated from college, and worked in software sales before deciding to come back to Hilton Head in 2001. He agrees with Colleen. “I missed the lifestyle,” he said. “I have my days off and room to travel. I love dealing with people, and the money is great.”

These people are a far cry from lazy or irresponsible—non-traditional maybe, but what’s wrong with going against the grain as long as your bills get paid?

When asked why he moved back to Hilton Head, Bernstein said, “I was sitting, looking out my window and realized I was working six days a week, working a lot of hours and making less money than I did working four nights a week and sitting on the beach bartending.” Mike Murray said he got tired of making lots of money for other people. Dave Pike was putting in 80-90 hours a week managing a restaurant in Maine and taking home less than $500 bucks every seven days.

But it’s so much more than money for these entrepreneurs. They all take immense pride, every single one of them, in the product they put out. Over and over again, they all express how much they enjoy going to work and facing the challenges of each day. In fact, the challenge is exactly why Murray bought Stu’s. “I wanted to see if I could do it,” he said. “And I get instant gratification. I ask people how their meal is and I get immediate feedback—most if it reassuring. I didn’t get that in my other jobs.”

The Pikes, who took over Taste of Thailand in August of 2005, cheerfully transferred their food—including what had to be the freshest pineapple and ripest tomato ever known to mankind—from a dysfunctional refrigerator to their walk-in cooler, as if it was just another day in paradise while being interviewed. Coming off their first place finish at Wingfest, Colleen said, “You have to have a positive attitude.”

“I love it. I know all the customers; they came to our wedding,” she added.

Dave just smiled. “I love our product and I enjoy what I do,” he said.

Niehaus, who opened Rider’s Lounge with his partner in April of 2003, said he has fulfilled one of his dreams. “I never knew how hard it was going to be, but it was the next logical step. I have a lot of fun and I do what I enjoy,” he said.

“You get to create something, see it develop. I think everybody dreams about doing something their way and that’s what we do here. We do it our way,” added Bernstein.

How many people who have those “real jobs” can honestly say they love going to work every day and are proud of the product they put out on a daily basis? How many people working nine to five have the freedom to go to the beach whenever they wish or to schedule their own hours? How many people in the corporate world get to do it their way?

Maybe people are right. Maybe having a job that lets you do and feel all these things isn’t a real job. Maybe it’s unreal that work like that exists for those who have the courage and the fortitude to try.

Murray, who makes his own schedule and is able to pick up his child from school every day grinned, “I’ll never work for anybody else ever again.” When asked why not, he responded simply and without hesitation. “Why would I?”

Tom Baltz and Pete Bernstein

Fat Baby’s Pizza & Subs
Owners: Pete Bernstein and Tom Baltz
Location: 120 Arrow Rd., Suite D
Phone: 842-4200

Did You Know: that Tom actually started his career in food and beverage making deli sandwiches in 1985?

Q: What advice would you give to the public when dining out?
A: “Spend money at Fat Baby’s.”—Bernstein [laughing]
Q: Do you ever think about going back to a strictly bartending situation?
A: “Absolutely not.”—Baltz
A: “I can honestly say that if this placed burned down tonight, I would never bartend again.”—Bernstein
Q: Do you look at this is a real job?
A: “I don’t care if you’re digging a ditch or slinging a drink or making a pizza, a real job is something you do to pay your bills and be happy in life. But if that means working nine to five, wearing a suit and answering to somebody, then no, it’s not a real job.”—Bernstein
Q: What advice would you give to someone thinking about opening his or her own business?
A: “Surround yourself with good people. Not just partners and employees, but accountants, bookkeepers, lawyers, spiritual gurus… [laughs] whatever it takes…”—Baltz

Mike Murray

Stu’s Surf Side
Owner: Mike Murray
Location (s): South End—Coligny Plaza (across from the Sheriff’s Office); North End—Port Royal Plaza (across from Bi-Lo)
Phone: So. End- 686-7873; No. End- 681-7873

Did You Know: that Stu’s has a call-ahead drive-thru at its north end location, allowing you to cut your wait for food down to nothing more than the time it takes to get out your wallet?

“Our subs are ‘born and bread’ right here. We bake it fresh every day.”
“All it takes to be successful in this business is wanting to do it and confidence. A million things can go wrong everyday and you have to believe you can take care of them. I leave with a sense of accomplishment everyday.”
“I never thought about this axiom until I owned my own restaurant, but it’s true: ‘Never put off until tomorrow what you can get done today.’”
“You know when you get that taste for something in your mouth and you just crave it? The worst was when I had to shut down the restaurant because of a broken water line or something. Now, with two locations, you can always get your Stu on…”—Murray

Dave and Colleen Pike

Taste of Thailand
Owners: Dave and Colleen Pike
Location: 1200 Plantation Center
Phone: 341-6500; Reservations suggested

Did You Know: that when Dave moved back to Maine to work at an Italian restaurant, one of the owners was an employee at the Original Big Dog’s Grille?

Q: What’s the number one thing a person has to have in the food and beverage business?
A: “Patience. You have to realize people can be weird. They like to do things their way. It’s no big deal.”—Colleen
Q: What would you tell someone thinking about starting his or her own restaurant?
A: “That it’s nice being your own boss and you need to draw that line between employer and employee friendships.”—Colleen
A: “And watch out for payroll taxes—in fact, any taxes.”—Dave; “Ugh. The taxes…”—Colleen
Q: Is your job a real job?
A: “Yes!!!”—Dave [laughing]

TJ Neihaus

Riders Lounge
Owners: TJ Niehaus and Michael Iaquinta
Location: 6 Target Road
Phone: 842-7433

Did You Know: that Niehaus started his food and beverage career as a barback at Harbourside Cafe where Tom Baltz, co-owner of Fat Baby’s Pizza & Subs worked and that Niehaus actually employed Dave Pike (who now owns Taste of Thailand) at Riders Lounge when it first opened?

“It’s hard work, but it’s fun. We’re a club, and sometimes we have to deal with severely inebriated people. It can definitely be an interesting experience at times.”
“I wouldn’t say my job is a real job in the nine-to-five sense. I would say I have the same responsibilities, if not more so, but there are no time restraints in getting the aspects of my work done. I have certain objectives I need to meet daily, and as long as I do that I can use my free time whenever and however I want.”
“I always made more money in food and beverage, but in the long run, I don’t think money is as important as success.”—Niehaus

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