Durham pitmaster and son plan barbecue joint at American Tobacco Campus

jmgiglio@newsobserver.comFebruary 24, 2014 

Ed Mitchell and his son Ryan are opening a new restaurant called Que in Durham, N.C. Mitchell describes what's on the menu.


  • By the numbers

    17,626: Number of eating and drinking places in North Carolina in 2012.

    $15.9 billion: 2014 projected sales from North Carolina restaurants.

    426,200: Number of North Carolina restaurant jobs in 2014 – 10 percent of the state’s employment.

    Source: National Restaurant Association


    Foodservices Consultants Society Internation: fcsi.org

    National Restaurant Association: restaurant.org

    N.C. Restaurant & Lodging Association: ncrla.org

— Location really is everything in the restaurant business and Ryan Mitchell was willing to wait for the right one.

For the past 15 months, Mitchell, a former investment banker, has been working with his father, famous barbecue pitmaster Ed Mitchell, to open Que, a barbecue restaurant in Durham.

The Mitchells are setting up shop in a spot they couldn’t pass up: Diamond View III, a new office building at the American Tobacco Campus just outside the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and a short walk from the Durham Performing Arts Center.

It was a place they would have to wait for. The Mitchells’ initial target opening date was September 2013. But because Que has been dependent on the construction of the overall building, the process from idea to opening day hasn’t always been an easy one.

“I think the biggest challenge is when you’re going into a project that’s this big, like you’re going into the base of an office building, what happens is that everybody has to sing off the same choir books, and all of this stuff has to be completed before you get going,” Ryan Mitchell said.

After various setbacks and a schedule that “may have been a tad ambitious,” Ryan Mitchell says the Que now hopes to open around April 1 – just in time for the April 3 start of the Bulls’ minor-league baseball season. He’s counting on Que pulling in customers from the crowds that flock to American Tobacco to work, socialize and watch baseball.

Todd Guyette, a member of Foodservices Consultants Society International and principal at Colburn & Guyette food service consulting company in Boston, said finding a solid location, along with a concept that works in that area, are key components to opening a restaurant.

“Putting a dinner concept into a building that shuts down at 5 p.m. is a mistake,” Guyette said. “And that location’s potential customer base is sort of the key.”

Guyette said restaurants are risky business, and not doing due diligence on the front end can hurt the company down the road.

Guyette recommends finding key professionals, such as an architect and a food services consultant, to help create a restaurant’s space and concept.

He said two types of teams are needed: a design team, which will help create an efficient space, and a management advisory services team, which deals with operations such as financing and creating a menu.

Consider an agent or broker

To get started, Guyette recommends doing a market analysis or survey before deciding on a location, and using a Realtor or broker to pinpoint a specific spot.

A broker was key in helping Mac Cady secure a place for his first restaurant, coffee shop Cafe de los Muertos, which opened in Raleigh in December.

After doing research, Cady decided on downtown’s warehouse district, but had a hard time finding a space in that area. He was drawn to a never-been-used space in the bottom of Hue, a condo-turned-apartment complex that is now full of renters after struggling during the recession.

One broker discouraged him from the location because of the place’s “bad mojo,” so Cady found someone else who would help him sign a lease there. That decision, he said, was a good one.

He has connected with customers from Cirque de Vol Studios, a circus arts studio in the same building, Cady said.

“It’s good to have them next door,” Cady said. “A lot of parents come over while waiting for their kids. It’s starting to become a community and (my broker) saw that the whole time.”

‘Strong teams’ move quickly

New construction is generally easier to upfit than an existing space that needs renovations, Guyette said. And hiring a good contractor with experience in food service is key to avoiding delays.

“Bring in a general contractor with a strong construction management background and have them organize the process,” Guyette said. “Strong teams move really quickly, and you need a strong general contractor or manager on the team.”

While Cady had success in finding his location, he faced challenges getting the place open. Some of the delays stemmed from an ambitious construction plan, which included adding a staircase to access the restaurant’s mezzanine level and a garage door that he can open when the weather is nice.

Cady hired a contractor who specialized in new home construction, and brought on his own people to do projects such as woodworking and metal work.

It didn’t turn out well, he said. The contractors and the extra people he hired got in each others’ way and the two groups ended up not getting along.

“It was supposed to be a 60-day build,” Cady said. “(The contractors) said they could do it in 45. Then it ends up taking 10 months. … There was easily a lot of work I needed to do before they could come in and do what they needed to do. There was a lot of back-and-forth, and they were used to working with their own contractors.”

Cady also said that the contractors missed key deadlines or didn’t finish work, and he had to hire his own professionals, including an electrician, to finish or fix parts of the project.

Guyette said that in new construction, owners need to time the purchase of equipment and materials such as exhaust hoods or custom stainless steel pieces so that those things arrive at the site at the right time in the process.

“If ... counters aren’t brought to a facility at the right time, (contractors) can’t finish walls, floors or wiring,” Guyette said. “It holds (the construction) up, so having (the counters) come to the facility at the right time is key.”

Equipment is something the Mitchells also have had to work around.

They installed an elaborate four-story hood, exhaust and filter system that will allow Ed Mitchell to cook his barbecue without smoke and grease affecting the other offices in the building.

But creating a restaurant in a great spot using his famous whole hog concept is Ed Mitchell’s ultimate goal.

“It’s taken a little longer than I thought,” Ed Mitchell said. “But it’s going to be worth it because the customer’s really going to get the real deal.”

Giglio: 919-829-4649

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