Lawrence restaurants beat industry odds

Longtime owners create recipe for success

Sunday, October 19, 2003

Fast and hot.

That is how Duane Buck says Bucky's Drive In has survived in the Lawrence restaurant industry for 42 years.

"The key is just giving people what they want, and around here, that's fast service and hot hamburgers," said Buck, owner of the restaurant since 1966.

Figuring out how to survive in the restaurant business can be daunting. The industry generally sees 80 to 90 percent of new restaurants close within a year.

Several independent Lawrence restaurants have figured out how to survive for decades. Owners of longtime Lawrence restaurants agreed quality food provided a good start, but only part of what it takes to survive.

Like milking a cow

Most said the key to making it in the restaurant business wasn't figuring out how to fry the perfect hamburger or create delectable desserts. They said it was about producing a quality product day after day after day.

"Lots of people think they have a good fried chicken recipe or think they make a really good hamburger, and they do," Buck said. "But the problem is that they don't think it through that people eat three times a day, seven days a week. They just get burnt out.

"But I always figured that unless you are born rich, you've got to work hard at something. I work hard at the restaurant business."


Mike Yoder/Journal-World Photo

Duane Buck, owner of Bucky's Drive-In, has put the 42-year-old business up for sale. Buck took over the business in 1966 when it was Sandy's Drive-In, as seen in photograph. It became Bucky's in 1975.

Gary Bartz, owner of 38-year-old Don's Steak House, 2176 E. 23rd St., said there was one other industry that he thought was comparable to the restaurant business.

"I think it is kind of like the dairy business, except you put in more hours," Bartz said. "But you have to milk the cow everyday. There is something that has to be done at Don's Steak House everyday of the year, and that means Thanksgiving and Christmas too. You have to like hard work and long hours."

But the industry has a steady stream of newcomers. An analysis last year of old phone books by the Journal-World showed that the number of Lawrence restaurants had nearly tripled during the past 30 years.

Chuck Magerl, owner and founder of the 14-year-old Free State Brewing Co., said that was because the business was relatively easy to get into. After all, there's usually always an empty restaurant space somewhere in town, and a quick look of the classified pages normally will turn up at least one auction of restaurant equipment per month.

"You would think there would be some warning flags about why you're able to get into this business so cheap," Magerl said. "People don't always understand that they're getting this equipment so cheap because somebody is selling his dream for pennies on the dollar.

"It's not that hard to get into the restaurant business, but it is extremely difficult to sustain."

Getting along

It may be the ultimate people business, too. Magerl said he once figured that at Free State, 636 Mass., he or his staff were interacting with a customer every seven seconds that the business was open.

But getting to know your customers may be the best business strategy in the industry.


Scott McClurg/Journal-World Photo

Gary Bartz is owner of Don's Steak House, 2176 E. 23rd St., which has been open for 38 years. Bartz said Thursday that the key to his success has been hard work, long hours and knowing what customers want.

Jim Wong, owner of the 29-year-old Royal Peking Restaurant, 711 W. 23rd St., attributed knowledge of his customers as the primary reason the Chinese restaurant had found success.

"Our customers are our friends and they support us year after year like friends do," Wong said. "They know us well and we know them well. We know what they like. We know who likes extra sauce and who doesn't. You have to do it that way because there are so many restaurants to choose from in this town."

At Bucky's, 2120 W. Ninth St., Buck learned long ago that his customers like it simple. He once tried adding a Reuben sandwich to the menu but quickly removed it after many customers asked what it was and then turned up their noses after learning it had cabbage on it.

But sometimes restaurant owners have to know when change is needed.

Bartz said when he bought Don's Steak House in 1990, it was failing largely because it hadn't changed in years.

"We didn't have any menu items for the light eater, but there was a demand for that," Bartz said. "Not everybody in the family is a big eater anymore. Dad wants the steak and potatoes, but mom wants a grilled chicken breast. You have to stay on top of that."

Financial figuring

The biggest lesson new restaurant owners have to learn, industry veterans said, was that they own a restaurant, not a cash cow.

The two years following 9-11 have done an excellent job of proving that point, Bartz said. He said the week after 9-11 was the slowest for the restaurant. He said business was still off.

He estimated Lawrence restaurants have probably seen a decline of about 30 percent in business, although most owners were hesitant to talk about sales totals.

"I think the restaurant business has suffered more than a lot of businesses because eating out is an easy thing for people to cut out of their budget," Bartz said. "It is easier to make your budget balance by cutting us out. That's why we feel like we're just in a time where we are trying to make ends meet."

Even during the best of times, the restaurant business is a tight one. According to figures from the National Restaurant Assn., the average profit margin for a sit-down restaurant is 4 percent, and a bit higher for fast-food establishments.

"A lot of people really think you are getting rich in this business," Buck said. "But if it costs me 50 cents to make a product, I'll probably only be able to sell it for $1.50, and I'll be lucky if I can keep 10 cents of that."

Magerl explains it in a slightly different way to people who are thinking about getting into the industry.

"I tell people if we do everything right for the first 29 days of the month, then on the last day of the month, that is what we have left over to play with," Magerl said. "When they learn that, it becomes a daunting prospect for most people."