Last year when Dennis Byrd needed a loan to buy island restaurant The Spot bankers were reluctant.
It didn’t matter that Byrd had leased and successfully operated the popular seawall eatery for nearly three years. Nor did it matter that he had taken his first restaurant job at The Spot in 1998 working himself up from cashier to cook dishwasher to delivery boy learning most aspects of the business.
Byrd was only 25. He had neither assets nor collateral. The Spot had cash flow but like any restaurant did not have large profit margins.
All Byrd could offer was enthusiasm drive and his good name. That wasn’t enough.
Rejected by three banks he called an old friend.
”We began our meetings in March reached an agreement in May and he financed my transaction” Byrd now 26 said.
The industry is tough on even the most experienced restaurateur so it’s unusual someone so young could operate such a popular restaurant industry observers say.
”It’s definitely not the norm” said John Zendt president of the Texas Restaurant Association and general manager of Moody Gardens’ restaurant.
In 1998 Byrd took his first job in the restaurant industry at The Spot. Marion and Diane Duzich island newcomers who were getting notice for taking old eyesores and transforming them into viable business had moved three old houses threatened by demolition to the lot.
The couple restored the homes and The Spot was born.
It was an immediate hit. Byrd born on the island learned everything he could about the business. In the first two years of attending Louisiana State University Byrd drove home every weekend and holiday to work at The Spot until a professor helped him get a job as a manager on the university’s national championship track team.
”The thing I remember about him was his incredible dependability and work ethic combined with a mischievous personality” said Irving Schexnayder the school’s head field events coach.
”I would often send him on errands. When I would see him a few minutes later I’d ask him if it was done and he would give me some lame excuse about why he hadn’t done it. I’d fuss at him but when I got there the errand was done and he was laughing at the joke he played on me.”
Byrd graduated in 2002 with a degree in international trade and finance. He had considered working for The World Bank but the intense rhythms of the restaurant business had gotten under his skin.
When he learned the Duzichs planned to sell Byrd approached the couple. His parents and Diane Duzich urged him to leave the island and explore his opportunities.
”They told me it was challenging and demanding 14 hours seven days a week” Byrd recalls. ”But it was everything I needed. I need long hours and a lot of work to keep me satisfied.”
Byrd negotiated a three-year lease with extension options and an option to buy.
”Everyone was skeptical questioning whether I would be able to handle a restaurant except me” he said. ”I looked at it the following way; if I fail now what’s the worst that could happen? I didn’t own anything and didn’t have much money so if I failed it would have been a great learning experience.”
Byrd already knew The Spot had a strong concept and a loyal following. So he resisted sweeping changes.
Instead he made small changes one project at a time. As the new owner Byrd tasted everything on the menu. If it was good enough he left it at the price for which it was selling. If he didn’t think the customer was getting value he changed it he said.
He increased seating and began offering private space for parties.
In many ways Byrd’s age serves him well. He can relate to his young staff often working alongside them cooking and taking orders.
But Byrd also blames youth for some decisions he made and later regretted.
”My attitude toward vendors and distributors was aggressive” he said. ”I was very skeptical of them.”
The Spot went from using about six vendors to about 25. Each invoice became a little smaller but more expensive. Some vendors require minimum product orders. And the task of rotating product and managing inventory with so many vendors can be overwhelming Byrd said.
He fired some vendors but has since rehired them after reaching a business understanding and some wisdom.
”It was a learning experience” he said.
Taking The Bar
One of the biggest changes Byrd made to The Spot was adding the Tiki Bar.
Byrd did so with much deliberation. Fears the bar would undermine the family atmosphere stalled him for months. But after getting customer feedback he went forward with the project. The bar with Reggae music and TVs where guests watch sports has been a huge success he said.
Now Byrd is toying with the idea of replicating The Spot concept.
Byrd’s success comes from keeping it simple industry observers say.
His determination to educate himself about the industry — he pores over trade magazines and is involved in restaurant groups — also helps they say.
”He’s committed to the restaurant and he’s committed to the community” Zendt said. ”He has a good product a good menu good burgers good sandwiches and good service.”
On a recent Monday after working until nearly 2 a.m. Byrd is back at work before 10 a.m. to do payroll. He’s already receiving text messages from customers.
”We’re still coming for lunch — need table for six — are you going to be there?”
Byrd said he would.
”I don’t have any regrets” Byrd said. ”I feel like this was and is what I should be doing. As long as I come in here and have fun I will never change what I do.”
Profile: The Spot
The Spot Restaurant and Tiki Bar 3204 Seawall Blvd.
Founded: 1998 by Marion and Diane Duzich
Owner: Dennis Byrd
2005 sales: Declined to say
Average guest bill: $12.50
Biggest challenge: ”We’re growing very fast. It’s a challenge training all the employees properly to deliver consistent service.”
Business advice: ”Establish a goal and never ever settle for anything less than the goal. Be determined hardworking and build incredible relationships with employees guests and distributors.”