Woman’s place is in the restaurant business

Leigh Ann Tona owns the I Don’t Give a Fork food truck. At 26, she also runs a cafe and a catering business. // Photo by Ron Dubick
Leigh Ann Tona owns the I Don’t Give a Fork food truck. At 26, she also runs a cafe and a catering business. (Photo by Ron Dubick)

By Kathy Canavan

Meghan Lee, who debuted Heirloom in a cedar-shake mansion adjacent to Lewes’ Zwaanendael Museum in December, said she knew “the female card” would play a role in opening her farm-to-table restaurant, but it didn’t work the way she expected.

What Lee thinks is key, because women now are majority owners of 25 percent of all Delaware restaurants and another 41 percent are at least 50 percent women-owned. The number of woman-owned restaurants in the state jumped 86 percent between 2007-2012, while the number of male-owned restaurants rose only 5 percent.

And, restaurateurs are major players in Delaware’s economy. The state boasts 741 full-service restaurants that employ 17,296 workers and produce $844.5 million in sales on a payroll of $265.7 million. Another 647 limited-service restaurants employ 9,434 people here, according to U.S. Census figures. Their sales hit $507.4 million on a payroll of $121.8 million.

If somebody put out a casting call for self-confident women, they’d get Delaware restaurateurs like Leigh Ann Tona, Demi Kollias, Bev Syed and Meghan Lee.

Meghan Lee, owner of Heirloom, restored an old Victorian on Lewes’ Savannah Road and created Heirloom, a farm-to-table restaurant. She found china at flea markets, pillows at Home Goods and ordered artwork from Etsy to create dining rooms with pops of color. Photo by Brian Harvath
Meghan Lee, owner of Heirloom, restored an old Victorian on Lewes’ Savannah Road and created Heirloom, a farm-to-table restaurant. She found china at flea markets, pillows at Home Goods and ordered artwork from Etsy to create dining rooms with pops of color. (Photo by Brian Harvath)

Lee’s dream was to open her own restaurant. She worked four jobs at a time to make it come true. The nutritionist earned her stripes at places like Kennett Square’s Sovano and the Steven Starr organization.

After consulting with the Small Business Development Corp. in Dover, Lee thought she was headed straight for a woman-owned business loan from the SBA.

She had $150,000 to invest. Armed with a spreadsheet of the four banks that had the most money to lend, she headed to the banks to ask them to match her investment. “That’s all I was asking for — $150,000 — which is less than a home mortgage,” Lee said, adding that she thinks she filled out 60 forms.

One turned her down because she was late on a personal credit card payment six years earlier, she said.

Another followed suit.

One said they don’t touch restaurants.  (“I was constantly being told four out of five restaurants fail,” she said.)

When another told her, “Yeah, yeah, we’ll look at it, ” Lee sat tight. “No, no. I’ll sit right here and watch you read it,” she said.

Fearing she wasn’t being taken seriously, Lee began taking her dad, a successful 72-year-old businessman, to lender meetings. It didn’t help.

In the end, they all turned her down. “That was a huge turnoff for me,” she said. “It kind of pissed me off, actually.”

Mentors like Mariah Calligione of Dogfish Head and Dimitra Kotanides of Dimitra Yoga and Meghan Gardner of Blue Moon cheered her on.

Lee, who grew up down the road from Andrew Wyeth but summered in Lewes, raised money from individual investors at the beaches. “I played sports my whole life, and I’m super-competitive, and when people are constantly saying you can’t do that, I’m like, ‘Oh, are you putting me in a corner? I kind of work best when I have my back against the wall.’”

She raised her construction-IQ studying single-phase power and Rinnai water systems, so that, when her general contractor hired a foreman who told her she didn’t have to worry about construction because she didn’t know anything about it, they butted heads.

In a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel moment, she fired him “When he left, all the trades were like, ‘Thank God!’” she said. “I knew that the female card would be played. I didn’t expect it quite that way. I don’t tolerate shit. I’m the youngest of four. I have this fight in me.”

Working with architectural designer Brenda B. Jones of Lewes, whom she calls “a brilliant human,” Lee transformed a circa-1899 mansion into a Pinterest-worthy Victorian beauty she christened Heirloom.  Five months later, Saturdays are booking a week out and the restaurant supports a staff of 15.

Demi Kollias at her new Claymont Steaks Concord Pike location, her third steak shop. Photo by Ron Dubick
Demi Kollias at her new Claymont Steaks Concord Pike location, her third steak shop. (Photo by Ron Dubick)

Demi Kollias says she feels like she’s never slept in her life. In the last 20 years, she has owned three 7-Elevens that posted double-digit sales increases every year, three Claymont Steak Shops and a meat-processing company. And, the 7-Elevens were deep into Pennsylvania.

“I pretty much got zero sleep because it’s not only the physical work that you do, it’s the mental work. When you’re the person who is in charge, you’re always trying to predict the next step, especially when you have to deal with a 24-hour operation, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” she said. “The first day that I didn’t have to be on the Blue Route at 5 o’clock in the morning, it felt like I was going through space or something. I thought, ‘What was I doing all these years?’”

Nowadays, Kollias has cut back to operating three steak shops, including a new one on Concord Pike, and the meat-processing company. She and her attorney-husband also are raising two daughters, a Tufts freshman and a Tower Hill senior.

Kollias relied on help from her mother, who helped rear her daughters, and her in-laws, who lent her the money to get started — at slightly more than the bank interest rate at the time.

“For me, it was 100 times easier with my mother, who is my angel, living with us all these years, helping me. I felt so comfortable that it was my mother. I knew she would love them and take care of them — and teach them Greek,” Kollias said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my Mom. I’m not a super-woman.”

“My father-in-law was my bank,” she said. “Some people said, ‘Oh, she has a rich family. They gave her everything.’ No, that’s not true. My family was my own personal bank — but we definitely paid them back.”

Being a young woman with an M.B.A. meant some differences in management style from the uncle who sold her the first Claymont Steak Shop in 2005. He was old school; she had learned computer inventory at 7-Eleven and planned to use sophisticated programs to track everything. “He almost didn’t sell me the restaurant,” she said.

Kollias and her husband are co-owners, but she runs the operation. She said her entrepreneurial style is to take less risk than she is able to take. “I like more stable and small, secure steps rather than jumping the staircase three steps at a time,” she said. “Where I am right now, we have over 100 employees, so I have to think about them and their families too.”

With a to-do list at the ready on her nightstand, Kollias says she always has a project for the future. Will she be part of the 5.2 percent growth the National Restaurant Association predicts for Delaware in 2016?  Not likely. It’s her daughter’s senior year, she said.

At age 26, Leigh Ann Tona runs a café, a catering business and a food truck plastered with the words “I Don’t Give a Fork.”

She had been working since age 14, and her father always told her to save half her salary, so, by the time Tona was a senior at UD, she could afford the $10,000 used food cart she found on Craig’s List.

She grossed more than $75,000 the first year, a number she characterizes as “not bringing in very much at all.” She realized she could expand her business to cover events if her food cart, which looked more like a big wooden shed than a cart, were more mobile. Out of necessity, she upgraded to a food truck in 2014.

Even though the publicity she garnered as a 20-something business owner helped, getting a food-truck loan was no piece of cake. One large bank turned her down immediately without even looking at her application, but WSFS lent her $75,000.

She wouldn’t share numbers, but said, “I’m happy with how much money I make. It depends on the year. I could have a really great year and I could have a crappy year. So far, my sales have increased every year, and the amount of money I’m able to put in my pocket is a nice amount.”

She took over a café at the EZ Pass Customer Service Center near the Delaware Memorial Bridge so she could use the professional kitchen there to expand her catering business. “If the café breaks even, that’s awesome because I’m getting what I need from it,” she said.

Of course, working six or seven days a week from April through October has its drawbacks for a 26-year-old with a boyfriend. Almost every weekend she has to apologize because she doesn’t have time to do anything.

“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, you own your own business. You can make your own hours.’ Not true at all,” Tona said. “If I’m asked to do an event and the result is me putting $1,000 in my pocket, I’m absolutely going to take that event.”

Like four out of 10 Delaware restaurants, Vinnie’s and Little Vinnie’s on Del. 141 are one-half woman-owned. Beverly Syed and her son Vinnie bought Vinnie’s and Little Vinnie’s as 50-50 partners. When they bought the side-by-side storefronts 13 years ago, the “Vinnie” name was already on the sign. The past owner’s infant son was named Vinnie.

Beverly Syed, who segued from banking to the restaurant business, does the books and backs up the counter staff. Her son, who bought in when he was 20, manages the place.

“It’s probably the hardest job I’ve ever done in my life,” Beverly Syed said. “You start your own business, you’re never going home. That’s a given.”

As Meghan Lee of Heirloom put it, “I think it’s a special breed of female who opens a restaurant. It’s not for the weak. It’s for the strong, confident people. The go-getters. People who know what they want. It’s a certain kind of crazy.”

MORE: ‘Perfect storm’ leads to rise of female restaurateurs

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