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Bringing them to the table

Small Business of the Year Runner-up

SOMETHING CLASSIC CATERING &
CAFES INC.
Headquarters: Charlotte President Jill Marcus Employees: 69 full time, 112 part time Founded: 1989 Projected 2011 revenue: $5.8 million Business: Catering and restaurant

 

Jill Marcus and Karen Teed juggled day jobs with cooking at night to get Something Classic Catering & Cafes Inc. going. In 2000, after working out of sometimes rented — and always cramped — spaces for 11 years, they borrowed $250,000. “We took a giant leap of faith and opened an 8,000-square-foot kitchen,” Marcus, 45, says. “We hocked our houses and our firstborn children.”

Their bet paid off. In the midst of the worst economic downturn in decades, Something Classic’s co-owners have parlayed their after-hours passion into a company that combines catering some of Charlotte’s highest-profile events with opening eight eateries around the city. “Something Classic has not only survived the recession but actually come out of it in a far stronger place,” says Mary Cantando, a Raleigh management consultant. “Jill is never afraid to follow her instinct, and it seems to never have led her astray.”

Almost every move they have made has been a response to an opportunity, not the next step in a business plan. Seeing opportunities, they’ve seized them. Starting off catering weddings and small private dinner parties, they would eventually work their way up to prestigious clients such as Neiman Marcus, Bank of America and Levine Children’s Hospital. But the seasonality of catering makes for precarious finances. Before becoming restaurateurs, they consistently made money only seven months of the year and couldn’t keep good people. So, in 1991, they added sit-down service and take-home meals to their offerings in hopes of evening out cash flow.

Their first cafe was little more than a storefront. In 2001, they moved to a bigger space in the upscale Myers Park neighborhood but still focused on selling take-home meals. The fare? “Gourmet TV dinners,” Marcus quips. Think uppity comfort food such as tarragon chicken and mac and cheese (the cheese being Emmental). Their target customers: “People who don’t cook.” Marcus says. “Thank goodness.”

In 2002, they opened their first real restaurant, a cafe in the Mint’s former Craft + Design Museum location downtown. In 2009, they followed up with another museum outlet — Community Cafe at Discovery Place, Charlotte’s science museum for children. There, organic peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat came with tips on eating healthy food and saving the planet.

A few years earlier, they had bid on their biggest project yet — a cafe just off the entrance of the Mint’s new downtown location — which had been met with three years of silence from the museum’s board. Then they heard that the museum was considering a bid for a full-service bistro from another company. “I said, ‘Well, I can do that,’” Marcus recalls. “There are a lot of people who don’t know what they’re doing operating full-service restaurants.” So she bid for the bistro. But the economic crisis hit, making financing impossible. “No bank was going to give us money for a new restaurant. It was laughable.” They withdrew the bid. In the spring of 2010, Phil Kline, then the Mint’s executive director, told her the museum had come up with a 10-year interest-free loan of $200,000 and a construction allowance.

The bistro — Halcyon, Flavors from the Earth — opened to raves in late 2010. “A modern dining experience unlike anything else offered uptown,” Charlotte magazine said. Despite the economic slowdown, Something Classic broke even in 2010. This year, sales were up 57% through July, with a profit of $200,000. In October, Teed and Marcus opened a place in Charlotte-Douglas International Airport and another — Fern, Flavors from the Garden, a full-service vegetarian restaurant — in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood.

If there has been a constant in their business, it hasn’t been cuisine but confidence — the confidence to expand into new niches and grow in the face of tough times. “The money always comes,” Marcus says. “You’ve got to believe that the money will always come if you really believe in your project.”

— David Bailey