Coffee with Guppy: Rich Komen's Unlimited Determination

The longtime entrepreneur dishes with Nancy Guppy on restaurants, running a business and hiring the right people.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Restaurateur Rich Komen began his extraordinary career in 1961 by securing the sports concessions contract at the University of Washington. In the ensuing 56 years, Komen opened more than 40 restaurants, founded and sold Restaurants Unlimited (think Cutters, Palomino, Palisade) and, with his crack executive team, created Cinnabon. 

When did you become interested in the business of food? Probably when I was 28. My uncle owned Knight’s Diner in the south end and when I decided to bid for the University of Washington’s sports concessions contract, I knew I wouldn’t have a chance if I didn’t have food experience, so my uncle agreed to be my partner. 

Who has inspired you? Loren Walker, my main accounting professor in college [at the University of Washington]. He was savvy, a good person and he never said, “You are going to do it this way!” He inspired by being nice and that helped me learn something about people skills. 

Restaurateur Rich Komen cofounded the Cinnabon chain of baked-goods stores in 1985 and sold it in 1998
for $65 million. 
(Photo by John Vicory)

When interviewing a potential employee, what did you look for? When I first started hiring people, I just hired them because it sounded like maybe they could do it! (Laughs.) But after I was at it for a while, I learned — and it didn’t take very long — that there was one thing I could never teach anybody and that is how to get along with people. Then and now, the most important overriding concern is their people skills. 

When something would start to go wrong, how would you handle it? I remember one time when my top vice president came into the office — this was during Jimmy Carter’s reign when inflation was running close to 20 percent and the interest on our debt went up so high it was frightening and sales were going down — and he said, “Rich, I don’t think we’re gonna make it.” Now, how do you handle that? Well, you handle it by convincing him that you’re not only going to make it, you’re going to make it big. Whether I believed it or not, I had to convince him right then to forget this idea of not making it because I instinctively knew that if he walked out of the office thinking that way, it wouldn’t take 15 minutes before everyone was thinking that way. 

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a restaurateur? Oh, God, I’ve made so many mistakes, it’s silly. I would say my biggest mistake was not hitting the accelerator harder. We were one of the best in the restaurant business and we could have expanded faster. 

And why didn’t you? I didn’t have the confidence and probably wasn’t smart enough at that time to see over the hill … to see the potential. 

What’s the biggest mistake a restaurant can make? Not understanding how hard it is to make money. Most restaurants know how to make good food and [provide] good service, but there has to be something left at the bottom line. I see that mistake all the time. 

Understanding that a restaurant has to make money seems so basic. Many people, when starting out, don’t do the necessary homework to forecast what kind of restaurant they’re going to be: How many dinners are we going to do on a Friday night, Saturday night, Tuesday night? And then you have to build a budget that says, “OK, to do this many dinners we’re going to have to have three cooks, and three cooks requires this many hours, and then we’ve got to add 30 percent to each of those hours and that’s going to cost this much, and then we’ve got to have this many waitresses and a bartender and … wow, that’s a big number! And then the question is, are we doing enough business to pay for that?” 

When you walk into a restaurant do you know, fairly quickly, what your dining experience is going to be like? Absolutely, and it’s a feel. Does it have a nice hum? Are the employees working at a nice pace or are they running too fast or slopping around? And how does the place smell? Smell is huge! It’s absolutely critical in informing people’s opinions of what a restaurant is going to be like.

How do you keep the dining experience consistent? It’s all management. It’s the owner and/or manager being there and noticing every single thing that’s going on. Seeing that a customer needs help and that nobody’s doing anything about it. Looking at the plates coming off the line and knowing, without tasting, if they’re good or not. It’s relentless and it’s hard work and the good ones do it day in, day out. 

Do you have a favorite restaurant in Seattle? Il Terrazzo Carmine. 

Is the restaurant business a smart way to get rich quick? No. It is a smart way to get rich slow. But you gotta be tough and willing to work and go after it. I don’t think there’s any business today where it is easy to get rich quick. 

Do you have a life philosophy? I innately believe that it’s important to be kind to people. One way to tell what kind of a character a person has is how does he treat someone who can’t do anything for him?

What gives you pleasure and joy? Outside of my personal relationship with my wife, who is now gone, I’d say it’s Roche Harbor Resort [on San Juan Island]. I’ve been working on it for 27 years, we’ve turned it into a wonderful place that makes money, and that gives me more satisfaction than anything I’ve ever done. For the record, I’ve never made a penny on Roche. Every cent goes back into rebuilding.

For more on the lives of entertainers, artists and entrepreneurs, tune in to ART ZONE WITH NANCY GUPPY on the Seattle Channel (seattlechannel.org/artzone).

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