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 Montpelier Magazine

 

Bernie Dean ('78) joins Joe ('77) and Dottie Ryan ('81) in one of the Ryans chain of South End Brewery and Smokehouse restaurants, which boasts new microbrews every season.The view from the outfield: The Molzans opened their newest Ruggles restaurant and bar in the Houston Astros' Enron Stadium last year.

JMU Alumni Wine & Dine the Metros of the South

Days that run from 8 in the morning to 3 in the morning; shopping lists the size of a small supermarket's; serving dinner to celebrities; brewing a new and different beer every few months -- it's all part of the job to a collection of JMU grads who've discovered the secret to succeeding in the restaurant business. They've taken their love of good food, good beer and good people and have created dining dynasties in four (going on five) southern states.

Bruce and Susan Molzan

It's a Wednesday night, and over the telephone come the sounds of conversation and clinking dishes. Susan Molzan ('81) is on the line from one of six restaurants -- all by the name of Ruggles -- she and her husband, Bruce ('80), own in Houston. Her voice is full of the energy of a busy evening: "He's in the kitchen, cooking something," she says. "Can I call back in half an hour?"

At 10 p.m., business is slowing. That's part of running a restaurant. "I never count the hours," Bruce says. On Mondays the restaurants are closed; that's paperwork day. "On Tuesdays it really starts going," he says. "I usually don't go to bed until about 3 in the morning." On Tuesdays? "Every day."

Susan and Bruce met in the restaurant business, when both were students at JMU and employed at The Pub and the Binnacle Lounge, a downstairs restaurant and bar. Bruce was a cook, and "I was absolutely the worst cocktail waitress in the world," laughs Susan. "I guess he felt sorry for me."

Both were majoring in hotel and restaurant management. Susan remembers one of her professors, Mike Warfel, a former vice president for Sheraton who would drive in from Charlottesville, often with brownies he'd baked for the class, always with a briefcase that was nothing more than a typewriter case. "He taught us from his own experiences," Susan says. "He was an amazing man."

Susan, who is pastry chef for the restaurants (they're famous for always having around 35 homemade desserts to choose from at any meal), traces her culinary roots back to her birthplace near Buffalo, N.Y., and her mother.

"We never had a cake mix or a store-bought cookie in our house," she remembers. "She pretty much taught me everything I know." Today her parents live in Abingdon, Va., and they still trade secrets. Ruggles' carrot cake is her mother's.

Despite a business that employs more than 500 cooks, servers, hosts and more, and with yearly revenues of about $20 million, Bruce still considers himself a chef first. "It's what I'm good at," he says. "I always tell people, `I couldn't be a brain surgeon or rocket scientist. I'm a cook.'"

"Cook" is a modest term. After the duo graduated in 1981, Bruce went to Los Angeles to study with the legendary Wolfgang Puck. "He is probably the best chef in America, as far as I'm concerned."

At Puck's L.A. restaurants, Bruce learned his groundbreaking nouvelle, Americanized European style, which he brought back six months later to Houston.

Houston in 1982 was booming. "We were riding high on the hog," says Bruce, "but as soon as I got here we went into a recession -- really a depression. Oil prices went way down."

Nevertheless, the depressed economy also was a boon to the Molzans, and after cooking for four years in Houston's SRO Bar and Grill, they were soon able to buy their first restaurant.

In 1986, the Molzans bought Ruggles, a Houston institution, and re-envisioned it, cooking the way Bruce had learned it, with regional ingredients and spices, fresh vegetables and everything -- even the pasta and ice cream -- made from scratch. "That's always been my philosophy," says Bruce. "If you're truly a chef you ought to be able to do it all."

Their menu has taken on a Latin flavor, with fruits like guava and mango, garlic and herbs. The couple has traveled to Russia, France, Turkey, Greece and around the United States to gather ideas.

They found partners, including the owner of the Astros and a vice chairman

of Wal-Mart, and in 1996 opened their second restaurant -- Ruggles Grill 5115 at Sachs 5th Avenue. The restaurants took off.

In 1999 the Ruggles Cafe Bakery opened, then the Ruggles Bistro Latino, where Bruce spends his Saturday nights -- live music starts at 11 p.m. and doesn't wind down until around 2 a.m. Ruggles Cafe in Union Station followed, and, at the beginning of last year's baseball season, the Molzans opened Ruggles at Enron Stadium -- a $5 million restaurant and bar overlooking the Astros' new outfield.

Altogether, if every restaurant were seating up to capacity, the Molzans would be feeding around 2,500 people. Plans for the future? Hosting concerts at Enron during the off-season, including a Latin music festival, maybe opening up a chain of 10 to 20 cafe bakeries.

But for now, they'll keep doing what they're doing, and doing well. Their clientele seems to think so, judging from who comes in Ruggles' doors.

"Um, Mohammed Ali, Jack Nicholson, Diane Sawyer," Bruce tries to remember the names. "Ringo Starr, Michael Jordan, Jimmy Buffett. Oh yeah, and we're having Paul Newman for dinner on Sunday."

Bruce says daughters Sarah, 9, and Sophie, 6, have gotten over being starstruck and take their famous guests as a matter of course.

How to succeed in the restaurant business? "I've always kept my nose to the grindstone, and I'm a compulsive neurotic," says Bruce. Plus, "It's gotta be in your blood."

Joe and Dottie Ryan

"It was an evolution." That's Joe Ryan's ('77) summation of a career path that led him from his 1981 graduation to 15 years with Anheuser-Busch to heading five restaurants in three states (a sixth, in Atlanta is scheduled to open in 2001), each one employing 80 to 100 people and bringing in $3 million to 5 million every year.

While at JMU, Joe and Dottie ('81) majored in management and marketing. "We were actually high school sweethearts," says Joe. "We went to college together and then got married. They were great years," remembers Joe, "some of the very best years of our lives." While there, he formed such strong friendships with his fraternity brothers at Theta Chi that they still get together for an annual golf trip. "We don't miss that trip for anything."

Joe started working for Anheuser-Busch in 1981, first as a quality assurance supervisor. "It's a great company; it was almost boot camp for me," he says. The company's emphasis on quality and consistency had an impact on Joe. "I took that to heart."

Working first in Williamsburg, then at the company's winery in California, then in New Jersey for 18 years, Joe decided to open his own brewery, developing a recipe for what became Carolina Blonde beer with Rau Palamand, who was director of product development at Anheuser-Busch for 22 years.

Keith Jones joined them from California, with restaurant experience, and among them sprouted the idea for a brewery/ restaurant. The business took off with support from partners like Mark Richardson, president of the NFL's Carolina Panthers, and Ray Evernham, formerly NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon's crew chief.

The first South End Brewery and Smokehouse opened in Charlotte in 1995. The Ryans found a century-old former cotton mill and renovated it into a restaurant, with an exhibition kitchen, patio, bar and the brewery open all day and evening for tours.

After Charlotte came the restaurant in the historic district of Charleston, S.C., with a glass elevator in its center and a view of the harbor. That opened in 1997. In 1998, another opened in downtown Raleigh, N.C.; in 1999 their fourth, part of Jacksonville Landing Development on the St. John's River in Jacksonville, Fla.

This year saw the opening of their first freestanding restaurant, in Lake Norman, N.C. Also the first restaurant not in a historic building, the Lake Norman pub still holds some ties to history, with a smokehouse and wood-fired pizza oven under the canopy of a 100-year-old oak tree.

"I looked at brew pubs all over the country," says Jeff, "and I wanted to do something different." The tables are covered with white tablecloths -- which, in turn, are covered by white butcher paper and a box of Crayons. On any given night, business executives dine next to families next to wedding parties next to softball teams -- it's that kind of a catchall, comfortable environment."

Bernie Dean is one of the golf trip crew who's now a partner in the Ryans' business. "I still like to refer to myself as the official food and beer taster," he jokes. A 1978 graduate in art, he now lives in Forest, Va., working for Beltone Audiology. His wife, JoAnn Hutcherson, is a 1979 graduate of JMU, and she and Dottie Dean were sorority sisters and roommates in college.

This year, their daughter Amanda carries on the tradition, starting her first year at JMU (her younger sister Abby is a high school sophomore). "Amanda's seen how the friendships we had at JMU have lasted," says Dean. Every time the group gets together, he says, "we talk about stuff at JMU over and over, just as if it had happened yesterday."

Dean still keeps up with his art, designing the beer signs for the Ryans' restaurants as well as the entire office the couple uses at the Charlotte restaurant.

"Joe likes to tell everyone that if it wasn't for the partners, it never would have happened," Dean says. "But if it wasn't for Joe thinking up the idea and taking the initiative, it wouldn't have happened. I've been on both sides of the kitchen and both sides of the bar, and the key cog to this whole operation is Joe Ryan treating these people the way he wants to be treated. "They're special people, Dottie and Joe."

The restaurant and brewery are major projects for the Ryans. Each of their breweries has a brewmaster and every season creates new beers, including special spiced beers at Christmastime.

"We really listen to our customers here," according to Joe, creating new flavors with a custom-made brew system and microbrewing techniques.

Dottie works with the restaurants, as have their four children -- Meg, 18, Joe, 16, Max, 13 and Kylie, 7. "They're billboards," laughs Joe. "They always have a logo on."

Dottie also works as Charlotte's chapter chairperson for Operation Smile, an organization that sends surgeons to poor countries to treat children born with facial defects. Her volunteer work stems from the Ryans' involvement with local charities, hosting dinners for worthy causes.

"It's a way to weave yourself into the fabric of the community," explains Joe. "I look for a building with character, and we really wanted a business with a personality."