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

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.

The recession has meant Ringgold and her partners and employees have been working hard and working smart to stay on top.

"I can honestly tell you that I am working harder now than I was a few years ago, and working probably more hours, and taking less vacation," Ringgold said.

"I think in a situation where you're driven by strictly environmental situations like the recession, you have to reach out of the box much more often. You have to put your business under a microscope and try to figure out everything you're doing well and things you might not be doing well that are more susceptible to change and be willing to change," she said.

Some of those changes include keeping close tabs on labor dollars and making sure to deploy the right resources for anticipated revenue, she said.

"When you're in high-volume mode, you should be doing those things, but it's not always on the top of the list, as long as the costs are good and things are falling in line. But as your revenue falls, you have to make sure those are one of the things you put under analysis and make sure that you're deploying exactly the correct resource," she said.

Another new avenue for Ringgold has been promotion of her businesses via social media such as Facebook and Twitter. These sites are a good way to reach out to large groups of customers at a very minimal cost, she said.


Quality Is Key

But good promotion and sound bookkeeping alone can't keep a restaurant going. One of the reasons her businesses have kept their heads above water is because of the quality of the food, Ringgold said.

"As big as our operations are, everything we do is from scratch. We cut our own meat in house, we age our meat. The seafood - a lot of it - is flown in and very, very fresh. It's just unusual to find such a from-scratch operation doing this type of volume," she said.

"Even in a down economy we've been survivors. I think that means that although people come out a little less frequently, and the business travel has been affected by the economy, people still like our restaurants. I think when the economy builds back, we'll build back stronger as well."