C. Benjamin Ford
Thursday, September 19, 2002
When Ira Levy opened his first Buffalo Wings and Beer restaurant in Gaithersburg, a neighbor told him the location was cursed.
Seven other restaurants had opened and closed between 1986 and 1995 at the site, located in the middle of a narrow shopping center on Snouffer School Road in Gaithersburg.
Seven years later, the sports bar-themed restaurant is thriving, pulling in more than $750,000 in annual revenue. Levy, 33, has made a specialty out of barbecue sauces and turning dark restaurants into profitable ventures. The sixth Buffalo Wings and Beer will soon open in Eldersburg.
Levy looks for locations where other restaurant owners have opened and failed in off-the-beaten path locations with low rents. Since the previous owners invested in new equipment, tables and decorating, Levy said his upfront costs at each location are lower. In most of his locations, Levy said he has made his money back in less than a year.
He also goes to auctions of restaurant equipment to hunt for bargains. Booths like new that cost more than $1,500 originally he picked up for $400.
“We succeed off other people’s demise,” Levy said. “They can’t make it for whatever reason and we move in.”
It is a tough business. A Dun & Bradstreet study found nearly 30 percent of all restaurants close in the first year, 50 percent in three years and 60 percent in five years.
While the National Restaurant Association reported total restaurant revenues increased 3.9 percent in Maryland to $6.1billion, the percentage increase was below the regional and the national averages.
“He’s one of those customers he’s very demanding and he’s very particular about the products and I think that’s why he’s successful,” said Larry Cohen, vice president of sales for restaurant food vendor Restaurant Depot in Baltimore. “He holds his food and his restaurants to very high standards and we’ve watched him grow from one store to six.”
While Levy is demanding, “You know what? We respect that. An easy customer who goes out of business in a week is not a good customer,” Cohen said.
Levy said his restaurants have managed to do well because as the economy has tightened, people may dine out as often, but may drop down to a lower priced menu category.
His up front costs are usually under $150,000 as opposed to most restaurant owners who spend more than $250,000 to open a new location with all new equipment.
Levy, a graduate of John. F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring, has succeeded in locations where others have not without the advantage of business school education or wealthy backers.
“To me that makes where I am that much sweeter,” Levy said.
Deciding what he wanted to do in the restaurant business was easy. “I loved wings and I loved sports,” said Levy, a Washington Redskins fan and regular Web surfer ESPN.com.
Getting there, however, was not.
When he was 23, Levy opened an upholstery business with a friend beside the antique shop owned by his friend’s parents.
The hours were long, the work hard, recovering furniture in the shop.
When he won a federal contract to re-upholster the furniture at the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., Levy re-upholstered 453 chairs in 16 days, working 16 hours a day.
“The FBI contract helped me buy my house,” he said.
He did furniture re-upholstery for the White House and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. But in the back of his mind, he thought about owning a restaurant.
On a first date with the woman he later married, Michelle Levy, he told her of his plans to open a restaurant.
“She did not know what to think,” he said.
“I thought he was crazy when he told me he wanted to open a restaurant,” Michelle Levy said. “It’s a hard business. At the time I was at a point where I wished I has a dollar for every guy who told me he was going to start his own business.”
For a year, he learned about barbecue sauces and practiced making them in his kitchen. His favorite: a mix of teriyaki and hot sauce.
He learned to cook from his father. “He is the best cook,” Levy said. “And I’m the cook in my house.”