Marsh Shapiro of the Nitty Gritty was kind enough to let me interview him. He is the owner of the Nitty Gritty a popular Madison, WI restaurant.
What do you do for a living?
I’m the owner and operator of a restaurant and bar.
How would you describe what you do?
I’m the owner and operator of a restaurant and bar which is a very high-volume operation here in Madison, Wisconsin. We’re located just adjacent to the University of Wisconsin campus. We are predominantly, what you would call, a pub-type operation, serving bar food and, of course, alcohol. There are literally thousands of students living directly across the street, and we are a very popular place here in the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison.
What does your work entail as a restaurant owner?
I was an absentee owner for a good share of the time, to the extent that there were managers operating the place when I was doing work and away from here. And then in 1985, I left the television business and have been full-time on the premises doing all of the marketing and promotion and overseeing the operations for the last 22 years.
we’re actually known as Madison’s official birthday place…We have 50 to 60 birthday parties here every day, 7 days a week…Our record is 103 birthdays in one day. Our youngest is one-day old. Our oldest is a lady that’s 108…Virtually everyone in Madison knows the Nitty Gritty as a place to celebrate your birthday. We make kind of a big deal out of it…They are very special people to us.
We have one hundred employees to manage during the height of the school year when there are events at the Kohl Center and the University of Wisconsin is in session. We have a very high-volume, fast-paced operation, with a capacity of a little over 400. We’re able to serve food to probably 275 seated at one time.
How did you get started?
The business over the course of the 39 years since I’ve been the owner has evolved a great deal. I’ve had, basically, two overlapping careers. I’m a professional broadcaster by trade. I have a degree in radio and television and I was in television here in Madison, Wisconsin for 25 years, from 1961 to 1985. In the early 60′s I did kids’ shows, and then transitioned into becoming sports director from 1975 to 1985. I was the broadcaster for all the Wisconsin football and basketball games on television. And in 1968 I purchased what is now the Nitty Gritty Restaurant and Bar that we have talked about.
What do you like about what you do?
The part that appeals to me is I’m a very outgoing, extroverted type person, and I see this not as a food and bar business, but as a people business, which is a very, very old, worn cliche. I really enjoy the interaction with the people. We have a birthday theme here, we’re actually known as Madison’s official birthday place so many people come on their birthday. We have 50 to 60 birthday parties here everyday, 7 days a week, in addition to our regular clientele that are here for events or just for eating our food. Our record is 103 birthdays in one day. Our youngest is one-day old. Our oldest is a lady that’s 108. We’re a place where the Governor comes, the Mayor is here, the football players are here, the coaches are here. Virtually everyone in Madison knows the Nitty Gritty as a place to celebrate your birthday. We make kind of a big deal out of it. We have birthday balloons, we get their name up on an electric birthday board, we give them a glass mug that they are able to keep, and they get to drink free beer or soda while they’re on our premises. They are very special people to us.
..it’s really very rewarding when people leave our building and say that they’ve had a wonderful experience here and that the food was very good…It’s rewarding knowing people enjoy being here, and that you’ve had an opportunity to make people happy, and they had a wonderful dining experience
It’s the kind of thing where people come up to me and say, This is the first time I’ve been here for my birthday, but this is one of the most memorable birthdays I’ve ever had, thank you for all your hospitality. Those are kind of things I enjoy and that we capitalize on and have made the foundation of our business.
What do you dislike?
I dislike that the hours are very difficult in this business. We are pretty much of a seven-day a week operation. And then the second most problematic thing is dealing with employees. It can be difficult managing that. Although, I think we’ve done a very good job in not having the type of turnover that many of the restaurants in our industry have, and that is because we try to take care of our employees to the extent that we make them kind of a part of our family. We work hard, we play hard, and we want people to enjoy their time that they’re here working at the Nitty Gritty.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
We make money in our business by selling food and by selling alcohol, and by setting margins that we hope will be able to pay the bills plus enable us to make a few dollars on the side.
How much money do you make as restaurant owner?
A couple hundred thousands dollars a year is easily attainable in this type of business.
Are there any perks to this career?
The perks are that you just have that gratification of knowing that you’ve done a good job and people are happy and you’ve helped them have a wonderful dining experience.
The restaurant business is the most highly regulated in this country, so you need to be prepared to deal with the health department, fire department, police, neighborhood associations, building ordinances, people coming in and sticking thermometers in your soup at high noon when you’re very busy. If you can’t deal with those kinds of things, you’re not going to be a very happy person and you’re not probably going be very successful in this business.
The rewards are in the compliments that you receive, and the awards that you receive, and the public recognition that you receive. And when you start having those kinds of things happen and prominent people come into your place and people are talking about you, those are all very, very rewarding things.
What education or skills are needed to do this?
I don’t know if there are any special educational qualities that you need to have. I think there are plenty of people in this business that are not really college-educated, although I think it certainly would help if you wanted to take some business courses. I think you would want to take some courses in public relations and you’d probably want to take some courses in improving your speaking. Social skills are also very, very important. And I think that depending on the type of operation that you have, that’s where your emphasis would be on getting those skills. If your skills are in the area of culinary-type things, then you want to look at technical schools that will provide you with those skills. There are many of the top scale-type restaurants where the chefs are the primary owners and operators, and so you could come out of that type of background. Or there’s other types of people who just want to be a management-type leader and just have to have the people skills and the social skills that will enable them to know what they want and effectively communicate that.
What is most challenging about what you do?
Just the day-to-day operations and dealing with all of the things that can happen. Over the course of my 39 years here, I’ve seen just about everything. We’re dealing with clientele that are very demanding at times, you’re dealing with people that want everything perfect. You’re dealing employees that are troublesome sometimes, employees that have a mind of their own and don’t want to do things the way you’d like them to be done, employees that are not present when they are supposed to be or are late. Those are the things that are most troublesome in the industry that you have to deal with on a daily basis. And I can honestly tell you that in 39 years, from a management point of view, that has not changed¦those are the things that you deal with on a day-to-day basis. The one thing that comes to my mind right now is we’re dealing with an issue which seems very minuscule to some, but it’s important to us. And that is the fact that there’s a helium shortage right now. We can’t get helium to blow up the balloons that we want to give away to the people that are having birthdays. It’s just not available and there’s a worldwide shortage, and we’re not going to get any helium into our market here in Madison for probably another three or four months, if we get it then. So this is something that seems a very small thing, but to us it’s very important.
What is most rewarding?
While it certainly can be financially rewarding, it’s really very rewarding when people leave our building and say that they’ve had a wonderful experience here and that the food was very good and our bartenders are the best and all of our servers have wonderful personalities and it was a pleasure to be here and they can’t wait to come back the next time. It’s rewarding knowing people enjoy being here, and that you’ve had an opportunity to make people happy, and they had a wonderful dining experience, which is the reason that they go out in the first place.
What advice would you offer someone considering owning a restaurant?
Anyone that is considering this career or business has love to be around people and has to be a very outgoing type person if they’re going to be the owner/operator. From a management point of view, it’s important that you are able to look at the big picture while also being willing and able to do everything that all of your employees would do. If it means cleaning the toilets, and that happens on occasion when your cleaning people don’t show up or if the cleaners don’t do a good job, then that’s what you have to do. You have to be a jack of all trades. You have to enjoy working mornings, noons, nights, holidays, weekends, because that’s the nature of this business. When everybody is out partying or having a good time on New Year’s Eve, chances are you’re going to be open and working in your establishment till the wee hours in the morning, and then you’re going to get up the next morning, and maybe even have to go clean or to have to go into work because the next day is another day.
How much time off do you get/take?
It depends. In the early days of my operation, I didn’t take off at all. I probably didn’t have a lot of vacations for the first 15 or 20 years. Since that time, I’d maybe take a few days off never more than two or three at one time and now later on, in my particular stage of my career, I feel that I can get away for probably a week or two at a time. I have adequate management that I feel comfortable when I’m not in the establishment. But when I return, there are still notes and cards and things like that from people that were here that expected me to be here, that were upset that I was not here. So, when you have that kind of visibility it can be difficult to get away. You’ve just got to take that in stride, and follow up with those people and make sure that you let them know that you’re sorry you missed them, but that you’re looking forward to their next visit.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
I think that the common misconception is that it’s an easy type of business to operate. That anybody can do it and that once you hang out your sign and tell people what you’re doing and what you’re serving, that lines are going to be a block long and that people are going to come in and they’re going to love you no matter what price you charge, they’re going to love paying the prices and they’re going to love the product. And also from the alcohol point of view, people think that opening a bar is very simple and easy and you just sit at the end of the bar and have a drink in front of you, and you just have to wave to everybody and say hello and watch the world go by, and that all you do is just sit there during the day, and at night, you open up the cash register, and take the money to the bank and that’s all there is to it.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
My goal in this career, eventually, is to retire. I’m at a point where I think that that’s probably going to take place pretty soon. I think that some of my upper- management people, if they can put it together, will probably take over my business within the next year or two. It’s been a very wonderful career, so I can’t complain. But it’s very difficult on people that want to get away and have family time because you’re pretty much on the premises working most of the time, and it can be a very, very hard life. I commend everybody in this business that has been able to be successful because there’s a very, very high percentage of failures in the restaurant and bar business. In fact, it’s very difficult for anyone to get money together to set up and operate a bar and a restaurant because the banks are very unwilling to do that because the risk rate is so high. It’s not an easy thing to go to a bank and say, I got this idea. Here’s what I want to sell. I’m going to sell tacos with bananas on top, and everybody’s going to love them and we’re going to make a million dollars in the first year I’m in business, so give me two hundred fifty thousand dollars to open up this restaurant. Those things just don’t happen very often. You’ve got be pretty grounded. I think there’s an expression in the banking industry that there’s two things that they want stay away from; restaurants and bars and sporting goods stores. Those are probably two of the things that would be the most difficult sells that you’d have to make to get the bank to give you money to open up those types of operations.
What else would you like people to know about what you do?
Well, nothing more than the fact that you have to enjoy what you’re doing. If you don’t get up in the morning and look forward to going to work and have a good attitude and have a positive attitude about what you’re going to do and try to give everyone the best service possible, the best product possible, the best environment possible, then you probably are in the wrong line of work. If you just want to be a 9 to 5 person punching the clock, where you just want to sit at the desk and relax and look at a computer screen all day, this is definitely not the business for you. This is a business where you have to be outgoing, you have to think out of the box, you have to be looking at the big picture. You’ve got to deal with employees, you’ve got to deal with customers, you got to deal with advertising people and salespeople. You’re going to be receiving all kinds of requests or special favors from all of the charitable organizations, we give away thousands and thousands of dollars in gift certificates every year to all of the charitable organizations. You have to have a community involvement in order to get that kind of visibility. You have to be very positive about everything you do. The restaurant business is the most highly regulated in this country, so you need to be prepared to deal with the health department, fire department, police, neighborhood associations, building ordinances, people coming in and sticking thermometers in your soup at high noon when you’re very busy. If you can’t deal with those kinds of things, you’re not going to be a very happy person and you’re not probably going be very successful in this business.