|2/4/2013 1:53:00 AM|
Milepost 111 earns nod
as 2012's 'best'
Cashmere's McClendon identifies niche, lands chef to pull it all together
|Milepost 111 Brewing Company owner Melissa McClendon is putting her plan to create a “great place to eat food” into practice, earning enough accolades from WBJ readers to take the “best new business” award this year for her Cashmere eatery.|
Fourth-generation Cashmere native Melissa McClendon returned home in 2010 planning to open a winery.
She wanted to put to use some of the knowledge she had acquired during the previous five years working at a winery on the east coast and the years before that working in the horticulture lab at Washington State University.
When she first left for college, she envisioned using her horticulture degree back on the family orchard, but she got sidetracked first by her work in the lab (molecular biology and genetics work) and then in viticulture, which eventually brought her back home, only a few years later than she intended.
Once here she realized the Wenatchee Valley already had a bountiful crop of fermented grape purveyors, so she adapted her business model, opting instead to put her fermentation skills to use by establishing a brewery and adding a restaurant to the mix.
"I wanted to offer a great place to eat food," she said. "I was trying to bring something different to the table."
She did not have a culinary background, but she had a minor in business and had been in on the business side of the east coast winery, which gave her the base she needed.
She identified a niche with room for growth here, as a destination restaurant and brewery, open seven days a week, attracting locals and visitors alike.
And she found a location - at 407 Aplets Way, just off the highway at Milepost 111 in Cashmere. The building, owned by Jon and Jolene Beem, still housed Ryan Patrick Vineyards' winery and tasting room when her plans were first being formed.
"I had heard they were leaving," she said, "and decided to wait it out."
In January 2012, she signed a three-year lease on the property (with an option to buy) and, with the financial backing of her parents, she worked up plans to turn what had been an open hangar (from when the property served as Cascade Helicopter, though it originally was the Chevrolet dealership) into a brewery, bar, kitchen and dining area, along with restrooms, banquet rooms and eventually, a retail boutique (in the room facing the street.
Early on, she sought advice from her sister, who has been a restaurant manager for 15 years. Together they drew up the basic diagram for laying out the kitchen and the bar.
She opened Milepost 111 Brewing Company on Oct. 22, about five months after her target startup date and about 25 percent over-budget. She worked through construction and permitting challenges, several financial hurdles, the liquor license delays and, in September, the death of her father.
Every time she was on the verge of taking a step backward, she got a break - the liquor license paperwork, financing or finding the staff with the expertise to pull the plan together.
"My mom said Karma was on my side," she said.
And, despite a relatively quiet start - without a permanent sign or a mainstream advertising campaign - the place is hopping.
"I expected to be busy at first because we're new, but it hasn't slowed down," she said.
Wenatchee Business Journal readers named Milepost 111 Brewing Company the "Best New Business" of 2012 and "Most Memorable Business Name" in the annual WBJ Readers' Choice Awards.
"I am flattered and honored," she said.
She is now gearing up for the next step, starting to advertise and working on her permanent signs to help build clientele.
"We already have regulars," she said. "We've had some customers who have worked through every item on the menu."
And business has been steady - unexpected in the winter when it's typically slow. She hopes that will translate into being even busier when the warm weather arrives.
The dining room is designed to expand outside in good weather by opening the roll-up doors, providing access to the patio and to the 30-by-40-foot deck just a few feet away overlooking the Wenatchee River.
The deck currently is home to a family of snowmen, but in the summer, it will become part of the dining space and visible to the hundreds of rafters on their way to the landing spot at Riverside Park. The restaurant is a short walk, just across Aplets Way, making it convenient for outdoor recreationists by water or by land (bicyclists and other trail users).
She expects to start offering breakfast by then as well.
She is planning to put in a bicycle repair station in the front to build a rapport with those potential customers, hoping help with a flat tire one day will bring them back for lunch or dinner later.
Her goal to turn the space that faces Aplets Way into a retail shop, with Milepost 111 T-shirts and beer mugs, is still a work in progress.
"It's on the back burner for now," she said. "Ryan Patrick used it for their wine tasting room, but it was too small for us."
Because of that space issue, she moved the entrance to the restaurant to the side door under the canopy, rather than at the glass doors near the front. It has led to some confusion, but customers have figured it out, she said.
By August, she thought the construction was getting close enough to look for staff, starting with finding a chef.
She called Matthew Walgren, whose name she had been hanging onto for several months, given to her by an equipment sales rep.
"She told me she wanted to open in two weeks," Walgren said. "The paint was dry on the wall, but that was about it. No pots or pans. No menu. I said, 'No way.' I'll let you know when we're ready. She asked every week after that."
Walgren said he had pretty much decided to get out of the restaurant business, despite a 22-year career.
McClendon's approach, commitment to quality and her willingness to give him free rein in putting together the restaurant and the crew, changed his mind.
"I have been wanting to do something like this since I started," he said, the next best thing to opening his own restaurant. "I believe in this place. The whole thing is awesome. I'm blessed to have an opportunity to be a part of it. I had lost my zest for it. It was not rewarding. Now I feel like I did when I got out of culinary school, like we can tackle anything."
He gleaned his core kitchen staff from those he had worked with in the past.
He buys ketchup and mayonnaise. Everything else is from scratch, he said, or purchased from a local vendor (when possible).The hamburger buns come from Sure To Rise Bakery in Cashmere. The meat from Mike's Market.
McClendon had put together a menu during her months of planning.
"I was looking at quality, healthy food," she said.
That's not what Walgren saw.
"The menu was huge and aimed at people from the west-side and vegetarians," he said. "Cashmere is a meat-and-potatoes kind of place where people still write checks. It wouldn't do."
A large menu makes it difficult to keep fresh items on hand and makes it more difficult to get orders prepared and out quickly.
Instead, he developed a core from-scratch menu that includes a mix of sandwiches and burgers, appetizers, salads, homemade soup and desserts. It also includes three basic entrees - steak, chicken and salmon.
He uses daily specials to keep things interesting and test items that might eventually be added to the menu.
McClendon said she fought for a few vegetarian items, including the black bean burger. Walgren compromised and the black bean burger stands, but he nixed the orzo.
He admits he doesn't understand those who don't eat meat.
"I feel sad for vegetarians," he said. "But I will try. As far as the meat eaters? We have it down."
McClendon, on the other hand, can't imagine why anyone would put bacon on a cheeseburger.
"But it's a top seller," she said.
With the kitchen set, the next challenge was the front of the house staff - bartenders and wait staff - and figuring out the flow, the duties.
It took some time to put systems in place.
That was one reason McClendon wanted a quiet start.
"I wanted a soft and slow opening so we could make sure we were doing it right before we were put to the test," she said.
They opened with a staff of 15 and now have about 20.
McClendon said many of her first customers came for the beer. The bar has 27 taps - mostly beer, but also some wine and hard cider. The beer selection includes local offerings, some not available elsewhere.
"Now they come to eat - and drink. The food brings them back," Walgren said.
The first big test of the system came in January with the arrival of the flu bug that took McClendon and Walgren out of action at the same time for a four-day stretch.
"The staff did great," McClendon said.
They both also are starting to get some days off, though Walgren admits he often stops in, even then.
McClendon also is working on getting the brewery end of the business started. So far, she has made just four batches of beer. It's technically a nano-brewery, 10 gallons at a time. She has seven barrels that she hopes to have going eventually. She has two recipes ready and is working on the others.
"Start small and go big," she said. "That's how we're doing it."
McClendon said she has yet to take a close look at profit margins.
"My mom keeps asking," she said.
But she expects it will take a full year before she can start to see how things are going.
"I'm trying to get through the first year. We had a huge overhead to get through to open. We're dragging through that now. It's still hanging over us. By October, we'll be able to see. I think we're going in the right direction. It feels like we're knocking it out of the park."
The 25-percent cost overrun was mostly in the kitchen, she said, the little stuff that she hadn't thought about like spices and stock items.
"The budget was a lot of guess work," she said.
She did seek some expert advice, though, talking to SCORE counselors several times who helped her put together her business plan.
"I kept it as tight as I could. I found good, used equipment. I will replace that with new equipment in the next few years," she said, setting aside money for a set replacement schedule rather than waiting until the equipment gives out and creating a crisis.
In May, she reached the point where she realized the financing available from her parents wasn't going to be enough to complete the project.
With the help of her dad, she was able to arrange for additional financing, she said.
That, then got complicated when her dad died in September.
All the financing was put on hold because it was in his name, she said.
Fortunately, her aunt was able to provide enough cash to see her through until they could get the doors open.
"My family has been great," she said.
As for her biggest mistake, she said, "the whole bar."
She didn't think to put up waterlines for the bar when the water main was being extended to the kitchen.
But live and learn, she said.
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