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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

the city.

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:

Money. Bankers are not known to be big fans of restaurant

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.

Skill. Food needs to be expertly prepared and beautifully

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

should not."

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.

Stamina. Wilson says his son and his chef start the day

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."

But how about starting a restaurant as a hands-off investment,

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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