One of an occasional series
Matt Bournias' Greek cafe in Lawrenceville turns just 4 years old in June, but he's already survived longer than most in the notoriously brutal restaurant business.
Named for the Greek version of lasagna that was Mr. Bournias' favorite dish growing up, Pastitsio has garnered a local following hooked on the authentic flavors of his gyros, salads, stuffed grape leaves and souvlaki skewers refined from family recipes.
In an industry where failure rates for startups can be as high as 60 percent within the first three years, Mr. Bournias is both counting his blessings and looking for new ways to feed the bottom line.
Focusing on lunch and takeout at first, he's been slowly building his dinner business and recently started opening on Sundays for brunch.
He's also working to build a clientele for his homemade yogurt with other restaurants and area grocery stores to help supplement his income, particularly during the frigid winter months when business drops off.
A native of Meadville, Pa., Mr. Bournias, 34, settled on a career in food after traveling to Greece with his family during his junior year in high school. "My parents always said I had a good sense of taste and smell," he said. "I thought I would give it a try."
In college he struggled at first, but during his second year in the culinary program at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, "Things clicked," he said.
After graduating in 2003 and working in Boston and Washington, D.C., for contract dining companies and the Bob Evans restaurant chain, he moved back to the Pittsburgh area in 2009 for a shot at launching his own business.
"In school, I always had the idea I wanted to have my own place," Mr. Bournias said.
Tipped off to an empty storefront for rent on Butler Street in Lawrenceville, he decided the area was a nice fit. "Lawrenceville was kind of getting a good vibe. People were talking about it and excited about the future," he said.
Backed by $100,000 in startup funds from his parents, Mr. Bournias opened his doors in June 2010.
His first day was exciting, but it was an even bigger thrill making it to his one-year anniversary.
"I'd think, 'Wow, I've been open a whole year,' " he said.
So far, business is going OK, he said.
Last year he rang up about $150,000 in sales, or roughly double the first year's numbers.
The restaurant has seating for 16, plus more outside during the summer, and three part-time employees to help prepare salads and wait tables.
Mr. Bournias' best advice for would-be restaurateurs is to lay the groundwork for success before opening the doors. "The stuff you like to make -- take it to farmers' markets and try to get a following first," he said.
When searching for a site, make sure it's in a busy location, he said. If he had paid more attention to location, Mr. Bournias said he might have settled on a spot with more foot traffic, especially during the winter months.
He also regrets not taking advantage of small business development programs at local universities to get help with a business plan.
Hopeful entrepreneurs should be prepared to put in long hours, he said.
A bachelor, Mr. Bournias works six days, some 60 to 80 hours a week. He's at the restaurant whenever it's open, plus spends time on paperwork, cleaning up and preparing or shopping for food.
"I can't pull myself away," he said. "Instead of going home and getting sleep, I get things done around here. I can always find something to do."
He also has learned to appreciate the value of marketing. He likes to attend special events in the local community, setting up a food stand when he can so people can sample his offerings.
Afterwards "When they come in [to the restaurant], you know it worked."
It's also important to listen to customers, he said. One way is to monitor online restaurant guides, such as Yelp and Urbanspoon, paying particular attention to bad reviews.
"If you don't respond to them [online]," he said, "at least change your ways."
Location: 3716 Butler St., Lawrenceville
Owner: Stamatis (“Matt)” Bournias
Opening date: June 2010
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Patricia Sabatini: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3066.