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Bacon Strip owner apologizes, talks about what he learned from first year

The Bacon Strip opened in Elkhart with a funky name and concept.

Lots of bacon. In the morning. And late at night.

The opening of Jason and Raquel Curtis’s second restaurant in the building at 561 E. Jackson Boulevard, Elkhart, didn’t go as they planned. A year later, they’ve adjusted and shown how to stay in business, how to adjust.

The restaurant business is tough.

A lot of businesses are. I’m not going to say the restaurant business is any more difficult, but I know this: A restaurant’s success depends on its ability to make food consistently, serve it nearly immediately and make the customer happy. Time and time again.

You make a recreational vehicle with fiberglass, wood, screws and glue. That vehicle can sit on a lot until it’s sold.

When a restaurant opens, it’s a huge challenge to pull together the food preparation, service and atmosphere into something that will make a customer happy. That’s why I usually wait to go to a restaurant until it’s been open 30 days.

A new restaurant needs customers, but customers who will be a bit forgiving of missteps. If you go to a restaurant in its early days, you are a bit of a guinea pig and guinea pigs don’t always eat as well as humans would like to.

I hear stories about restaurant openings. The anticipation of Sauk Trail on 17 overwhelmed the place when it opened and the first couple of months were brutal. Noodle Heads’ opening day brought a line of customers and the owners’ decision to close immediately to make changes in the kitchen.

Opening a restaurant takes money along with hard work. Many owners take longer to open than they’d hope. Some close within a few months when customers aren’t coming as expected.

Which is part of what makes the story of Jason Curtis and The Bacon Strip different.

Jason and Raquel Curtis took over Five Star Dive Bar and it became a hit.

The place was packed on weekends. They were making money. Customers became regulars.

When Boardwalk Cafe closed at the other end of the small strip mall Five Star is in, they decided to take it over, remodel it and open it as a breakfast place. It would be open as a cafe, but also late at night — or early in the morning, depending how you look at it — to feed Five Star customers.

I didn’t hear horror stories about The Bacon Strip. I ate there a couple of times and thought it was decent. A couple months ago, Curtis asked if I’d give it a second chance. I had never written it off, literally or figuratively.

But then Curtis published a blog post called, “Confessions of a Restaurant Owner,” in which he outlined what went wrong and apologizes in the first year of The Bacon Strip.

“You see, we learned how to operate a restaurant, while operating a restaurant,” he wrote. “Sometimes I think we were more ambitious than smart. Whatever the case may be we messed up a bit more than we thought we might. We learned that our equipment wasn’t right, our employee training wasn’t thorough enough and sometimes we just plain old dropped the ball. I can tell you though while this business is hard – We LOVE it.”

If you have 100 people walk at in the same time when a bar closes, it’s not a corny joke. It’s a challenge for a kitchen, and The Bacon Strip couldn’t keep up. So the Curtises tried a buffet. “Sometimes it seems that we change things too frequently in an effort to see what really works for us and you,” he wrote.

They revised the menu three times in the last year. They retrained the staff. They’ve set the hours to 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday. No late-night hours. “We really need to focus on our weekdays,” Curtis said.

“I realize that some of our lessons learned in this business were at the expense of our customers and for that I am deeply sorry,” he wrote, inviting people back.

His apology is heartfelt, as is his love for breakfast in general and bacon in particular.

There are at least four things other restaurant owners, and perhaps all of us, can learn from Curtis and his experience:

  • He said, “I’m sorry.” Saying that can be powerful.
  • He reached out. Curtis could have done all this privately, but he went public with it, asked for help along the way and as he moves ahead.
  • He stuck with it. It probably would have been easier to walk away from The Bacon Strip and focus on Five Star. He didn’t.
  • He didn’t do the same thing over and over and expect the different results. Retraining and focusing on the right equipment, menu and hours were keys. He is starting to advertise (in full disclosure, it’s with Flavor 574).

The Bacon Strip isn’t the only breakfast place in town and isn’t as good as Mayberry Cafe or The Old Style Deli. But it’s good and getting better. I look forward to eating there more.

I’m hungry. Let’s eat.

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