Restaurateur Roundtable

Owners dish about their labor of love

What do a horticulturist, a nurse, and an actress have in common? 

In this instance, they all went on to find new careers owning restaurants.

While LILY DONAT, co-owner of HAVANA'S in Carolina Beach and Wilmington; NICOLE CLAY, co-owner of TWO FAT LADIES OVER A SIMMERING POT, and TABITHA MEREADY, owner of THE PEPPERED CUPCAKE, come from vastly different professional backgrounds, they have plenty to relate to each other to in sharing the trials and tribulations of entrepreneurship and working in the restaurant industry.

The group recently gathered at Havana’s for a WILMA roundtable to discuss their experiences – and a little bit of advice. Here are excerpts from the conversation.

How ready did you feel for what you were about to do? It seems with entrepreneurship, you reach a point where you just need to jump into it.

Donat: It seems like that’s what people do – it’s crazy – when you run your own business. It seems to be this energy that takes over you, and you can't stop it.

Clay: And if you try to sit and plan for it, you won’t ever do it.

Donat: You’d hopefully have some experience going into it. You just see so many people that jump into it because they’ve got their own little recipe, and (they think) it’s going to make them famous, but there has to be a really good business sense behind that. Otherwise, you’re going to fail.

How do you balance running a business with your personal life? How are you supported by your family and friends?

Meready: It’s hard for me to balance because this is brand new for me. My little girl was born on the fifth of September. I had a C-section; we were back at work a week later. She stays with me all day. She’s in a little swinger. She sits there in front of me all day so we can see her at all times. But she really does slow me down in trying to balance that all out. I have an aunt who is my little Energizer Bunny and does not ask for any breaks. She was in there with us this morning at 7:30. She actually let us go home last night and get some rest because we’ve had like three hours of sleep.

Clay: I remember those days. My son, he would be in his little stroller over off to the side in the corner, and we’d be walking around the kitchen.

Did you ever feel like you couldn't do this? Because those are real challenges.

Donat: You know those survival shows on TV? Sometimes I feel like I’m in one, and I wonder when this show’s going to end. Then you reach for your team, and you remember that every day in the restaurant business is a new day – a new day to impress, a new day to improve. Doing something better, doing something wiser. It just works that way. You just got to be as professional as possible. Professional, professional, professional – it’s what I always reach for.

Clay: Many days – many, many, many days. I leave, and I come home, and I tell my husband, “You ever been too tired to even go to sleep?” But then you get up the next morning, and you do it all over again.

Meready: And you know why we do that? It’s because we know we don’t have a choice.

Clay: When I got discharged from the hospital, I had a C-section, too. He (Clay’s husband) took me straight to the restaurant. I was bent over, peeling sweet potatoes, and they’re looking at me like “Go home!”

Donat: Oh my god.

Clay: I was in there peeling sweet potatoes because you can’t let nobody mess up.

Donat: That’s tough.

What’s one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your time in the restaurant industry, and what’s the biggest challenge you’re facing right now?

Donat: Managing people. I learn every day something better to do. People just aren’t going to take care of the business like you want to take care of your business; if you don’t act interested then they’re not going to be interested. So managing people is something I constantly work on.

Clay: When the recession hit it was horrible. Me and Gayleane (White, the restaurant’s other co-owner), when we first opened, we had a full staff, probably about eleven, twelve people, and this little dining room. We didn’t fire anyone, they just kind of dropped off themselves because the hours had to be cut. It has to be cost effective to keep coming in here cooking and serving. It was horrible to the point that at one time there was only me and her in there working, and our babies sitting off to the side. We would go in there and we would cry, cry, cry, because we would walk out the door sometimes and we only made $150, only made $100. But we persevered and we kept going.

If you could give specific tips to anyone starting their own business, today, what would your advice be to them?

Donat: Definitely the business plan. Have a business plan, watch your costs, and be as professional as possible. Don’t let people break you, because if you say something you regret in business, it just kind of sticks a little bit longer than it does in your personal life.

Clay: Be willing to sacrifice. If you are not willing to sacrifice, you probably won’t make it. I mean that’s time, money, energy, effort, that’s everything. And stick to it. If that’s what you believe in and that’s what you want to see work and grow, just don’t give up.

Meready: Stick with what it is that you know and don’t try to do so many things. Now wearing many hats, yes, you have to do that, but don’t try to accommodate everybody because you’re going to lose your focus and you’re going to put out a lot of things that people aren’t going to like. Focus. And people are going to have something negative to say. So you got to have a tough backside, regardless.


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