The Year of Living Dangerously

How one restaurant persevered through the crucial first 12 months in business

into a very casual atmosphere and have good food and fun.'”

Phillips and Allen drove around looking at several sites until they discovered a shuttered Mexican restaurant just a few miles from downtown Houston. That was in August of 1997. From that point on, Phillips, Allen, and friend, Chris Lowe, began making the plans to open their own café.

The plan was for Phillips and Lowe to be silent partners and let Allen manage the business since he had more than a dozen years experience in that field. The three raised approximately $90,000 from family and friends and leased the 1,500 square feet space for $1,100 a month. Much of the initial investment was spent on equipment, expanding the space, acquisition of inventory, and operating capital. The partners saved about $80,000 because Lowe, a handyman, built a lot of the furniture.

“I built the bar, the tables, the condiment station, and even laid the tile on the counter tops,” says Lowe. “I also taught Greg how to build some of the things. I had him cutting and laying bricks so we could save money.”

When it came to deciding on the menu, the three went back to their roots. Lowe, a Jamaican, treasured his mother’s traditional Jamaican fare. Phillips, from East Texas, grew up enjoying his mother’s specialized southern dishes. Allen, who was from Louisiana, revered his mother’s grand Creole foods. The three had their mothers prepare their favorite meals and then invited family members and friends down to the restaurant to vote on which ones they thought were best.

“We gave them survey cards to write down what they thought were the best items and we decided from that what our menu would consist of,” says Phillips.

The partners then had their mothers teach the chefs how to prepare the meals. “We fused southern, Creole, and Jamaican foods together. That’s also how we came up with the name Fusion Café,” explains Lowe.

Before the business opened, Phillips and Lowe spent hours at upscale restaurants in the Houston area, taking note of how customers interacted with waiters and cashiers, and how the cooks interacted with the wait staff. They also read everything they could about the success of Starbucks, their self-described model for how to invest in employees in a high turnover business.

The partners spent about $4,000 on print advertising and mailed information to 4,000 prospective customers. They also put flyers on cars in the downtown area, advertising the opening of the new establishment.

Fusion Café began operations in February 1998, and from the moment the doors swung open, the crowds poured in. Word-of-mouth helped to spread the news, and before the owners knew it, people were gathering outside. The lines got longer and then the problems began. The fledgling business had become too successful too soon.

“We had a single, manual cash register and we couldn’t process the orders fast enough,” recalls Phillips. “The cashiers would write down the order and that took time. Then they’d walk it back and put it in a basket for the

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