Keeping the Black Mecca Delectable
By Ronda Racha Penrice
Businessmen like Lorenzo Wyche, Jr. are exactly why Atlanta’s legend as the “Black Mecca” continues to grow. Originally from New York’s Long Island and Queens, the now 32-year-old Wyche joined the great exodus of the 1990s to the city.
Today his gamble has more than paid off. In 2005, he and his wife at the time, opened Harlem Bar. Sleek and Hot, Harlem Bar, was an instant grand slam. Located on Edgewood Avenue, in the transitioning Auburn Avenue area, most famous for the birth home of Martin Luther King, Jr., the venue attracts patrons from all over the city. Here, soul food is Hot. Timeless standards like baked macaroni and cheese, cozy up to tantalizing new editions like the Banana Pudding Martini.
Far from a one-hit wonder, Wyche followed up with Rare, a soul tapas lounge a year later. If Harlem Bar channels 70s soul, Rare is a smorgasbord, meshing Victorian chic, Moroccan swank and Gothic cool with a decidedly African-American aesthetic.
In 2008, just as his third restaurant, The Social House, a breakfast spot, was getting into full swing, a fire destroyed Rare. It disrupted the Lorenzo Wyche Restaurants’ momentum but didn’t stop it. All three restaurants are fully operational once again and there are plans to open a Harlem edition of Rare later this year.
Wyche is on a mission to build an African-American restaurant empire tailor-made for the 21st century. The Atlanta Post caught up with him to discuss how he got started and how he weathers the storms of such a turbulent business.
How did you get started?
That’s a long answer. I mean I’ve always done it. I originally came from New York, out of restaurant management school and then came down here in ‘98. I started off at Buckhead Life [Group]. I just kind of rolled through, eventually stopping at Justin’s, The Shark Bar.
So what made you come to Atlanta?
Everybody in New York was moving to Atlanta at the time so it was just one of those things. That energy, everybody saying, ‘Oh Atlanta’s a great city,’ got me interested. It was right after the Olympics so everything was just growing here and the energy was good. I transferred with the company so I was able to keep a job and move at the same time.
In studying restaurant management and working at popular venues, had you always planned to open your own restaurant?
Yeah, from day one. That was one of the reasons I moved to Atlanta. The cost of living was lower so I knew it would be more affordable to start something here. In New York, where you need hundreds of thousands of dollars to even do a small concept. Actually, I was just in Harlem because I’m looking for a place for Rare now. It’s just crazy the amount that it takes to open up a restaurant there compared to Atlanta.
Atlanta was strategic in that it was part of my call to own a business, to own something hospitality-related. The multiple restaurant thing came out of the need. Once Harlem Bar was opened, I saw that there was so much more room for growth.
This soul food or urban dining market was totally underrepresented at the time, especially on the casual side. Of course you had Justin’s. You had some of the other restaurants that were catering to the same niche group that I am, which is the urban audience, 25-35. But a lot of the options were too low-end. So I came up with Harlem Bar with a moderate feel, a moderate price point. And then Rare, which was supposed to be a little more polished, but still at a moderate price point, with tapas around $7 a plate.
What were some of the things you learned working with Buckhead Life Group?
I learned a lot more about service: how to deliver in a fine dining atmosphere, wine, table service. Also, when you look at all the restaurant groups in Atlanta, they all have their own systems. I was able to get a feel for their system and how they run their group, learning a lot about what’s made them successful.
How many restaurants do you think you’ve worked with?
I’ve probably been a part of about 42 restaurants between New York, Atlanta and Orlando, including my own.
So all that experience gave you the confidence to open Harlem Bar?
Actually, before Harlem Bar, I had a small restaurant in the West End, by the AUC [Atlanta University Center]. That was actually how I got my start in my own restaurants. I parlayed some of the money I had made over the years and opened up a small take-out restaurant with a laundromat in the hood. I cut my teeth over there for about six to seven months before I opened Harlem Bar.
What did you gain from that experience?
Meeting my payrolls, learning how to put in food orders, running a business, banking and all those things. Then I sold it to my partner at the time and opened Harlem Bar about three months later.
You went to Nassau Community College for hospitality and restaurant management. How did school prepare you for running Lorenzo Wyche Restaurants?
With school, I think it gave me the structure. It gave me a blueprint. I personally don’t think that college gives you the real world experience – and you need both — but it definitely gave me confidence. When you’re running a restaurant, or any business, especially if you’re really savvy about your business, you constantly ask ‘How can we do it better?’. But, a lot of times, the resources you need aren’t readily available to you unless you have a mentor, management or people around you who are a lot better than you are. I think the education made me more confident because I had that foundation.
What made your college experience so great?
It was dope because most of the professors had restaurants and were just teaching on the side. They had restaurants in the Hamptons, in the city, catering companies. As opposed to going to a bigger university where it was all academic and all book work, these guys actually were in the field every day. They were giving us that real raw, up the gut, restaurant experience. Because nine out of ten restaurants fail you have to be very savvy, knowing all those little details that can really take you out.
What made you pursue the restaurant business in the first place?
I liked to eat. That was about it.
What are the challenges?
There are tons of challenges. They say nine out of ten restaurants fail so really nine out of ten minutes, nine out of ten opportunities, you have a potential to fail and it’s that literal. I mean you have labor challenges. There are always cash challenges. Restaurants don’t really operate at a huge profit margin so it’s just a challenge to stay one step ahead of the operation. Finding good people is always a challenge. But I think I was built for it. I’m the type of person who swims in drama. You can throw me fifteen different situations and for me, that ain’t nothing. I’ll just take it on.
How did the fire at Rare affect your business growth?
That kind of slowed things up a bit. That was like twelve months before the whole economic crunch. That was a multi-million dollar operation, so that going down definitely was a crunch on all the restaurants. I was going through a divorce at the time so that was also a challenge. But I have about 110 employees and 6 managers who understand the nuts and bolts of the business. We do the best we can with the resources that we have available.
Does having multiple locations help with operations? Does it bring costs down?
The benefit of multiple locations is positive energy. I think that obviously, from the guest side, it’s growth. I think people always want to be a part of something that’s growing and positive. That energy is good, so multiple locations keep that momentum going. I think that we’ve been able to stay current and relevant to our market because we continue to grow. Our market is always talking about us and they’re always saying things about what we’re doing, good or bad.
From an employee perspective, people want to be a part of a growing brand. You want a waiter who comes in and sees the potential to be a manager. A lot of times you don’t get that when it’s just one restaurant in one location.
Marketing, we do share that value. If someone comes to Social House and is unfamiliar with Harlem Bar, it’s easy for us to turn them on to Harlem Bar so it does actually grow within itself on the marketing side.
Some of my restaurant friends thought opening Rare so soon after Harlem Bar would be a bad deal because they saw it as eating up your own clientele. It actually worked in reverse. We developed a whole new segment of people that didn’t necessarily want to go to Harlem Bar but liked what we were doing at Rare. We were able to expand our market a little bit within the same demographic.
What’s your winning formula in this industry?
I like to be a niche. Food is very closely related to a person’s family, history and heritage. If you look at Italian restaurants, the most authentic restaurants are those in which Italian people themselves are in the kitchen cooking. From a restaurant perspective, I could have done any restaurant. With soul food, I like it because it’s close to home, it’s very personal. Take macaroni and cheese — if you talk to a hundred different people, they give you a hundred different perspectives on how to make macaroni and cheese. It’s crazy. I don’t think there are that many foods out there where people will go to a restaurant and compare it to food prepared by someone they know.
Like if you go to a restaurant, you’re like, ‘Aw this is good, but the Italian restaurant down the street is better than this.’ But, when you go to a soul food restaurant, you’re like, ‘Aw my mom’s macaroni and cheese is better than this”. So it raises the bar. We have to operate at a higher level because our guests are comparing our food to home-cooking and nobody can cook better than mom.
That’s really the lane that we stay in. I like this area. I like the food. I think the people in Atlanta need it. I think we can do a lot more with it. And I think we can push what people’s expectations are.
Atlanta-based freelance writer Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of African American History For Dummies, in the globally-branded For Dummies series.