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August 2001
Recipe for Success
By Casey Jacobus
      Itís not uncommon for an actor to support himself waiting tables anticipating the "big break" but, for Tom Sasser, now president of Harperís Restaurants, Inc., the golden opportunity came from the restaurant, not the stage.
     Sasser, a native of Reidsville, N.C., graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1979. He decided to take his theater degree to the big city - Atlanta - where he worked in a friendís bar and restaurant while nurturing his acting career. Before long, he was working his way up at Houstonís, a rapidly growing national chain, and he soon realized his future lay in the restaurant business rather than the world of entertainment.
     "I spent seven years with Houstonís in five or six cities," says Sasser. "I opened two new stores and got an underlying grasp of the business. I realized I knew how to do this and I liked it."
     Having gained knowledge from experience and confidence in his abilities, Sasser conceived of an idea for an innovative restaurant. A restaurant that catered to all customers. A restaurant that was affordable, but a cut above the competition. A restaurant thatís number one priority was to provide total satisfaction in addition to serving the very best food and drink. A restaurant that provided an environment in which management and staff could work as a team.
Sasser reconnected with a childhood friend of his from Morganton, N.C., John Collett, who shared his ideas and had a commercial real estate business in Charlotte, Collett and Associates. Together, they decided to open a restaurant and, after careful research, chose Charlotte as the best location. Ideas rapidly became reality and Collettís brother Robert and two other Morganton friends, Bill Branstrom and Hugh Bigham, soon joined them in forming Harperís Restaurants, Inc.
      The name for "Harperís" came to Sasser when he saw the word painted on an old sign on the side of a building along a highway. He stopped at the next phone booth to call Collett and say heíd found the name for their new restaurant. 
       "It fit," says Sasser. "It has two syllables, itís very American-sounding, and it has positive connotations."  (Harper also happens to be Sasserís middle name, a well-kept secret he didnít share with his partners until after they had approved the choice.)
When they decided to open their first Harperís on Woodlawn Road, the partners borrowed enough money to buy more land than they needed. They wanted Harperís to be the anchor of a small shopping center. When they went to Bank of America to borrow the money, officials asked Sasser about his plans if the restaurant failed. Sasser assured them that failing wasnít a possibility.
       "I was very confident," he said. "Failing wasnít part of the program."
Sasser then brought his sister on board, Sarah Sasser Williams, as corporate chef. Her formal training at a LíAcademie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Md., and practical experience in the industry enabled her to research and refine Harperís recipes. Sasser put the same amount of research into the design of the restaurant. The exterior and interior of the stores contain elements from as far away as Wales and as nearby as downtown Columbia or Charlotte.
      The months of planning and countless hours of hard work paid off almost immediately as Harperís opened for business on December 18, 1987. The success of the inaugural Harperís far exceeded the expectations of all those involved and, in just over one year, Harperís recouped its opening expenses and became a profit-generating operation.
As the saying goes, success breeds success, and on November 4, 1990, the second Harperís officially opened for business in the five points area of Columbia, S.C. However, Sasser still saw potential in the Charlotte market where Harperís had grown strong roots, and on September 6, 1992, Harperís opened a second restaurant in Charlotte, bringing the total to three. The following year in April of 1993, the fourth Harperís was opened in Greensboro, N.C.
     Harperís fifth restaurant, a new upscale concept named "Mimosa Grill", was opened in April 1995 in uptown Charlotte. The restaurant is based on the same standards which had made Harperís successful; however, the menu and atmosphere are tailored to the more sophisticated Uptown clientele.
     Harperís took its first step out of the Carolinas with the opening of the sixth store in Louisville, K.Y., December 13, 1995, affirming the partnersí belief in their recipe for success beyond regional boundaries.
     In 1999, Harper's expanded it's presence in the food service industry by opening "Harper's To Go Go," a take-out facility offering numerous well-known Harper's favorites and new products for home enjoyment.
     Last year, in September 2000, Harperís opened its newest and most upscale concept restaurant, Upstream, in Phillips Place. And most recently, Harperís acquired an interest in Louisís Restaurant in Charleston, S.C.

A Different Recipe
     In 1987, when Sasser and his partners opened the original Harperís, the restaurant scene in Charlotte was quite different than it is today. There were fewer restaurants that offered consistently good food and good service.
     "Our plan was to make Harperís an honest restaurant," says Sasser. "We wanted to create a comfortable, warm atmosphere and serve a hand made product, built from the best and freshest of ingredients, and we wanted to sell it for a fair price."
     Itís a plan that Sasser adheres to today throughout his restaurant empire of five Harperís, Mimosa Grill, Upstream, and Harperís To Go Go. Every day, each storeís manager holds a lineup before the dinner hour and reminds the wait staff how important service is to the customerís dining experience.
     "Itís like preparing for a play and going out on stage," says Sasser. "The staff needs to learn their lines and know their food before they go out there and perform."
There are training programs for every position at the restaurants and staffs are frequently rotated from one restaurant to another. There are also time standards to uphold. Waiters are at the table within 45 seconds of the time diners sit down. Drinks arrive within two minutes of the order.
     "A lot of people canít tell what it is they like about a restaurant," says Sasser, "but it usually comes down to good service and good, consistent food. We want our service to say ĎI care.í We want to be hospitable."
      Sasser grew up in a home where bread was freshly baked and good food was a daily event. He says his mother was a great cook who especially understood local produce and how to use it.
     "I grew up liking broccoli, butter beans, and other vegetables," says Sasser. "My mother has a touch for cooking, like a green thumb in gardening." Fortunately, Sasserís sister Sarah inherited their motherís talent.
     Another of Sasserís successes was his selection of Tom Condron, whom he recruited in 1997 to become executive chef of Mimosa Grill. Condron had had his own measure of successes, studying under no less than eight Michelin three-starred chefs, armed with a culinary arts degree from Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, S.C., and being the opening chef at the Blue Ridge Grill in Atlanta (which was named Best New Restaurant by Atlanta magazine in 1995).
     Sasser charged Condron with turning up the volume on sophistication, transforming the meat-and-potatoes menu at Mimosa Grill into an upscale Southern regional ideal that includes plenty of seafood. During his tenure, Condron has created a showcase of signature dishes, believing in the sales-building power of daringly prepared seafood. At Mimosa Grill, he has increased seafood sales 20 percentage points, to 60 percent of the total mix, obviously converting his clientele to his new way of dining.
     In 1999, just two years later, Sasser increased Condronís responsibilities to include conceptualizing the menu and finding good food sources for Harperís other five restaurants as well. And in the fall of last year, Condron became executive chef at Upstream as well. Upstreamís menu is approximately 85 percent seafood. The restaurant's name was coined from "the thought ... that whatever happens at the beginning of the stream is the freshest and the cleanest," Sasser says. "It's a good little metaphor for what we are trying to do here." 
     Sasser stays as involved with the food at his restaurants as he does with keeping the service efficient. "I read cook books like other people read novels," he says. "I like everything on the menu, if I donít like something, I take it off."
     While items are added and subtracted from the Harperís menus every quarter, Sasser says the best seller at both the Fairview and Woodlawn stores is one which no longer appears on the menu. Over 200 "fried chicken tenders" are served at the Fairview outlet every week and almost as many at the Woodlawn location. 
     Getting the freshest ingredients is also important to Sasser. This summer a local farmer meets the chefs from all the Harperís restaurants at the parking lot of the Go Go every Wednesday morning with a selection of homegrown tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, and red and green peppers.

Still a Challenge
     While "making it" in the theater world is tough, Sasser says success in the restaurant business may be just as difficult to achieve. New restaurants open almost every day and Charlotteans tend to flock to the latest "hot spot." Staying contemporary is difficult in this competitive business.
     "Itís a hard business," he says. "You can lose more money faster in the restaurant business than at any other except perhaps a dot.com. Iíve put in a lot of sleepless nights. In the restaurant business, youíre reinventing things all the time."
     Sasser says heís still trying to figure out Harpers To Go Go, even though itís in its second year of operation. Designed for the diner in a hurry, Go Go offers a good meal to take home and eat right away or to wait and reheat. There is no kitchen in the 1,000-square-foot store, so it uses the Harperís at Fairview kitchen.
     "Itís a fun and interesting challenge," says Sasser. "Weíve flipped the concept upside down three or four times."            
     Restaurant owners must also pay careful attention to state health standards. Periodic inspections rank restaurants on a scale of 1 to 100, with points deducted for a wide range of defects from faulty equipment to dirty rest rooms. No owner wants a score of less than 90, yet Sasser says the regulations are so stringent that any restaurant in Charlotte could be shut down on any given day.
     "It could happen to anybody," he says. "The book is huge. Still, we try to welcome the inspectors and to treat them well. If the restaurant is clean, I believe the food tastes better."
Sasser is disappointed in the defeat of the uptown arena referendum and concerned about the economic slowdown in the economy, but not overly so. He hopes the city will figure out another way to get the arena built, but believes that Mimosa Grill is in such a good location that it will not suffer even if the arena never happens. And, while he admits that Harperís is feeling the slowdown with a few stores flat from last year and others even down, he remains optimistic about the future.
     "I see it as an opportunity, a chance to learn," says Sasser. "We have to find ways to make the staff more efficient, to waste less, to manage better, if weíre going to do better this year than last year." 
     Sasser believes it takes a certain type of manager to succeed in the restaurant business. Not only is it a time intensive business, it is repetitive.
     "What we do every day is the sum total of 1,000 details," he says. However, Sasser has no plans to retire from the business anytime soon. "Iíll do it forever," he says.
Sasser says he has at least two more restaurant concepts to try out in Charlotte. And, he hopes to expand the Harperís concept to the north side of Charlotte and to other cities, possibly Raleigh. The partners have recently acquired an interest in Chef Louis Osteenís restaurant (Louisís Restaurant) in Charleston; further developments remain to unfold.
    "Weíve become multiconceptual," Sasser says. "And, weíll probably open another store every year or two for awhile."
     Married, with two children Ė Miles, age 11, and Holden, age 7 , two horses, a dog and a cat, Sasser often takes his work home. He is the cook in the house and experiments at home with dishes that might make it to the restaurant menu. His family appears to approve. Daughter Miles is planning her eleventh birthday party. What she wants is a limousine to take her and three friends to Mimosa Grill for dinner.

 

 

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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