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Talented Young Chef Can't Overcome the
 Inherent Risks of the Restaurant Business
By Andrea Weigl, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jan. 16, 2008 - On Nov. 28, a few minutes before 2 p.m., Durham chef Sam Poley sent the e-mail he never wanted to write -- the one announcing the closing of his restaurant, Starlu.

Starlu would close Dec. 22, he told his customers. He invited them to come for a last meal and to say goodbye. "We want to go out with the same grace with which we entered," he wrote. "We do not want to be the place that suddenly went dark with no explanation."

The reason he offered: not enough routine business. The explanation that went unsaid: location.

Poley, 38, is one of those rare chefs who is a master in both the front and back of the house. He's an inspired chef but also a charming presence in the dining room. In his white chef's jacket, khaki cargo shorts, black clogs and brightly colored socks, he knows how to make diners feel welcome. He calls many of his customers friends.

Starlu was Poley's first restaurant. After a decade of working in other people's kitchens, Poley decided he had to open his own. He says he invested $50,000 of his own money and estimates roughly $950,000 from a private investor. By the end of November, Poley's wife, Stephanie, tapped the last of the company's savings to make payroll.

The death of Poley's dream illustrates a crucial truth about the eat local movement: In a community where farmers' markets thrive and restaurant menus list that the Camembert came from Chapel Hill Creamery and the pork belly came from Cane Creek Farm, a commitment to eating local has to include dining local, or the restaurants that support those farmers will fail.

In this age of Food Network stars, it seems everyone harbors a dream of running a restaurant. The reality is restaurants are risky ventures. The average profit margin for a full-service restaurant is 4 percent, according to the National Restaurant Association. The failure rate -- though not the often-cited 90 percent in the first year -- hovers at about 60 percent after three years, according to academic research. It is a daunting undertaking to open a restaurant and make it a continued success.

"There is something incredibly immature about opening a restaurant," Poley says, "and something terrifyingly mature about closing it."

A career change

Poley ended up in the Triangle for the same reason so many others did: IBM. Poley's father, an engineer, moved the family to Cary when Poley was in high school. Poley was drawn to Durham, a post-industrial town like Kingston, N.Y., where he grew up. After graduating from Appalachian State University, Poley worked for a prominent public relations firm in Kentucky. He hated it. He moved to Durham and found jobs in public relations and advertising sales. By 25, he wanted a career change. "I essentially crumpled up my degree and got busy," Poley says.

He juggled four jobs, including selling men's clothing and working as a prep cook at Parizade in Durham. He moved from there to Pop's trattoria. He soon decided food was his calling. For many years, Poley was content to work in a kitchen and learn how to cook. He did not want his own restaurant.

"I didn't want the stress of it. I didn't want the hassle. I didn't want the potential to fail," Poley says.

He went on to work as the chef at Squids in Chapel Hill and later at The Weathervane at A Southern Season.

But if you work in kitchens long enough, you start thinking about what you would do differently if the place were yours. That's what happened to Poley. He had to open his own place. Poley concluded he was a risk taker. He wrote a business plan, started looking for financing and scouting locations.

Poley found an investor who made the restaurant's location a condition of support. The space was on the first floor of a six-story office building at the intersection of Shannon Road and University Drive, known largely by the upper-floor tenants, first EMD Pharmaceuticals, then Wachovia. The restaurant's entrance was around back, unseen by passing motorists. Despite the $14,000 sign declaring Restaurant Starlu's presence in 24-inch letters, 30 feet up on the side of the building, first-time visitors would still wonder whether they were in the right place.

The investor agreed to pay for the renovations. Although the location wasn't ideal, Poley agreed. He reasoned that proximity to Durham's most affluent neighborhoods -- Duke Forest, Hope Valley and Forest Hills --would help.

Poley kept the copper-topped bar and changed almost everything else. His restaurant was a bright space with clean lines, an open-air kitchen and space to move between tables. The name, Starlu, is a reference to his wife, Stephanie, and their dogs, Arthur and Lu. The restaurant's motto, "It's all about the good stuff," refers to them.

The dining room sat 100. The patio could seat 40 more. And the banquet room could serve 100. At 9,000 square feet, Starlu was an ambitious space for a first-time restaurateur.

After eight months of renovations, Starlu opened in November 2004.

Three months later, Poley received a phone call from Greg Cox, The News & Observer's restaurant reviewer, who was fact-checking his upcoming review.

The 10 days before the review came out were nerve-racking. Poley and his bar manager were at the newspaper racks at 4:30 a.m. They bought six copies for themselves and the others waiting at a nearby apartment. They agreed to read the review together, and not before. They all sat on the dining room floor and opened the paper at the same time.

The review started, "I have just enjoyed, over the brief span of 10 days in January, the two most memorable meals I've had in at least a year." Cox went on to call Poley a "prodigy when it comes to understanding and respecting ingredients, too, and in terms of execution, he rarely falters." Starlu earned 31/2 out of 4 possible stars.

Before the review was published, Starlu had 12 people booked for dinner that Friday night and 23 for Saturday. Afterward, the restaurant had 83 reservations for Friday night and 123 for Saturday night. That didn't include walk-in customers. Business only got better, Poley says, going from an average of 60 diners on a Saturday night to 250, essentially overnight.

Economy turns

Business boomed throughout the spring of 2005. But, as the restaurant business goes, it was a slow, lean summer. The first weekend after school started in the fall, Poley says, the dining room was packed. During the Saturday night dinner rush, he recalls exchanging a look with his wife: "They remember us. They like us. We're going to be OK."

But then Hurricane Katrina hit. After that, inexplicably, business slowed. Poley theorizes that although his restaurant benefited from the nearby affluence, those same residents tightened their belts as the economy soured.

Sam and Stephanie Poley say they tried a number of things to revive the business: a lounge area called "Porter's Parlor," named after their 16-month-old son, wine tastings, wine dinners, cooking classes, a chef's table, catering events for Playmakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill. They even expanded their "Bottles of Change" program, which donated 50 cents for every glass of wine and $2 for every bottle sold to a local charity. Once a month, they donated a cut of a Tuesday night's sales to charity. In three years, the restaurant raised more than $43,000 for needy causes.

Nothing could turn the restaurant around.

The sign comes down

On Dec. 21, Poley stood outside the office building watching workers remove the Restaurant Starlu sign from the side of the building. At 9 a.m., the temperature hovered at 40 degrees with a brisk wind making it seem colder.

With a cup of coffee in his hands, Poley chatted with those who work in the office building or were headed to workout at the first-floor gym. The conversations were all about the restaurant closing.

One man drove up and stopped to talk. "Are you going to reopen anywhere else," he asked Poley.

"I'd like to," Poley said.

"Location. Location. Location," the man replied.

"I'm going to try to do something with a little more visibility next time," Poley told him.

Saying goodbye

Funny thing is, Poley's closing e-mail filled the dining room. The upswing led one waitress to quip: "They didn't come to the hospital. They came for the funeral."

For Starlu's last supper, the kitchen stores were spare: four salads, no desserts, a little wine, bottled beer and some liquor. Poley decided to serve the restaurant's former late night menu of fancy hot dogs on buttered, toasted buns. One hot dog is topped with foie gras and maple syrup. Another is wrapped in bacon, deep-fried and served with chopped red onion, mayonnaise and peanut butter.

Twenty-four people were booked for dinner. One loyal customer brought ribs so Poley wouldn't have to cook something to feed the staff at the end of the night.

The mood in the dining room recalled a wake, as if it might be offensive to laugh too loud. An occasional shout filled the air, followed by an exchange of hugs as former employees walked through the door. Some customers left when they learned hot dogs were the only things on the menu. Loyal customers scattered at tables reminisced about Poley's onion rings, and about how welcome they felt even when dining alone at Starlu.

At dinner's end, Poley and his wife started removing items from the walls. Down came artwork, the portraits of their dogs, the framed copy of Cox's review, the sanitation score, the occupancy permits.

By 9:15 p.m., it was time to take down Petunia.

The iron work sculpture of a flying pig was a gift from the contractor when the restaurant opened. Petunia hung above the open-air kitchen, witness to Poley making thousands of meals. Her nickname was Mistress of the Dining Room.

With his hands on his hips, Poley strode up to the pig. He gazed up at her. He paused and turned to look at his wife. His face cracked with emotion. He whispered, "I don't want to take her down."

Poley walked to a back hallway. He crouched down for a private moment, his wife beside him. A few minutes later, Sam came back, wiping away tears.

This time, without hesitation, he walked over and took down Petunia. As he wiped dust off the pig's wings, a couple got up to leave. Putting on their coats, they called out: "Goodbye, Sam. Goodbye, Starlu."

andrea.weigl@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4848

Epilogue: Poley is thinking about getting a tattoo of the Starlu logo. He has lined up a couple of interviews for food industry jobs. Will he open another restaurant? He says he's not sure; maybe as an employee for someone else, maybe on his own. About St

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Copyright (c) 2008, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

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