Round three

Diane Robinson, who spent the majority of her professional career as a nurse, is living proof that one can find success in a range of professions.

Robinson is about to embark on her third restaurant venture, when Piatto opens this month on South Main Street. Robinson, who recently sold her successful Treva restaurant to focus on Piatto, began her second career as a restaurateur in 1993 when she opened Two Sisters, a small, popular café, with her sister.

When the space limitations of Two Sisters became an obstacle, Robinson closed the café and opened Treva in June 1998. In late April, Robinson sold Treva to her sous chef, Cathy Rinehart, to open Piatto with partners Jeff O’Neil and chef Roger Thomas.

How did you get your start in the restaurant business?

I spent 22 years as a nurse. This is a midlife career change for me. I never even was a waitress in college or anything. We started in ’93 at Two Sisters, in a little café, in a much smaller way. It was easy to see the limitations on our cooking and what we could do there —so it ended up growing into this bigger business. We closed that when I opened Treva.

Would you say it’s been a benefit or a detriment not knowing about the industry when you went into it?

It’s definitely made it more challenging. I had a lot to learn. Even the computers and the whole booking system were new to me, so after spending my whole adult life as a nurse … I had to learn this business. It made it harder, but I’ve learned a lot in two years.

Did you have a clear vision of what you wanted Treva to be when you opened it in 1998?

Yes. I think that helps. Even the space. I can sit in a space for a while and pretty soon start deciding how it’s going to turn out. It was an all-brick building with three long narrow bays and we opened it up and blasted out all the brick and brought the street right in there.

We wanted a real urban-type restaurant because I thought that was lacking in Akron. And I also felt that fine dine was too stuffy. I thought that you should have that quality of food in a casual atmosphere, so if you just want to bop down at the spur of the moment and you’re in jeans, you can still have a wonderful piece of grilled fish.

Casual food in Akron means burgers and fries. So I thought fine dine should be accessible to everyone in a casual atmosphere.

What’s the biggest obstacle that you’ve had to overcome?

It’s hard to just say one. They’re all obstacles, really. Dealing with chefs. Right now we have a very mobile community of chefs. They don’t stay 10, 20 years in one restaurant like they used to, so that’s kind of discouraging.

You just get excited and get going about food, and the next thing you know, they’re on to another restaurant. That’s hard, but truthfully, this whole business is a challenge, but it’s a passion if you love it. You get into it and you’re hooked.

What advice would you give someone who was starting a restaurant today with very little experience?

Find a mentor. When we started Two Sisters, we hooked up with WEGO. They hooked us up and she sat down and helped us write a business plan so that was our first step. We went to the library and looked up small businesses. It’s the business end that you really have to figure out.

The menu end and what’s good and what people like is the easier part for me. The business end you have to figure out because it is a business and they’re very expensive businesses to run. You could dig yourself a hole really fast if you’re not careful.

How would you describe the response to your attempt to bring sophisticated dining downtown?

It’s been very good. It’s always been a challenge to bring people downtown and I wanted to do it downtown … I hate what’s happening with this mall/chain type thing. When I go to a city to visit, I go for the unique places in the city, and that’s what’s exciting.

I made a commitment to that, although it probably would have been easier to do business in Montrose, or one of those kinds of places, but I think that the response has been great.

Connie Swenson ([email protected]) is editor of SBN.