The Profit Is in the Details: An Entrepreneurial Success Story in the New Orleans' Restaurant Industry, an Interview with Clarke Roberts

Article excerpt

Executive Summary

Clarke Roberts, owner of Topper's Restaurant, never planned early in life to own and manage a restaurant. He had a successful 30-year career in the Louisiana oil fields working for equipment rental companies that serviced oil drilling firms.

The oil Crash in the early 1980s prompted Clarke's career change from oil field manager to restaurateur. After the Crash, oil prices fell, the U.S. drilling industry contracted, and thousands lost their jobs in Louisiana. With the depressed economy, jobs for oil field workers were scarce. As noted by some entrepreneurship researchers, job loss, or "negative displacement," can often be a critical factor prompting people to become entrepreneurs (Shapero & Sokol, 1982).

Based on his family upbringing and past experience, Clarke decided to purchase a restaurant when his career in the oil fields ended. In 1986, he bought Topper's Restaurant, a bar and potato shop in downtown New Orleans near the Louisiana Superdome, and transformed it uito a full-service, lunch restaurant. The extraordinary failure rates for restaurants, which may be as high as 85 percent (Jones, 1995), made this an extremely risky decision, especially in the fiercely competitive New Orleans restaurant industry.

Today, Topper's is a successful restaurant serving dozens of regular customers daily and employing 11 people. Clarke has innovated by adding new menu items and launching a website (www.toppersneworleans.com'). He attributes his continued success to finding a viable niche and providing good value for the money.

Despite his success, he also notes how difficult competing in the restaurant industry can be. His experiences and insights, therefore, provide both important guidance and caveats to aspiring entrepreneurs, especially those interested in opening restaurants.

Authors: When people study entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship, they often examine what motivated people to start their own business. So, let's start out with your background and how you grew up, especially if you think it had any impact on your decision to start Topper's. You really went through a major career change before doing this.

Roberts: (Laughing) I had no choice.

Authors: Yes, sometimes it is forced on you. First, let's discuss your upbringing, what happened in terms of your previous career, and how you trained yourself to work in the restaurant industry, because you didn't have a background in this industry.

Roberts: I was born and raised poor in the country near Gonzales, Louisiana. My daddy was a farmer and jack-of-all-trades. There was a crop failure one year and he came to the city, went to work, and moved us all to the outskirts of New Orleans. I went to school here, quit in the tenth grade and stayed out a few years working in the oil fields, went back, graduated and started looking for a job. Everybody here worked in the oil fields, so I went down Peters Road in Harvey, Louisiana, got a job, and stayed there for 30 years working for rental tool and oil service companies.

I guess my first major break came because of the Vietnam War. A lot of people were drafted, and I took over as a manager, the youngest one in the history of the company. When the boys came back two or three years later, I was a manager and I got to keep my job. I wasn't any smarter than anyone else. I just got ahead because I worked a lot harder than anyone else was willing to work. I think that's the secret to any success, everybody putting in 110 percent. It doesn't matter what you choose to do.

I always had a good head for math and 1 guess crunching numbers has always been my long suit even without a lot of formal schooling. Numbers just always made sense. Once you learn how to figure costs, that's one thing that can transfer from one industry to another. When the oil field went bust, we sold out at auction in 1983. From 1983 to 1986,1 remodeled a couple of old houses. …