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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the September 25, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Gastronomic Urban Pioneering
<d>Lionel Wilson’s journey to "utopia" began
in Baltimore, with a pass through Blue Hawaii. "I grew up in the
restaurant business," says the co-owner of Trenton’s Utopia International
Bistro, "my parents owned restaurants in Baltimore."
Wilson didn’t go directly into the restaurant business himself, but
rather spent the better part of his career in book publishing and
radio in New York City. The pull was there, though. At one point he
was involved in a consulting project for the Blue Hawaii restaurant
in Manhattan, and ended up managing it. He then owned the Manhattan
Valley Coffee Shop.
During a break from the hectic life of a restaurateur, Wilson took
a job in state government in Trenton. There he saw the city’s potential.
"The downtown area is so beautiful," he recalls thinking.
He thought it was sad that nothing was going on in its historic district,
and decided "something is going to happen in Trenton. I want to
get in before it happens."
So he teamed up with his son, Boyd Wilson, who trained in restaurant
management at the Renaissance Hotel in Baltimore, and opened Utopia
in May, 2001. As part of Trenton’s Small Business Week, Lionel heads
up a program on "Establishing a Restaurant Business in an Emerging
City" on Wednesday, October 2, at 12:30 p.m. at the offices of
the New Jersey Restaurant Association at 128 West State Street in
Trenton. The event is free and includes a box lunch. Register at www.smallbizweek.com
or call 609-396-8801. (See page 10 of this issue for listings of many
events scheduled in conjunction with this week.)
Wilson was pretty sure his restaurant would do well at lunch, but
worried about dinner and week-ends. But he says business has surpassed
projections, even during hours when state workers have decamped from
His chef, L. Damatrious Sadler, who also trained at the Renaissance
Hotel, turns out specialties including crab chowder, Thai beef strips,
and crab cakes that Wilson says rival any in Baltimore. He terms Sadler’s
style "jazz cooking." Each rendering of every dish will vary
slightly as the kitchen riffs with its ingredients.
The fare, and the ambiance, which food writer Pat Tanner likened to
a Greenwich Village feel, have built Utopia a cadre of regulars. The
new Marriott hotel — it’s just 500 feet away — has brought
business as well, and Trenton’s First Fridays have been a big boon.
"We had more people in September than in any other month,"
he says. Happy with the response to his restaurant, Wilson says he
would be delighted to see more restaurateurs join him.
"The more the merrier," he says, pointing to the advantages
of critical mass in attracting a steady stream of customers. A member
of the board of the New Jersey Restaurant Association, Wilson frequently
advises would-be restaurateurs on how to get started — and advises
some they would do well to chose another business. Here is what this
pro says it takes to start a restaurant in Trenton:
start-ups. The enterprises are risky, especially in an urban frontier.
Planting a new eatery in a city that has been neglected for a couple
of decades means there may not be a lot of ’round-the-clock walk-by
traffic, but it also means that special financing may be available.
Utopia, for instance, received a $50,000 loan at favorable rates from
the New Jersey EDA. It also received financing from Commerce Bank,
the Trenton Business Assistance Corporation, and Mercer County.
Wilson says both the city and county were most helpful in getting
the business off the ground.
presented, says Wilson, but that is not the half of it.
"Sometimes people say to someone who is a great cook: `You should
start a restaurant!" he says. "No," he laughs, "you
At least not unless you are also able to bring outstanding customer
service and business skills to the enterprise. It is necessary, among
other things, to know how to buy the best food at the best prices,
manage inventory, get food out of the kitchen while it’s still hot,
hire and train personnel, and make guests feel comfortable.
at about 9:30 a.m. six days a week. "They sit down to rest at
10 p.m. or 10:30 p.m.," he says. "Later on Friday and Saturday."
buying and outfitting a space, and hiring a staff? That approach might
work in other businesses, but no way will it create a successful restaurant.
Says Wilson: "An easier way to handle your investment would be
to toss the money out of windows."
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