Doug Hogrefe started working at Amerigo 30 years ago. What he thought was going to be a short-term gig until he figured out what he really wanted to do turned out to be the thing he was meant to do. He was a server/bartender for 10 years, a manager for 10 years, and now an owner for 10 years.
In 2007, the original Amerigo owners sold the company to an executive with plans to turn it into a chain, but in just 21 months, they took a profitable restaurant with no debt and bankrupted it. That’s when Doug and his partners formed 4Top Hospitality and took it over. Under serious pressure to turn things around (and quickly), they went back to the basics: “People go to a restaurant for a mini 2-hour vacation where someone else takes care of them, so that’s our focus. We do that by taking care of our staff, who, in turn, make the guests happy.”
Doug has accomplished this by thinking long-term. “I don’t overburden employees with rules and regulations. My focus is to manage their food and wine knowledge and to further their education in the kitchen. Creating a good environment for them to grow allows us to grow as a company.”
He’s had great success: Over the last decade, they’ve tripled the company in size without taking on a lot more debt. Along with Amerigo on West End and Cool Springs, the group has opened Etch, Etc, Char, and Saltine in Nashville, as well as a slew of others across the Southeast.
Read on for some stellar advice and insider tips on how to set yourself up to be a successful restaurant owner — or get hired by one.
You have to be realistic about what you’re going to make and how much you’re going to work in the restaurant industry. I know of very few successful owners who didn’t start out as a server or cook — you have to understand that side of it. You have to be wired for odd hours, and be sure it’s what you want to do every day. It’s not all creative and cooking competitions; it’s quality food and service day after day. The key to success is excellent repetition — that’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
The Restaurant Boom
Amerigo on West End just had its best year in the nearly 30 years it’s been open. That’s mostly due to the influx of visitors coming to Nashville right now along with our now third-generation of local guests. The sales are there, so now it’s all about managing bottom line growth. The cost of living has increased, so we are paying 30–40% more to staff to stay competitive. Long-term, the fear isn’t the competition, it’s that a recession will hit and traveling will slow down, which would negatively affect restaurants in a significant way.
Etch vs ETC
The space where Etch is located sat empty for 5 years. The building opened in 2007, and then the recession hit, and no one wanted to touch it. I got a cold call from a broker in 2011 and went to look at the spot. Located in the area now called SoBro, there were no restaurants or much of anything going on except for the Schermerhorn, which happens to be the Etch crowd. Knowing they have something going on 150 nights a year, we decided to take a chance. It was luck that everything started booming in the neighborhood. That and the fact that we were the only major restaurant opening for 6 months, so we received a lot of great press. Interesting fact: 70% of the Etch clientele eats at the restaurant just one time because they are mostly visitors. We opened Etc in Green Hills for the regulars, the neighborhood version of Etch.
I’m the development partner, so most of my efforts go towards growing the company and finding opportunities in various locations. I really enjoy it, but I’ve gotten away from the thing I love most — getting to know the staff in every restaurant. I miss that personal connection and need to get some of that back. I used to walk in and know that this person is going to veterinary school in 6 months and working a ton to make as much money as possible until then. I miss knowing those details and it’s a primary goal of mine to get back to what it was like when I was a GM.
Winning Him/Her Over
When I’m interviewing a candidate, the most important thing for me is whether I enjoy talking to the person. If you have the necessary experience and we can find something interesting to chat about for 15 minutes, then you’ll likely get the job. I recently interviewed a burned out pharmacist, and we had a fascinating conversation about how pharmacies operate.
The Long Game
Restaurant jobs are often transitional in nature. I want to be people’s last restaurant job, whether that means growing with the company over the next 30 years or just staying until they move on to their next goal or dream.
The Good Word
There was a golden age of Nashville restaurant blogs in the 2010s. People like Chris Chamberlain and Beth Sachan were really great advocates for the restaurant scene. They were both a positive force in the industry, covering places they like instead of writing hit pieces on places they don’t. I still rely on their recommendations.
Turn off your apple watch! In fact, turn off all of your devices. It really annoys me when it beeps or when someone looks at it during an interview.Look presentable. You’d be surprised how many people look like they just rolled out of bed.Come prepared. Know the business you’re applying for. Go eat there beforehand, or at least read the menu. Show some legitimate interest. We’d rather close a section than hire a warm body. We spend a considerable amount of time training people, and long-term it doesn’t work well to hire just anybody.
We are very cognizant of food allergies. They are very real. But fake food allergies are just annoying.
I just got back from Bentonville, Arkansas and was blown away by it. Yes, WalMart’s headquarters are there, but there’s so much to do: Hiking, biking, a beautiful museum, a lovely 21C hotel, great restaurants, and a direct flight from Nashville for $90!
Good To Know
Spitting in people’s food is a stupid myth — that stuff doesn’t happen. You have a better chance of contaminating your food at home than in a restaurant. We don’t have dogs and cats walking around. We aren’t changing diapers back there. It’s an unfortunate stereotype.
We live in Germantown, which is so walkable. Our favorite thing is to walk to several different restaurants, saddle up at the bar, and have an app. We’ll go from Henrietta Red to Germantown Cafe to Butchertown Hall — wherever we can get a seat.
Drinks With Friends
I love that they serve craft beer at Preds games. Watching hockey and drinking some local brews at Bridgestone — always a good time.
On His List To Try
Lyra in East Nashville is at the top of my list, which is a faux pas on my part because I worked with the chef for a long time.
Drink Of Choice
I’m a wine guy, and my pet peeve is restaurants that charge $17 for a 4-ounce pour. I appreciate interesting wine lists that aren’t gauging people, and that’s something we strive for in all our restaurants. I love the wine list at Etch, and Char’s is refreshing for a steakhouse.
Amerigo in Cool Springs was my family’s go-to. I went with my mom and dad every Sunday, which was extra special because I opened that restaurant as a GM. My dad passed away a few years ago, and my mom is in assisted living now, but I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for that place.
Foh&boh interviews veteran restaurateur, Doug Hogrefe was originally published in foh&boh on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.