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Conceptually speaking Featured

12:04pm EDT June 29, 2005

It was love at first sight for restaurant owner Frank Taylor -- the co-owner of hot restaurants Sweet Georgia Brown and Seldom Blues fell in love with the restaurant industry at the tender age of 15.

"I liked everything about it," says Taylor.

He was attracted to the creativity and people side of the business, so he researched the industry, received his associate's degree in business and worked his way up through the ranks.

And his passion for the business paid off. He was promoted several times, from dishwater at his first job at a Texas hotel until he became food and beverage director.

Six years ago, he moved to Detroit, a city he has grown to love. He started his career locally at Marriott's Parkway Grille in Pontiac but quickly noticed a need for unique concepts.

"There was nothing that I could relate to here," Taylor says.

So he helped start Sweet Georgia Brown, a unique concept for the city. And when General Motors moved its headquarters downtown and revitalization began in earnest, he saw an opportunity to realize a dream.

He and his friends -- Detroit Lions player Robert Porcher, musician Alexander Zonjic and Executive Chef Jerry Nottage -- created Seldom Blues, a large supper club, in a choice downtown location overlooking the Detroit River.

"The four of us make a dynamic team," Taylor says.

The combination of live music, excellent food and service, and an action-packed atmosphere have proven successful. The restaurant has received glowing reviews and is turning patrons away from its packed jazz shows.

And that appears to be just the beginning. The foursome is opening the Detroit Breakfast House & Grill this summer, also downtown.

"I really want to focus on Detroit," he says.

Smart Business spoke with Taylor about creating new restaurant concepts, growing his restaurants and the importance of great service and hiring the best employees.

What attracted you to the restaurant industry?

I've been working in the industry since I was 15. I started out washing dishes at a hotel in Texas. While I was there, I got familiar with the restaurant industry. In 10 days, I was promoted to cook, and I knew that this was an industry that I wanted to be involved in.

What I liked about it was that I was consistently meeting new people, and I liked being in the kitchen where the chef was creative. He would really work to make special meals on holidays and occasions. I thought it was intriguing.

I also liked going out to the tables to the guests and talking with them. I saw some hectic times as well. But I did my homework on the industry. I purchased cookbooks and learned as much as I could through what I read and on the job.

How did you create your restaurant concepts?

Sweet Georgia Brown is a 170-seat fine dining establishment that serves American fare with a southern influence. When I came to Detroit, I noticed that there were some nice restaurants here but that the dining scene needed more variety, like what you'd see in other parts of the country.

So Sweet Georgia Brown and Seldom Blues, which offers fine dining and local and national entertainment in the form of jazz musicians, are very different than anything here. I started the Seldom Blues concept in North Carolina and sold it, but kept the name. I felt I could create the same feeling in Detroit. I felt it would be successful if I could create a new, hip, exciting place like you would experience in Chicago or New York City.

The No. 1 problem with Detroit is that it is often undersold. Michigan residents have wonderful palates and appreciate great service and fine dining. They travel all over the place to experience that, so I thought I'd provide it right in their own backyards.

I thought they would be successful if I could create great restaurants that are great-looking but heavy on service. I wanted everyone that came in to feel like a king or a queen.

Your goal is for Seldom Blues to be the first 5-star, 5-diamond jazz supper club in Detroit. How do you plan to achieve that goal?

We've been open for 10 months and received wonderful reviews, but we can't achieve our goals based on reviews alone. Success starts with superior service that unquestionably exceeds customers' expectations. Our chef, Jerry Nottage who is also a partner in the business, has 25 years of experience. His food is fabulous and consistent and guests appreciate that.

You have to have valet parking, double tablecloths on the tables, all of it. We work hard every month trying to enhance what we do, and we won't quit until we're nationally recognized as a 5-star, 5-diamond restaurant. And what that means is training, training, and training.

How do you plan to attract and retain the best employees to offer that superior service?

One of the things that attracts employees is when the employee knows there is solid commitment by the ownership. I am in there every day. The employees see me pouring wine for customers, folding napkins. The commitment has to start at the top.

Employees love working for a committed leader. We've experienced very little turnover. The employees know they can make great money if they give great service. And the restaurant is different than anything else they're accustomed to in the city. When we announced the opening of the restaurants, we had more applications -- we could've opened two restaurants.

Also, if we take care of our associates, they take care of our guests. We treat our associates like ladies and gentlemen, like royalty, like we treat our guests. And they know that they will succeed if we do.

What are your strategies to make the restaurants different or better than your competition?

It always comes back to the fact that we have a different concept. We didn't want to be an everyday steakhouse. Knowing what the competition is doing is important. But really, anything they can do, we are known to do better.

Seldom Blues' music component is unique. The restaurant overlooks the Detroit River. No competitor has that combination of service, food and national entertainment.

We had a show with Wayman Tisdale and it was sold out, both shows -- and we turned away about 300 more people. It's a very personal way to see these entertainers perform, instead of watching them from a distance. And the entertainers love the venue, too. They love being able to be close to people to see them enjoy the music, and they can relate better with people that they can be up close and personal with.

How did you form the partnership with Porcher, Zonjic and Nottage, and what does each bring to the table?

I met Robert (Porcher) six years ago when I first came to Michigan. We got to be great friends and talked about doing a restaurant together. And with Alexander (Zonjic), it was the same thing. He played a concert for me and I thought he'd be a great partner for a supper club.

When the time was right, we made our move. We heard about General Motors' effort to revitalize the downtown. The company moved its headquarters there and was trying to create a destination area. I saw my opportunity to get the partners to come together as a team.

Alex is a great musician and very well known. Porcher is a football player but also has 13 years' experience as a businessman, and brings all that experience to the partnership. Nottage is a chef with exceptional expertise.

How do you manage the partnership?

Everyone respects what the others bring to the table. I run the restaurant. Robert greets the guests and brings in people. He's here often. Alex performs once a month. It's very easy. Everyone has respect for one another. They leave the decisions up to me, except for the chef. He has the run of the kitchen.

Since you opened the restaurants, what strategies have worked?

I think the live music component has been a great strategy for us. And knowing that we have a great restaurant with superior service, great food and hot entertainment that you can't get anywhere else has really worked for us. There is a market for it.

Even Sweet Georgia Brown has music, but not at the same level. Sweet Georgia is a smaller, more intimate restaurant with southern cuisine. Seldom Blues is not quiet. There's a lot of action and a lot of people, and people like that.

What strategies have you had to rethink?

We've been open almost a year, and we've changed the menu a few times because there were a few items that didn't work. When we first opened, we offered Continental cuisine with a French flair. But we're a supper club, we're really more Continental.

We felt the focus needed to be on the music and entertainment. We're not a French restaurant.

What are your goals for future growth?

In the summer, I am opening a breakfast restaurant with Porcher called Detroit Breakfast House & Grill. After Seldom Blues opened, we talked about opening them throughout the country. But I love Detroit. I love to provide restaurants that people have never had here -- there's never been a place like it, even in Chicago.

Chicago has great clubs and great restaurants, but not the combination. I really want to focus on the people here, and hope they will support what's here in the city.

How to reach: Seldom Blues, (313) 567-7301 or www.seldomblues.com