Backstory

Super Bowl winner applies can-do attitude to restaurant

vbridges@newsobserver.comFebruary 4, 2013 

Antwan Harris owns Zydeco Downtown a bar, lounge and restaurant in downtown Raleigh.

VBRIDGES@NEWSOBSERVER.COM — Virginia Bridges

  • Advice from Antwan Harris •  Stay on top of your business from Day One. Realize what you are getting into yourself into when you go into the restaurant business. •  Watch after your employees. •  Make money. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense. •  Don’t hire your family.

— It won’t take long for Zydeco Downtown to transition from Super Bowl Sunday to Fat Tuesday.

After all, New Orleans is never far from Antwan Harris’ mind. Harris won the Super Bowl twice in his NFL career, the first in the Big Easy with the New England Patriots in 2002.

That link to his past inspired Harris to open the Cajun restaurant and lounge in his hometown in 2005. He hosts an annual party for the Super Bowl, which was played again in New Orleans this year.

About 225 people attended Harris’ party at Zydeco on Sunday. On Fat Tuesday, a week from today, Zydeco will host a Mardi Gras party with live music, beads and a special on Hurricanes, the strong but fruity drink of choice for tourists in New Orleans.

Eight years ago, Harris opened Zydeco Downtown in a 6,000 square-foot space previously occupied by a comedy club and a restaurant in City Market.

“It’s a Cajun soul food restaurant with live entertainment during the week,” he said.

The business boomed in the first year, Harris said. In the second year, however, Harris saw revenue drop about $250,000.

“Every year we have been climbing back up to those numbers that we had the first year,” Harris, 35, said. “Actually, we are there.”

Harris played football at Ravenscroft and the University of Virginia, and played defensive back for the Patriots for five seasons and the Cleveland Browns his last season. Harris won the Super Bowl with New England in 2002 and 2004.

Harris hoped to create at Zydeco Downtown the comfortable atmosphere that he found in Boston establishments while playing for the Patriots. He also wanted to include Cajun cuisine served in New Orleans, the home of his good friend and former Patriots teammate Otis Smith.

“I fell in love with Cajun food,” Harris said.

During the business’ renovation, Harris visited Raleigh but had to return to the team in Cleveland in August 2005. He came back to Raleigh in September after season-ending shoulder surgery. Harris retired from the NFL in the summer of 2006.

During Zydeco Downtown’s first year, money was rolling in, Harris said, but mistakes were made and revenue wasn’t optimized. Harris said the food and customer service weren’t consistent and he didn’t watch liquor sales or monitor food costs closely enough. To address some of the concerns, Harris reduced the number of items on the menu to improve consistency in the kitchen, got more involved with the business and installed cameras to keep an eye on his staff.

“Always watch after your employees because you will get some that will steal from you, you will get some that will try to get over on you, and you have some that are just fair,” he said.

Initially Harris relied on word-of-mouth to bring customers in, but he later turned to social media and the Downtown Raleigh Alliance to increase traffic.

Harris focused on hiring and retaining employees whom he could trust and felt would help him grow the business, he said. “I looked at it as I am everybody’s boss and I need to get this puzzle together and work as a team so we can be successful,” he said.

Bridges: 919-829-8917

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