The Real Dish

Veteran restaurateurs share the good, the bad, and the ugly about the business they love.



George Falls, Paulette's

“You’ve gotta have a big hole in your head to want to run a restaurant!"

As a small boy growing up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, he felt the thrill of riding to Memphis with his parents and dining at eateries that ranged from those at The Peabody to a sandwich shop in a downtown building. “Dining out in the big city was exciting and glamorous,” says George Falls. “You get stars in your eyes about things like that. I think owning a restaurant is a calling, something you can’t get away from. It has been for me.” Then he laughs, “You’ve gotta have a big hole in your head to want to run a restaurant!”

Falls was employed by Holiday Inns, in franchise and site approval, when he and two partners bought Paulette’s. In 1984, he bade farewell to a 24-year career with the hotel giant, bought out his Paulette’s partners, and has run the popular fine-dining restaurant ever since. “I used to tell people who were buying franchises, ‘You’ll make money from the bar and from selling rooms. But you won’t make much in the restaurants.’ And here I am in the restaurant part of it. I remember writing myself my first little check as income.”George Falls

Located for nearly four decades in Overton Square, Paulette’s moved to the River Inn at Harbor Town in early 2011. Providing strong support to Falls through the years have been Don Eschelweck, chief operating officer, and, more recently, Karl Friedrich, general manager. Of his own role as founder, proprietor, and member of the management committee, Falls says, “I’m like the guy who owns the ball team. You can’t take your hands off the steering wheel, especially with guiding people. After all, we’re in the people and personnel business. Take the guy who wins the barbecue contest. He might be a great cook and friends will say, ‘Why don’t you start your own place?’ It takes a lot more than being a good cook or chef to run a restaurant. Unless you’re a good business and personnel manager, you aren’t going to make it. And you’ve got to have people you can trust.”

To form the right team, he adds, a restaurant owner may have to go through 10 servers or cooks. Though Falls interviews every applicant, his approach has changed through the years. “I used to sit down and talk to the person and I’d think, ‘I’m not sure about this one, maybe if I talk a little longer, I’ll like them better.’ Then I realized how dumb that is. The guest won’t wait that long to make a decision. If [the waiter] doesn’t make a good first impression, he’s not going to make it in the hospitality business. How they look, dress, smile, communicate, and especially their attitude are all so important. And you’ve really got to like the business. For some people, working for a restaurant is a fall-back plan. They couldn’t make it somewhere else so they start cooking. But it’s got to be something you like to do and feel good about.”

Paulette’s is a “recipe-driven” restaurant, with many recipes torn from such magazines as Bon Appetit or other publications Falls picks up here and there. The recipe for strawberry butter — which accompanies the restaurant’s legendary popovers — came from a Martha Stewart book he discovered at a friend’s house 25 years ago. “I think people would be surprised at how simple some recipes are,” he says. “For instance, that one calls for a cup of strawberry preserves and a pound of butter. Another example is our signature item, Filet Paulette. I got that recipe from a restaurant in Baton Rouge 30 years ago. I just tried it as a special, and people liked it. It’s probably the best decision we made from a menu standpoint.” And what makes it special? The butter-pepper cream sauce with a Cajun flavor. 

In addition to simplicity, Falls stresses consistency. “It’s imperative that the recipe is followed exactly every time,” says Falls. “That involves training and cross-training and teamwork. The woman cooking lunch today has been doing that for 30 years, and on the two days she’s not here, another employee can step in and handle that job. That gives you a comfort level when you know you’ve got personnel like that.” 

When it comes to menu planning and adjustments, Falls says, “We’ve tried things that didn’t work — and a lot that have. Over the years, palates and eating habits change. People started watching their weight and health, and we started offering more fish. We have good fin-fish items in addition to scallops and shrimps. Grouper’s always big because people enjoy it when they go to Destin. The same is true for New Orleans-type dishes.” 

Sometimes a menu item can be almost too popular, like the strawberry butter. “We’ve got so many great desserts here, but some people will say, ‘I’ve had too many popovers with the strawberry butter. I can’t eat dessert!’” Still, he says of the butter decision, “I’d do it again. People love it.”

While diners may flock to Paulette’s for the food, they also enjoy its ambience. “I’m sort of a nut on that,” Falls smiles, “especially the lighting. We have all our light-dimmers marked so that anyone can set them for the perfect dining atmosphere. I can usually tell if they’re ‘off’ even an eighth of an inch. At the old Paulette’s we used 27 different types of light bulbs and I think we have about that many here. One portrait light needed a seven-watt bulb. Any more light ruined the ambience for the table under it.”

He urges people to let the staff know when something is amiss: “Say the popovers aren’t hot enough or the texture is wrong. People will say they hate to complain, they don’t want someone to lose their job over it. But an employee has to mess up a lot of things before that would happen. So let us know if there’s a problem.”

Looking back at the move that took place last March, Falls says several factors played a role. Although business at the old site was stable, the building needed constant maintenance and lease renegotiations with the landlord had stalled. “Still,” he says, “a change can be scary. So when Lewis Holland, principal owner here at River Inn, said, ‘Let’s move Paulette’s downtown,’ that blew me away. I went home and told my wife and it blew her away too. Meanwhile, rumors were flying that we were closing.” 

Instead, business has exceeded Falls’ expectations. “I’ve been stunned,” he says. “Guests have driven the extra miles and when they get here they like what they see. Folks will come, sit in the lobby, have a cocktail or glass of wine, listen to the piano, go up on the roof on a pleasant evening. Our dream is, make this your new dining room, feel at home here. That’s what we hope to see.”

 

John Vergos, Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous

“A typical Saturday can bring in 3,000 people. That’ll keep you moving.”

John Vergos practiced law for 13 years until he decided to make a change. “There are plenty of lawyers and only one Rendezvous,” he says of the restaurant founded by his father in 1948 that Vergos now runs alongside his brother, Nick, and their sister, Tina Jennings. “This was hardly a new venture,” he adds, “because I worked for restaurants between college and law school and waited tables here, too. I always had a nose in this place.”

And it’s a great place to have a nose, as the scent of barbecue drifts — like its reputation — from its downtown alley location and attracts not just locals but people from all over the world. “It’s shocking how many people know about the Rendezvous. I bump into them everywhere.” He tells of going to an inn in Maine, where the owner, when he learned that Vergos came from Memphis, jokingly asked if he had any Rendezvous ribs. “I told him, ‘You’re going to be really surprised when I tell you this, but I am the Rendezvous ribs.’”

He’s also had representatives from food and travel channel shows come to eat at the restaurant. “They’ll recognize me [from having been on their show] and say, ‘You really are here.’” I tell them I’m always here; it’s the John Vergos - photograph by Brandon Dillonly way to run a restaurant.”

Running one like the Rendezvous — which is located in a two-level building where “everything that goes down has to come back up, whether it’s customers, products, or trash,” says Vergos — is physically demanding. “Plus, we seat over 700,” says Vergos, “and a typical Saturday can bring in 3,000 people. That keeps you moving.”

Bearing such steady traffic, the 140-year-old building takes a beating. To keep it in working order, each year Vergos closes the restaurant for a week to 10 days after the Liberty Bowl game to make major repairs. “We’ve rebuilt the bars and the pits,” says Vergos, “and dug up tile for new sewer lines. It’s always something.”

In addition to ongoing maintenance are the issues that come with any small business, one of which is buying product at reasonable price. “Fifteen years ago we had probably eight to ten companies selling us ribs of the quality we like. Now we have two,” says Vergos. That reduction is a result of mergers in the food industry, he explains, and it leads to less variety and higher costs. “You have to buy right. The market will only sustain a certain price in Memphis. The fewer places you have to purchase your food, the more difficult it is to keep your food costs down.” 

Like Falls of Paulette’s, Vergos says cooking knowledge takes a backseat to business acumen. “You must have a product,” he says, “and know how to serve that product profitably. At the end of the night you need to know you’ve either sold everything you’ve bought for that day or you have a good means of reusing it. It takes all your business knowledge to run a restaurant.”

Vergos credits his staff for the Rendezvous’ staying power: “We have very loyal employees. Any success we have is due in great measure to them. My father and I agreed the best investment we can make is in our employees. They receive three weeks' paid vacation and paid health insurance. We try to make it a career for them.”

Family members have also agreed on staying downtown. “We’ve had opportunities to have franchises out toward Ridgeway and in other cities, but I think it would have been terrible for the Rendezvous,” says Vergos, adding that he and his siblings are committed to downtown and to the city. “This may sound corny,” he says, “but Memphis has been really good to my family. And it’s no secret the Rendezvous has become something of an institution. [Relocating it] would make it lose some of its special quality.” 

When it comes to new ideas, Vergos believes in listening to the opinions of his children. “With my own father, it was his way or the highway,” the 63-year-old recalls. “But I’ve learned a lot from my kids. My daughters used to tend bar here and they’d tell me we need a local beer. They were right, and now we offer Ghost River.” The children also suggested placing wax paper in the bottom of the plastic bread baskets. “That makes them much easier to wash and dry,” says Vergos. “It was simple and I was so stupid not to think of it myself.” Also, at the urging of his daughter, Katherine — who spent three years designing children’s clothes in New York for Ralph Lauren till she decided to come back to Memphis and the Rendezvous — the restaurant has become Project Greenfork-certified and environmentally conscious.

Speaking of generational changes, Vergos says that even though his father, who died in 2009, had not been active in the business for more than a decade, people still comment that “the kids can’t run it as well as Charlie did.”

“With all due respect, I think we do a very good job of running it. What’s difficult for me is that my father started it and built it to a certain level so, number one, we work hard not to let it go down; and two, we make it grow better and in step with the times, not let it become an anachronism. There’s a fine line between preserving what’s good, and thinking of ways to expand. I think we’re doing that with such products as the Greek salad, and adding wine and a local beer.”

As with any business, a restaurant can have nights when anything that can go wrong will. “It’s uncanny how everything can happen at 7 o’clock on a Saturday night,” says Vergos. “You run out of American Express slips. An elevator breaks down. The air conditioning fails. They forget to pick up the garbage. The computers crash. You run out of ice. The business has a way of popping a new one on you. You just have to be prepared, keep building on your body of knowledge.”

Even after the hardest day at the Rendezvous, Vergos feels a solid sense of accomplishment. “I came from practicing law, where cases get appealed and re-appealed and you keep working them all the time,” he says. “Here, it’s simple: You buy something, cook it, serve it, and at the end of the day, you’ve done what you intended to. Things may get a little crazy, but then it’s over, and hopefully people walked out satisfied. That’s a good feeling.”

 

Erling & Patti Jensen, Erling Jensen’s

“You have to keep setting standards higher.”

Ask Erling Jensen what you need to succeed in running a restaurant, he doesn’t hesitate: “Drive. And for the first five to eight years, forget about getting any sleep. Nothing can wait till tomorrow. There’s a lot of luck in it too, but if you really want to make it, you need that drive and commitment.”

A Denmark native who came to the U.S. in 1983 to work in Florida, he snagged a job in Memphis in 1989 after seeing an ad in The New York Times for an executive chef at La Tourelle (now the location of Restaurant Iris). “I talked to [owner] Glenn Hays and he hired me on the phone.”

Erling and Patti Jensen - photograph by Justin Fox BurksSeven years later, after meeting a lot of people who urged him to strike out on his own, Jensen decided to take the plunge. Since 1996, Erling Jensen’s restaurant has been the hallmark of fine dining in Memphis.

Working closely with him is wife Patti Jensen, who got her own restaurant training under George Falls of Paulette’s. Today she keeps a finger on the pulse of food consistency and service. “I listen to customers and I read online reviews,” she says, “People demand consistency. If they ordered a dish two months ago, they expect it to taste the same the next time they come.” They also demand good service, and to some extent Erling Jensen’s has been fortunate in keeping dependable employees. 

“We have two servers who started out with us, and other employees who have been with us awhile,” says Patti. “Some left and started their own [fine-dining] restaurants, including John Bragg of Circa, and Karen Roth of Alchemy.” 

But others leave the restaurant business for less positive reasons. “We’re dealing with a younger generation and it’s an issue of maturity,” says Patti. “This is a nighttime business, so when they get off work at 10:30 or 11 p.m., they go out for the nightlife. And they all look up to Erling as a father figure, and that can put him in a difficult situation.”

It’s also tough when the kitchen crew is “missing some beats,” says Erling. “Say we’ve had a long week and here it is Saturday night and we’re really busy, and we can’t get food out of the kitchen. I’ve got to motivate the staff to catch their second wind.” Meanwhile, his wife is in the dining room trying to soothe customers who’re saying, ‘Okay, Patti, what is going on?'” 

Personnel glitches can slow the flow of everything from food to communication. “It starts with the lead kitchen chef right under Erling,” says Patti. “If he or she’s not doing his job, that carries to the dining room and can become a huge mess. Dealing with personalities is lots harder than planning the food or deciding what hours you’ll be open. It’s about people — whether you have to let somebody go, or you have to make that call to a customer and apologize for bad service or a missed reservation.”

Erling believes incidents like these — painful as they may be — help keep restaurant owners on their toes. “If you don’t think about things like that, your standards aren’t high enough. If you think, ‘Ah, that’s okay, no big deal,’ that’s not good. You have to care and keep setting standards higher. You can never be good enough.”

Because a first-rate restaurateur with a solid staff can make the business look easy, people may not realize the time and effort it takes. It starts when Erling rises and starts planning for the fresh fish or meat to be delivered, or begins working on the sauce the restaurant will serve the next day. “You can never stop preparing, planning, coaching, motivating,” he says. 

Restaurateurs must also make decisions to keep up with the competition. The Jensens did just that in 2011, when they added the bar toward the front of the restaurant. “That was the best decision we’ve made,” says Erling. “The worst was waiting to do it.” Several factors prompted them to move ahead with the renovation. “I had customers saying, ‘You build a bar and I’ll be in here a lot more.’ Also, you go somewhere and see your customer sitting at that bar, you know you need to keep up. I’ve never really been a bar guy, so I’m still in the learning process. But I understand that a lot of people prefer the bar atmosphere over the dining room.”

Despite the long hours, personnel turnover, and keeping an edge on competition — as well as unforeseen events such as a spring storm that knocked out power on a night with a full house and a special party of 20 — Erling says, “I like this business. I love it. And the minute I don’t like it, I’m not going to do it anymore.” 

Though not surprised at the restaurant’s continued success, even in a struggling economy, Erling says he’s gratified at how it has thrived. On evenings when time allows, he leaves the kitchen and mingles in the dining room with guests, some of whom he’s known since he first arrived in Memphis.

Many longtime customers have become good friends, says Patti. “And it’s odd. You wouldn’t believe how many times I will have someone on my mind, and that night they’ll come in to eat. I try really hard to keep up with people, and know what’s going on in their lives. They’re special.” 

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