Mary Beth Ringgold: Lean Times Demand New Ideas, Diligent Bookkeeping

by Robert Bell  on Monday, Mar. 29, 2010 12:00 am  

Mary Beth Ringgold wears many hats, and not all of them are that of chef.

"In our organization, I'm basically the CEO, the CFO, the CMO and the dishwasher, from time to time," she said.

At the outset of college, Ringgold wasn't planning on following the path her forebears took. Though she would go on to co-own several successful restaurants in Little Rock, the West Virginia native originally intended to study finance.

"Truthfully, my grandfather was in the restaurant business and my father was in the restaurant business. So I really had no desire to be in the restaurant business," she said.

But what was supposed to be a part-time summer job at a new restaurant in Knoxville, Tenn., turned into something a lot more enduring.

Ringgold started at Cajun's Wharf in Knoxville, which opened about the time the city hosted the World's Fair in 1982.

"The Cajun's thing was a big concept. It was very exciting, and I just thought it was so multifaceted in what it did with banquets, and a big restaurant and the bar side and entertainment," she said. "I really did enjoy it, and in your early years, that sounds very appealing. It's fun and energetic, so I got sucked into it."

Ringgold still cooks, mainly for catering jobs or when developing new menus and testing recipes. But her days are taken up more by crunching numbers than cracking eggs.

"Definitely what I do the most of my day is related to numbers: analysis, banking, profit and loss, that type of thing," she said.

Nowadays, Ringgold has to watch those figures carefully, especially during a sluggish economy in which many consumers are pulling back on spending.

Ringgold's restaurants fared pretty well in 2009. Cajun's Wharf was down about 8 percent from the year before, with revenue of $2.21 million, according to city tax records. Capers brought in $1.02 million, down about 12 percent, but Copper Grill was up 15 percent from the year before, with revenue of $891,838.

In some other areas of the country, many casual and fine dining restaurants saw declines of 35 percent or more over the last couple years, she said.



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