VOL. 37 | NO. 51 | Friday, December 20, 2013
Randy Rayburn adapts to competition from the booming Middle Tennessee restaurant scene he helped create
By Jennifer Justus
Restaurateur Randy Rayburn made headlines recently when he announced that his 23-year-old Sunset Grill would close for lunch and that he was naming executive chef Chris Cunningham as a managing partner.
But listening to Rayburn’s career path, it’s clear that he knows a thing or two about flexibility and a willingness to embrace change.
While business at Midtown Cafe and Cabana will carry on as usual, the Sunset lunch ends Dec. 20. Until then, Rayburn took a break from his lunchtime maitre d’ role at Midtown to sit near the door at Sunset where he could greet customers, show photos of his sons and listen to requests by guests who want him to keep favorite dishes.
Rayburn and his wife Sonata have a 7-week-old, Dean Emmett, as well as a 6-year-old, Duke.
“I love my life,” he says. “I have a life finally in balance instead of just being a workaholic.”
Nashville State Community College honored the restaurateur by re-naming its food service school the Randy Rayburn School of Culinary Arts in 2011, underscoring his contribution to the city’s food culture.
Within Rayburn’s story over the past 30-plus years is the history and evolution of the Nashville food scene. He talked with Nashville Ledger about that journey, food trends, what’s on the horizon for the restaurant business in Middle Tennessee, and his plans for Voodoo Pasta.
Q: How did you get into this business?
A: “I got into this business because I grew up on a farm in Milan, Tenn., 27 acres, and I wound up washing dishes in the fourth grade and working at Milan Supermarket when I was a freshman in high school because they had air conditioning. Compared to the farm work I had been doing, it was more lucrative. Farm work is the hardest work God ever made and the riskiest. That was my inspiration ultimately.
“I didn’t get into the restaurant business until 1975 while going to night law school. I’d moved back from Washington D.C., where I had worked for Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, and I hated my day job (as a public information officer). If I had waited a year and borrowed the money, I’d probably be practicing law today. I’m really blessed that I didn’t.
"My roommate, Rick Sanjek, had been head of Atlantic Records and wound up working at Restaurant de la Renaissance and Papa Leone’s (in Green Hills), and he said ‘You hate your job, why don’t you come work for me as a bus boy?’
“So I went to work for him where he was the assistant maitre d’, and I was the only American in the front of the house other than Rick. I was 25. Suddenly, I found a world of making people happy.
“Politics and law are adversarial by nature. And yes, I’d gotten tired of the knives in my back rather than in my hands. The restaurant business seemed fun. And it was.’’
Q: Then what happened?
A: “I had a different roommate named Jack Whalley, who was a graduate of the Culinary Institute, and he moved in with me when I bought a house in December of ’77. We did the Café Ritz where Mario’s was when it burned. Jack was Mary Walton Caldwell’s sous chef and protégé, and Mary Walton had gone to Ward Belmont finishing school and then gone off to the Cordon Bleu.
“She showed me the old world school, because the original Ritz menu was hand-done in French every day. Tupper Saussy, author, playwright, songwriter, was co-owner.
“I worked in the kitchens and also in the front of the house, because I was more verbal than most cooks. I had a background in communications and debate team and other things. Going to college I was very shy, but it opened me up and liberated me, and I got involved in politics in the anti-war movement in 1970.
Rayburn says he loves the “focus on quality, innovative techniques and quality ingredients” from Nashville’s chefs, but suspects some “sleight of hand when it comes to farm-to-table.” -- Michelle Morrow | Nashville Ledger
“Anyway, that’s how I ended up in the restaurant business and decided that’s what I wanted to do for a living because it was fun, less stressful and I tell people I couldn’t pass up a bar to take the exam.’’
Q: Was there a moment when you were working in the restaurant and thought, ‘I’m going to be a restaurant owner’?
A: “There was a point when I left the Ritz…I’ve always been very bull-headed. I think I come by it very honestly from my grandmother and mother and father, but my grandmother raised me. I learned classical farm cooking from her at her knee.
“There was a moment when I realized I wasn’t in control of my own destiny and having degrees in political science and a minor in philosophy and having studied the various philosophies of the world of history, I read a lot of existentialism…I didn’t want anyone to be in control of my destiny other than myself.
“So I consciously decided to let other people pay for my post-graduate work in the restaurant industry. I worked for various corporate entities, T.G.I.Fridays and others…Wound up interviewing at Opryland to be a catering sales manager and was told I had no experience, but would I want to work there and rise up the ladder. So I went to work as an on-call banquet waiter and got married.
"Within six months, I became the assistant beverage manager and later on ran all the bars and restaurants at Opryland Hotel and ended up divorcing because I was too busy trying to make it and have a career. I was taking courses that they were paying for for me to become a hotel general manager.
“I wound up going to Hyde Park (Culinary Institute of America) and seeing what (president) Ferdinand Metz was trying to do by bringing professionalism to the American culinary culture –to institutionalize the quality and the educational programming not just at the school but in America in the guilds of chefs.
“I didn’t complete the program. I went up and ran out of money and came back with a five-year plan to open my own restaurant.’’
Q: How did you work out that plan to open a restaurant?
A: “Immediately I came back and went to work at Mario’s on West End as captain of waiters. I worked there that fall in 1984 until Mario fired me, because I could count. I knew I wasn’t receiving all my tips from the tip pool, and I was causing trouble. Mario and I maintained a good friendship to the end. He fired me, but they kept me for two weeks and didn’t tell him, because they needed me for Christmas.
“Then I did Tavern on the Row. That’s where I met [chef ] Anita Hartel. I ended up opening up Dunham Station in Belle Meade. Then I was hired by a Taiwanese heart surgeon in Manchester, Tenn., to take over operations of the Rock and Roll Hotel, Close Quarters.
“I opened up Third Coast (in 1985 where Bound’ry is today) and ended up bringing in Deborah Paquette to be executive chef. That’s kind of where I made my mark in Nashville and at Tavern on the Row, because I became the front guy. I’m a better producer and director. I think I’m a great kitchen manager, but I’m not the best chef in the world. I recognize talent and as a restaurateur have the skill sets to put the right teams together.
“I did 11 openings for other people.
“I wound up being the consultant for Mere Bulles downtown (and others). Then I was offered the opportunity to go into F. Scott’s on Bandywood drive then. They made me an offer to become a partner. I wound up buying what I thought was an interest in the restaurant, which subsequently we settled out of court.
Sunset Grill in Hillsboro Village is ending its lunch service Dec. 20. Expanding choices in other neighborhoods and worsening 21st Avenue traffic have combined to thin Sunset’s lunchtime crowd. -- Michelle Morrow | Nashville Ledger
“That was a real critical point in my life (in 1989). My fiancé broke up with me. I put myself into AA. I took stock of myself at age 39 and said ‘you’re about to be a grownup. What are you going to do what the rest of your life?’
“I ended up with an offer for a six-figure salary to run Moonbeams on Murfreesboro Road. I’d gone there as an interim situation. I turned 40, and that weekend, I went to a funeral of a girl I had dated. I thought about it, and the next day went in and gave my notice. That night the father of the owner offered me a $100,000-plus bonus to take over running the nightclub and restaurant. I knew I was being tempted, and I said no thank you.
“I went to my accountant Gary W. Smith. He said if you don’t believe in yourself no one else will. I sold my home and took my net proceeds and opened up Sunset Grill, which was Nashville Bicycle Shop, Nov. 18 (1990), and it worked out.’’
Q: What do you think about the food scene in Nashville now?
A: “What excites me is the proliferation of independent chefs being able to open their own entities and bring new dimensions of creativity to the marketplace, which has always been a third-tier hinterland in terms of the bigger picture.
“What excites me is the focus on quality, innovative techniques and quality ingredients, although I believe there’s a lot of sleight of hand when it comes to farm-to-table. Some people will find that the scarcity of ingredients and high cost is a challenge to have enough products on any given day to not have to go beyond the golden circle to put food on the table… I think the focus is great.
“I think that because of the relative low cost of entry of the restaurant industry, a lot of people have gone into it but will find that they’re probably undercapitalized for the dramatic increase in supply of restaurant seats over the last three years.
“By my own analysis, there’s probably been an average of one full-service restaurant with liquor, beer and wine licensing added per week over the last three years. And in 2012, Tennessee had the highest percentage increase of restaurant licenses in the United States at 9 percent. I’m saying that a lot of that is in Middle Tennessee. I think you’ll see a shakeout over this next summer of those marginal businesses.’’
Q: So tell us about the changes you’re making this month.
A: “In this business, it comes down to each store is a mom and pop, and who’s minding the shop?
“Richard Melman is my hero with Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises in Chicago. Richard’s guiding philosophy is you have to have the hands-on operator on site managing the day-to-day operations, and you can’t do another restaurant until you have your new operating partner vetted for experience and knowledge and detail.
“I will handle the marketing and business operations and (longtime chef and now partner) Chris Cunningham will handle the day-to-day operations with the team [at Sunset]. This is his opportunity like Craig and Brian (at Cabana who have 20 percent in that business) to grow and evolve.
“I will run Midtown Cafe. I have a team of people there (some of them with 18 years, 12 years, 15 years) where I’m the maitre d there at lunch. It will have some of the signature dishes of Sunset Grill at lunch like the Sonoma Salad or Voodoo Pasta or Beets and Heat.
“In transitioning, you can’t throw out what your regulars love. It’s alright to mix in new, creative inspirations, but if you don’t have the hits that made you successful, the people who come for those dishes time after time don’t come back.
"Since 2008 dinner has subsidized lunch [at Sunset]. The drop in traffic counts, and people’s behavior has changed with more brown bagging and skipping iced tea or coffee or soda for water and scaling down. In 2007, we had our best year ever when Sunset had $4.25 million in sales, lunch accounted for a little bit less than 11 percent of our annualized net revenues.
“Today with sales lower than that, lunch and sales are less than 9 percent. Any business that doesn’t evolve is doomed to failure.
“Demographics have changed, travel time from other parts of Nashville to Hillsboro Village has changed dramatically. People don’t leave from state offices to come to Sunset for lunch anymore because now there are a dozen more restaurants within a one-mile radius. I call it the localization and neighborhoodization of the restaurant community.
“People from Brentwood or Cool Springs don’t have to come into Nashville anymore for lunch or dinner or even on the weekends. There are now almost 300 food service entities that used to be a cow pasture.’’
Q: What do you consider to be Nashville’s cuisine?
A: “I’ve always considered in my adult lifetime the indigenous cuisine of Nashville to be the meat and three. Part of that is because we didn’t have liquor by the drink until it passed in 1968.
“The advent of liquor by the drink made it possible for hotels and food service restaurants to evolve. Part of the indigenous Southern cuisine is (people like chef and caterer) Phila Hach. To me, she is the essence of cooking in Middle Tennessee and cooking with what you had available – cuisine from the terroir.’’