Strictly business: Owners of eateries' tough calls

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

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Ah, the dream of owning a restaurant. How hard can it be?

Just come up with an original idea or buy into a franchise, select a site, hire employees, buy some equipment, order supplies, and voilà — sit back and count up the money.

Sounds great, huh? Too bad it ain't all that simple, says Bill Hayden, a local restaurateur and consultant to fledgling entrepreneurs in the food industry. For the inexperienced, restaurant ventures are fraught with pitfalls that can make knowing when to get out the owners' best survival tactic.

"Ten years is a good, long run for a restaurant," says Hayden, who has owned and helped establish several restaurants in Portland and Vancouver, including Hudson's Bar & Grill at the Heathman Lodge. "It's a good run if you can make it five years."

That should make Scott Dickinson hold his head higher.

Dickinson lasted 17 years — from 1996 to 2013 — as the sole owner of local KFC restaurants before getting out of the business this year. And he jointly owned the local franchise with his father since 1984.

KFC, or Kentucky Fried Chicken as it was originally called, was first introduced to Clark County in 1956 at the former Hazel Dell Totem Pole restaurant, owned by Dickinson's father, Chuck Dickinson.

But the economy's downturn and faltering sales forced Scott Dickinson to sell two restaurants and close six others over the last several months, as The Columbian reported last week.

Dickinson closed his poorest-performing restaurants and sold his best-performing businesses, in Hazel Dell and Orchards. Then, he sold two vacant sites with drive-through windows, generating nearly $800,000.

As Dickinson learned, land can carry more long-term value than a failing restaurant in a fast-growing community like Clark County. Owners of the iconic Steakburger in Hazel Dell also appear to know that their property is worth more than a faded restaurant and its miniature golf course. Bob and Merilyn Condon, now in their 70s and semi-retired, have tried several times to sell their restaurant's Highway 99 property.

But most restaurateurs don't own their buildings or the land underneath. They can still sell the business.

Timing is imperative, says Hayden, who believes many restaurant owners wait too long to throw in the towel. "They just freeze and don't know what to do," says Hayden. He sees restaurateurs as romantics. "They're just so enthralled with the industry. You have to love them."

But when customers stop buying, the dream slowly dissipates, and you're burned out, it's time to sell rather than close. That's what Vancouver restaurateur Peter Gallin chose to do. After operating the Applewood Restaurant and Bar for 11 years at two locations, Gallin sold the east Vancouver business to a new operator who plans to change its name to Cinders Bar and Grill and reopen in September.

Hayden believes restaurateurs need never apologize for getting out of business, even if it's just to take a short breather.

"The restaurateur works 24-7, the good ones anyway," Hayden said. "And when you get tired, you're not making decisions for the good of the enterprise."


Cami Joner: 360-735-4532, http://twitter.com/camijoner; http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business, or cami.joner@columbian.com.