What’s his recipe for suc­cess?

Matt Bour­nias learned some im­por­tant lessons on how to sur­vive in the dicey busi­ness of launch­ing a new restau­rant

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - BUSINESS - By Pa­tri­cia Sa­ba­tini Pitts­burgh Post-Gazette

Matt Bour­nias’ Greek cafe in Lawrenceville turns just 4 years old in June, but he’s al­ready sur­vived longer than most in the no­to­ri­ously bru­tal restau­rant busi­ness. Named for the Greek ver­sion of lasagna that was Mr. Bour­nias’ fa­vorite dish grow­ing up, Pastit­sio has gar­nered a lo­cal fol­low­ing hooked on the au­then­tic fla­vors of his gy­ros, sal­ads, stuffed grape leaves and sou­vlaki skew­ers re­fined from fam­ily recipes.

In an in­dus­try where fail­ure rates for star­tups can be as high as 60 per­cent within the first three years, Mr. Bour­nias is both count­ing his bless­ings and look­ing for new ways to feed the bot­tom line.

Fo­cus­ing on lunch and take­out at first, he’s been slowly build­ing his din­ner busi­ness and re­cently started open­ing on Sun­days for brunch.

He’s also work­ing to build a clien­tele for his home­made yo­gurt with other restau­rants and area gro­cery stores to help sup­ple­ment his in­come, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the frigid winter months when busi­ness drops off.

A na­tive of Meadville, Pa., Mr. Bour­nias, 34, set­tled on a ca­reer in food af­ter trav­el­ing to Greece with his fam­ily dur­ing his ju­nior year in high school. “My par­ents al­ways said I had a good sense of taste and smell,” he said. “I thought I would give it a try.”

In col­lege he strug­gled at first, but dur­ing his se­cond year in the culi­nary pro­gram at John­son & Wales Univer­sity in Rhode Is­land, “Things clicked,” he said.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing in 2003 and work­ing in Bos­ton and Wash­ing­ton, D.C., for con­tract din­ing com­pa­nies and the Bob Evans restau­rant chain, he moved back to the Pitts­burgh area in 2009 for a shot at launch­ing his own busi­ness.

“In school, I al­ways had the idea I wanted to have my own place,” Mr. Bour­nias said.

Tipped off to an empty store­front for rent on But­ler Street in Lawrenceville, he de­cided the area was a nice fit. “Lawrenceville was kind of get­ting a good vibe. Peo­ple were talk­ing about it and ex­cited about the fu­ture,” he said.

Backed by $100,000 in startup funds from his par­ents, Mr. Bour­nias opened his doors in June 2010.

His first day was ex­cit­ing, but it was an even big­ger thrill mak­ing it to his one-year an­niver­sary.

“I’d think, ‘Wow, I’ve been open a whole year,’” he said.

So far, busi­ness is go­ing OK, he said.

Last year he rang up about $150,000 in sales, or roughly dou­ble the first year’s num­bers.

The restau­rant has seat­ing for 16, plus more out­side dur­ing the sum­mer, and three part-time em­ploy­ees to help pre­pare sal­ads and wait ta­bles.

Mr. Bour­nias’ best ad­vice for would-be restau­ra­teurs is to lay the ground­work for suc­cess be­fore open­ing the doors. “The stuff you like to make — take it to farm­ers’ mar­kets and try to get a fol­low­ing first,” he said.

When search­ing for a site, make sure it’s in a busy lo­ca­tion, he said. If he had paid more at­ten­tion to lo­ca­tion, Mr. Bour­nias said he might have set­tled on a spot with more foot traf­fic, es­pe­cially dur­ing the winter months.

He also re­grets not tak­ing ad­van­tage of small busi­ness de­vel­op­ment pro­grams at lo­cal uni­ver­si­ties to get help with a busi­ness plan.

Hope­ful en­trepreneurs should be pre­pared to put in long hours, he said.

A bach­e­lor, Mr. Bour­nias works six days, some 60 to 80 hours a week. He’s at the restau­rant when­ever it’s open, plus spends time on pa­per­work, clean­ing up and pre­par­ing or shop­ping for food.

“I can’t pull my­self away,” he said. “In­stead of go­ing home and get­ting sleep, I get things done around here. I can al­ways find some­thing to do.”

He also has learned to ap­pre­ci­ate the value of mar­ket­ing. He likes to at­tend spe­cial events in the lo­cal com­mu­nity, set­ting up a food stand when he can so peo­ple can sam­ple his of­fer­ings.

Af­ter­wards “When they come in [to the restau­rant], you know it worked.”

It’s also im­por­tant to lis­ten to cus­tomers, he said. One way is to mon­i­tor on­line restau­rant guides, such as Yelp and Ur­bans­poon, pay­ing par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to bad re­views.

“If you don’t re­spond to them [on­line],” he said, “at least change your ways.”

Bob Don­ald­son/Post-Gazette

Matt Bour­nias owns Pastit­sio, a Greek restau­rant on But­ler Street in Pitts­burgh’s Lawrenceville neigh­bor­hood.

Bob Don­ald­son/Post-Gazette

Matt Bour­nias sets up the din­ing area in Pastit­sio, his Greek deli and restau­rant on But­ler Street in Pitts­burgh’s Lawrenceville neigh­bor­hood.

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