The Year of Living Dangerously

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

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It’s 12:15 on Friday afternoon at the Fusion Café and the restaurant is packed. In

the small kitchen three cooks are preparing smothered pork chops, jerk chicken, Jamaican rice and peas, cajun wings, boudin (cajun sausages), oxtails, and red beans and rice. Busy waiters quickly pick up the orders and take them to the customers, who pay on average $7 per entrée. A capacity crowd of about 75 is crammed into this Houston eatery that specializes in Jamaican, Creole, and southern food. The restaurant, located in a revitalized section of this Texas metropolis known as Midtown, is just a stone’s throw from the city’s downtown area, attracting diners who are mostly urban professionals and workers from the nearby Texas Medical Center.

Overseeing the food preparation and customer service are the general manager, Cedric Fletcher, and the manager, Lora Sims, who, in addition to their regular duties, act as the eyes and ears of owners Greg Phillips and Chris Lowe. Phillips, 35, is an associate general counsel for Compaq Computer Corp., and Lowe, 34, is manager of aircraft maintenance and engineering for Southwest Airlines. The two still hold down full-time jobs while working at the restaurant and planning for the future of the business.

For Phillips and Lowe, Fusion is a dream come true, although neither has received a dime from the enterprise since it opened. Both have always wanted to become entrepreneurs, and at one point they were involved in separate ventures, each being part-owner of a nightclub and bar. But before they opened Fusion along with another partner, they knew nothing about the restaurant business.

There have been a few rough periods since the business was started. The suicide of the third partner almost forced them to close the doors a few months after opening the café. They also had other problems, including a shortage of experienced personnel, theft, waste, and-oddly enough-too much initial success.

Today, however, Fusion Café is doing just fine: the owners are expanding the original location, preparing to open a second establishment, and actively planning a third. In 1998, revenues were $320,000, and in 1999 the venture earned more than $370,000. There is also a catering business that currently accounts for about 5% of sales.

How did these entrepreneurs overcome the obstacles and move their business forward? This is how it happened.

A Reason to Start
It all began one night following an incident at a white-owned restaurant. After being turned away, long-time buddies Greg Phillips and Craig Allen decided it was time to open their own restaurant. Allen had lots of experience in the business and had even owned his own eatery at one time.

“When we went to that restaurant we were told they were having a private party and that we couldn’t get in,” explains Phillips. “But as we were leaving, we noticed they were letting some whites in who were not there for the party. We left and said, ‘The heck with it. Let’s go create our own restaurant where people we know, and people like us, can go

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