WILMINGTON — Veggie turkey pita on whole wheat, add onions and hot peppers.
For the better part of the last three decades, Dale Haynes has been placing this order at Sahara Pitas & Subs, an oasis of Mediterranean cuisine that has amazingly resisted running dry on a stretch of Market Street that has seen dozens of restaurants come and go in the past 31 years.
Haynes, now 49, has practically grown up with owner Edwin Bahouth, 54, who founded the business as a hot dog and ice cream stop in 1982. In that time, Bahouth has set an anchor deeper and tighter than most ever get a chance to in a notoriously volatile industry. He was on the cusp of a decade in business when hospitality experts from Cornell and Michigan State universities published a paper suggesting 70 percent of restaurants fail within 10 years, back in 1991. Bahouth, like a handful of other Wilmington area restaurateurs, failed to get the memo.
Living at the beach, it would seem like the obvious key to cracking the code of longevity in the world of dining would to be selling seafood by the seashore. And it’s a formula that has worked for a number of businesses. But for every King Neptune, one of New Hanover County’s oldest eateries dating to the late 1940s allowing for changes in ownership, there are a handful of hardscrabble entrepreneurs like Bahouth who have forged their own lasting paths.
Records from the New Hanover County Health Department, the agency tasked with sanitation inspections, show a number of legacy restaurants that predate their system, including such haunts as Winnie’s Tavern, Merritt’s Burger House and Jimbo’s. But by the mid-1980s and into the early 1990s, it’s clear the trends began shifting.
This era ushered in a wave of such chains as McDonald’s and Hardee’s, but they weren’t the only players on the field. Around the same time, Bahouth, who emigrated with his parents from Lebanon in 1981, was in good company with other immigrant entrepreneurs keen on carving out their own slice of the American pie. Often, this meant straying far from the coastal, country and comfort cuisines that long been served in these parts.
Harvey Hudson, who’s family moved to the U.S. from Germany just three years before his birth, launched Nuss Strasse Café, now known as The German Café, in 1985. Joseph Hou, ethnically Chinese but born and raised in Kolkata, India, was close behind with Szechuan 132, which celebrated its 25th anniversary a couple months ago.
Despite their wildly differing cuisines and hometowns, all three share a nose-to-the grindstone work ethic and driving ambition that keeps the doors open.
“We as immigrants coming in, when we cross the ocean, there’s nothing stopping us. We don’t actually look back a lot, because there’s nothing to look back to, we just look forward,” Hou said. “If you keep looking forward, you don’t have a lot of time to think about working 10 hours, 12 hours. What we look at every day is getting the job done.”
These owners are the same people answering phone calls on the first ring decades into their careers, still eager to wash a plate, shake a pan or sweep a floor themselves as the need dictates. For The German Café’s Hudson, that means starting every day by putting on potatoes, roughly 450,000 pounds in the 28 years and nine months he’s been open. He’s worn out three industrial stoves in the same time, and is convinced this doggedness is what makes the difference between eateries that thrive or crumble like so much stale bread in Wilmington’s tough dining market.
“You have to be willing to come to work every day, no matter what,” he stressed. “There’s no room for sickness or vacation. You just have to work every day.”
Simply being there is only part of the equation. You’re only as good as the company you keep, and for these three businesses, that well-worn expression ring true.
While Hudson launched The German Café on his own, his numerous siblings have all spent time laboring under the roof. His sister Caroland McFarlane, born in the German city of Hessen, is now an equal partner in the venture and handles all the baking. At Szechuan 132, Hou’s closest business associate is his wife, Sally, but the entire kitchen crew has been with him for 10 years or more. The same goes for Sahara.
“I’ve seen this county go from 70 restaurants in 1982 to over 700 now. I’ve seen a lot of them come and go,” Bahouth said. “I credit a lot of my success to my crew. I don’t have a lot of turnover; my manager’s been with me for 15 years. You take care of them, and they’ll take care of your business.”
All three restaurateurs went through waves of ambitious growth. And learned the value of reeling in those desires as well.
At one point, Wilmington hosted a trio of Saharas, a German Café outpost specializing in baked goods and a second Szechuan spot downtown.
For Hou, closing his Front Street location was about spending time with his then younger children. Both Hudson and Bahouth scaled back to care for aging parents. All three said part of remaining successful over the years is knowing how to balance a limited supply of energy with personal and professional demands in a way that doesn’t compromise a focus on delivering the highest possible quality.
“If you try to stretch yourself thin, you don’t do as good of a job,” Bahouth said.
“God gives everybody 24 hours. How you use that is up to you,” Hou agreed. “I had to take a few steps back to look at myself. Choose business, or family. When I look back, it’s definitely the right choice.”
Of course, sometimes the correct answer is also the easy answer.
“You have to give customers the best value for their dollar,” Hou said matter-of-factly.
Whether serving a traditional and constant menu of hummus or sauerbraten made from recipes lovingly handed down from parents, or stepping up when times call to augment an Asian menu with kale and gluten-free fare, all three restaurateurs say value is essential to both establishing an identity and maintaining a clientele.
“You have to understand your customers,” said Hou, whose unorthodox, white-tablecloth Asian establishment is informed by his diverse heritage. “When they walk in here, they feel like there money was spent on something worth it.”
Moving forward, expect a steady hand on the wheel from each. For Hudson, it only gets easier with time. At 58, his stubborn German work ethic benefits from a lack of the distractions that plague young men.
Hou, a physical embodiment of hospitality, looks forward to continue providing employment to the dozens of future nurses, business owners and social workers working under his roof while attending school at the nearby University of North Carolina-Wilmington.
And besides, they’re all still decades from retirement, and the bills don’t stop coming. For Bahouth, that means he’ll be blending chickpeas and eggplants for a long time to come, lest regulars like Haynes find another spot for lunch.
“You’ve got to take care of your customers. If you don’t, somebody else will,” he said. “There isn’t a shortage of restaurants here.”