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Where everybody knows your name Featured

12:38pm EDT August 29, 2005
Matt Prentice never wanted to be perceived as a star chef, so when he started Unique Restaurant Corp. in 1980, his name was absent from the logo. Over the years, other local caterers adopted the “Unique” name, confusing clients and frustrating Prentice.

“We sent letters, asking them to cease and desist, and none of them would agree,” he says. “We asked our lawyers what it would cost us to enforce our copyright, and they estimated $50,000 per company. I said, ‘It’s not worth $200,000.’”

Now, as president and CEO of 12 restaurants and five catering facilities, Prentice has given in — and the Matt Prentice Restaurant Group has emerged.

“My publicist has been beating me for years,” he says, laughing. “And she’s very happy now.”

Smart Business spoke with Prentice about how the restaurant industry has changed, how he maintains quality control as his company grows and the challenges of running a business in a down economy.

How has the Detroit restaurant scene changed over the last 25 years?

Twenty-five years ago, people didn’t go out to eat the way they do today. Dad worked for the Big Three, made great money and had great benefits; Mom stayed at home and cooked.

Now the two-person income is the norm, so families are bringing in more dollars, but they also have a lot less time. So people eat out now, and eating out is a way of life. Even eating out has changed considerably since 9/11. Group dining is more popular today than any time before.

In Detroit since 9/11, we’ve been pretty much in an economic tailspin. We’re the only area in the country that has not come out of recession. Things are pretty ugly here right now.

How have you grown your company to meet customer demands?

We’ve been taking on management agreements. We got into mass feeding where we’ve diversified into serving elderly people on a campus where we have a restaurant. We have expanded by negotiating deals with General Motors to open Coach Insignia downtown.

We have an operation (expected to open last month) at one of the larger theaters in town; it’s going to be our first soul food restaurant, and it’s a management contract, so there’s no outlay of cash and guaranteed income for us.

We continue to expand our off-premise catering because the way I look at things, when you’re in difficult economic times, the more profit centers you have, the better off you are.

How do you grow your company while maintaining your core principles?

We try to teach our staff to not let the guests get out the door unless they’re happy. We have a guest service seminar that I teach to keep them focused on winning and keeping guests for life.

One of the parables I tell is about Morels, my first fine-dining restaurant. I had a hostess who had just undergone a service seminar, and she was quite sharp. On a Tuesday evening, I had one of those bizarre nights where I had a bunch of big parties, and I had a reservation for six people at 8 p.m. All of the 6 p.m. tables were camping, and we couldn’t get these people down at 8 p.m. The hostess did the right thing. She said, ‘I’m sorry, the tables that I anticipated leaving haven’t left. Let me buy you a round of cocktails at the bar.’ Then they started getting antsy, so she brought out some free appetizers.

Finally, a table got up, but it had been over a half hour ... and when she came back, they were gone. [The guests had told another employee where they were going, and the hostess followed. She went up to the manager, pulled out her own personal credit card and said, ‘Please run this credit card, comp that table from me at Morels, make sure you add a gratuity, and don’t allow the waiter to accept a tip.’ Then when she got the bill, she brought it in for reimbursement.

The moral of the story was, we turned a mad customer into a happy customer, and I’m sure they told everybody they knew about the superlative service they received. That’s what we try to accomplish.

We don’t always hit home runs but we try.

How do you manage your 800 employees and make sure their ideas are heard?

I went into business when I was 20 years old, and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. As most people do when they’re young and inexperienced, they try to bear-hug everything and try to be singly dominant.

When you get to a certain level of experience, and after you’ve made enough stupid mistakes, you realize you need to allow other people’s opinions to be included in the mix. We’re a very democratic group, but there are times when I have to make a hard decision because I feel I have the best experience to do so.

Even the youngest managers are encouraged to hold me accountable and to give their opinion. When I started the company, I had fresh new ideas, and now my ideas may not be so fresh but there’s new talent coming up that does have fresh new ideas.

HOW TO REACH: Matt Prentice Restaurant Group, (248) 646-0370 or http://www.mattprenticerg.com