Many foodie entrepreneur hopefuls often ask, "How do I find success in the restaurant business?" Well, Nathan D'Andrea, the managing partner of Wilma's, an ever-growing "hip, health-minded cafe" in Ann Arbor, Michigan can help them out. When I was a freshman at the University of Michigan, a little cafe named Fred's opened up on South University Avenue. Fred's had only two employees, two blenders, and one skillet, yet the place was packed with eager students craving the açaí bowls they missed so dearly while away from their homes in New York or Los Angeles. 

From Fred's to Wilma's

Claudia Haimovici

Fred's was inspired by Fred Lelcaj, the brother of well-known Ann Arbor restaurateur, Sava Farah. Fred asked Nathan, a long-time employee at SavCo Hospitality, to help him get things running with his new restaurant. Fred and Nathan were the two employees who probably made your avocado toast or Beach Blanket smoothie at their little space in 2016. Since then, Fred's has moved to a location ten times the size with indoor and outdoor seating, changed its name to Wilma's, and most importantly, possesses a much more extensive menu that is just as healthy and delicious across the board as it was when it first opened. I sat down with Nathan to discuss the process that led to the great success he and the restaurant have acquired, with the hopes of inspiring others to work hard to achieve their dreams in the food industry.

Tip #1: Starting From the Bottom Gets You There (*Cue Drake*)

Claudia Haimovici

The position of managing partner was not handed to Nathan on a silver platter. He worked hard and moved from position to position to get to where he is today. Growing up, his parents owned a family-run restaurant. He got his first job at 12 years old, helping his brother with food-prep. When his parents sold their restaurant in 2003, he kept working. His mom always said, "If you know how to work in a restaurant, no matter what the economy is like, you'll always have a job because people always want to eat." He then got a job washing dishes at another restaurant, and eventually they taught him how to make pizza. After learning the pizza trade, he became a line cook. Having had these behind-the-scenes restaurant experiences, his friend, who was opening a restaurant in Port Huron, reached out and asked if he'd like to manage the kitchen. While working in Port Huron, he learned a tremendous amount about the fundamentals of running a restaurant: ordering, inventory food cost, administration, and more. 

After his Port Huron stint, he began working for SavCo Hospitality in Ann Arbor in 2011 as a line cook at Sava's healthy market and eatery, Babo Market. Sava immediately made a brilliant impression on Nathan, and he tried to soak up all of the valuable food industry lessons he could. He learned even more from Sava when she promoted him to General Manager of Babo Market when the incumbent went on maternity leave.

Lessons From Sava Herself

Claudia Haimovici

Sava taught Nathan lessons many never learn, which keep them asking, "How do I find success in the restaurant business?" Nathan learned:

1. Never take shortcuts; there is the right way, and there is the easy way, and you must always go the right way to get the job done. 

2. You must invest in your employees in addition to your customers. Creating a healthy employee culture is critical. 

3. Running a market is cutthroat. You must learn how to reduce waste, shrinkage, and more. To do this, Nathan learned to use items on the market shelves that had yet to be bought and were soon to expire to make creative dishes for the eatery side of the business. 

4. You must always strive to prevent fires before they occur. Training your staff well will help with this.  

After Babo, Nathan worked at other Ann Arbor restaurants that were not managed by SavCo. He quickly learned that he preferred working for SavCo because they train and care for their employees more than any other restaurant groups he experienced. Happy to have him back, Sava appointed Nathan "Operations Assistant to the CEO," becoming her "jack of all trades" and learning the operational aspects of the restaurant industry so he could solve problems in the field on her behalf.

Tip #2: Always Say Yes

Claudia Haimovici

As stated above, Sava's brother Fred reached out to Nathan in 2015, aware of his experience and reliable performance with SavCo, to ask him if he would take part in helping him launch a healthy cafe start-up in town. Fred and Nathan's first space was small, with only a bar for seating and an open kitchen right behind that. Demand proliferated, for Fred's filled the missing gap in the Ann Arbor food industry: a healthy-minded business offering açaí bowls, avocado toast, and smoothies. These kinds of places were popular on the east and west coasts, but hadn't reached the Midwest just yet. As demand grew, they expanded to the bigger space which they occupy today on East Washington Street.

Tip #3: When Change Occurs, Take the Bull by the Horns

Claudia Haimovici

In early 2018, Fred decided to move to Miami to pursue the restaurant industry down south, prompting Sava to appoint Nathan as her new managing partner. In addition to Fred's departure, a company in Texas with the same name was threatening legal action if Fred's in Ann Arbor did not change theirs. Instead of coming up with a new name by themselves, they went about it more strategically by holding a naming contest among customers. Fred's clientele was part of the process, which created excitement surrounding the new name instead of spurring worries that the restaurant would not be the same. The campaign lasted for two months, had 5000 participants, and promised the winner free food for a month post-decision. The name submitted by most people was Wilma's, a fun complement to the previous name, as it reminded some of Fred and Wilma from the Flintstones. There is something quite trendy about pairing an old-fashioned name with modern, in-vogue food.

Tip #4: Never Settle 

Claudia Haimovici

Despite all of the success that Wilma's has had, Nathan knows never to settle and to keep innovating so that their cafe remains successful for years to come. Wilma's continues to update their menu seasonally, bringing in new hot food trends. This year, they've added fun new twists to their menu including a Blue Majik smoothie, GoNanas healthy banana bread french toast, black rice, and banana "nice cream." They also continue to update decor; the restaurant has recently adopted a more bohemian feel with natural woods, green plants, white surfaces, and distinct areas to chill within the restaurant that provide different dining vibes depending on what you're feeling that day. One of my favorites is an area with chic couches and a wicker swinging chair, taking you to a tropical oasis during frigid Michigan winters. 

Finding success in the restaurant business isn't easy, but it is doable. Managing Partner of Wilma's, Nathan D'Andrea, started in the grassroots of the restaurant industry in food-prep. From his experiences behind the scenes, he acquired the ability to become the managing partner of a thriving restaurant today. Next time you ask yourself, "How do I find success in the restaurant business?", channel your inner Nathan D'Andrea and turn lemons into lemonade (actually, more like turn lemons into activated charcoal lemonade). 

Claudia Haimovici

Photos courtesy of Wilma's photographer, Claire Lindsey. This website format does not allow the author to credit the photographer under the photographs unless they are a part of Spoon University or embedded via Instagram.