Something's Stu-ing: Rifkin gives good restaurant

On Sunday nights, legions of TV watchers tune in to The Restaurant, the reality TV show that follows the efforts of Rocco Despirito as he launches his latest hip Manhattan restaurant.

Stu Rifkin, however, doesn't watch the show. He doesn't need to; he lives it every day, helping restaurateurs open their eateries.

Rifkin, 41, got his start in the food biz more than two decades ago, working in The American Café in Northern Virginia while attending American University. Though his degree is in criminology, it was food service that caught– and kept– his interest.

"I have a ton of ideas and business plans," says Rifkin, "and I like to see them through."

Since moving to Charlottesville in 1991 and opening a consulting business, Rifkin has had a hand in the development of no less than 15 restaurants. As part owner of Northern Exposure, Sweetbones, and Rococo's, Rifkin honed his management skills. And, although he has since gone out on his own, he says the connections he made over the years continue to prove fruitful. (He's also a commercial real estate agent who has matched several local restaurant buyers and sellers.)

Rifkin says that clients come to him primarily by word of mouth, because his goal is not just to make things tasty, but also profitable.

"He's about the largest vat of restaurant knowledge I've ever come across," says Andrew Silver, one of three owners of Zocalo, soon to open in the former Moondance space in Central Place.

Silver says he and his partners have turned to Rifkin for advice on everything from purchasing equipment to dealing with the health department.

Rifkin was also influential in the creation of the Liberty gas station and Everyday Café in the Rivanna Ridge shopping center on Pantops, and he's now working on a similar project in Baltimore.

Furthest afield, however, is Poppy's, a health-oriented fast food restaurant that Rifkin opened in July with Bob Waldstein in Bangor, Maine. After a glowing article on Poppy's appeared in the Bangor Daily News, cars lined up 40 deep in the drive-thru, Rifkin says, and Waldstein, who handles the day-to-day operations, had to temporarily turn customers away.

So what's the secret to making it in the risky restaurant world?

Experience, says Rifkin. The number one mistake aspiring restaurateurs make is "undercapitalization," he explains. Making sure there's enough dough in the coffers to cover broken equipment and advertising expenses is key to keeping an operation open– and profitable– in the long term.

And while Rifkin would like to get in on more ventures like Poppy's, in which he has a monetary stake, he says he'll never stop consulting.

"It's the energy of doing it again," he says.


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