Conway sees bloom of new restaurants

Mark Rebolini said the weak U.S. economy didn’t hinder him from opening a Conway branch of his Myrtle Beach restaurant, SOHO, on S.C. 544 near Coastal Carolina University.

Sure, he said, “You always worry when the economy is like this.” But it was the time to make the move.

Five other restaurant owners felt the same way in the last six months, setting a pace that Kelli James of the Conway Chamber of Commerce hasn’t seen before in the 15 years she has been at the Chamber.

“I’m hoping this is going to be more of a trend,” said James, the Chamber’s executive vice president.

The U.S. economy is still crawling ahead in many areas, but the most recent economic report from the U.S. Commerce Department found that consumer spending was up 2 percent on an annual basis over the previous quarter, and that spending on home construction and renovation rose 14 percent when extrapolated to an annual figure.

Surprisingly perhaps, neither Rebolini nor Vitaliy Miroff of the newly-opened Solano’s Trattoria in downtown Conway, said the state of the economy was a big consideration when they decided to take the plunge.

Rebolini said the conditions were right for him to do it, and Conway was the place it needed to be done.

“There’s a big hole in the market,” he said, referring to his restaurant’s sushi, hibachi grill format.

Miroff and Hugo Solano, his partner, had worked in Myrtle Beach restaurants for a combined 30 years, but neither had owned his own business and neither had overall responsibility for a restaurant before.

“We decided to take a chance,” Miroff said.

Taylor Damonte, director of the Clay Brittain Jr. Center for Resort Tourism at Coastal Carolina University, said now is a fluid time for restaurants, where a good number seem to be opening, but a good number are closing as well.

“I’m surprised you’re not calling about the number of restaurants that have closed in the last six months,” he said.

Damonte said those who will be successful opening a restaurant need to have food knowledge and an understanding of the real estate environment. Location is key, he said, and the savvy owner will know not only about the price and location that’s best, but will also have a good idea of what else draws traffic to the area and how much traffic passes by each day.

“The restaurant business is always challenging,” he said.

But it’s hard to give a rate of success for new restaurants, although he said that brand-affiliated restaurants (McDonald’s,. for instance) tend to have a higher success rate than those that are independently owned.

Solano’s opened July 2, and Miroff said he’s learned things about running a restaurant that he never knew as an employee. For instance, he now knows about food costs and how they factor into profitability. He’s also learned the importance of positively motivating employees and that if he has a relaxed, positive demeanor at work, it is picked up by his employees.

Miroff said there have been good days and not-so-good days. When the two opened the business, he said he hoped they’d be profitable after seven months. Now, he’s stretched the timeframe out to a year.

Rebolini, who opened SOHO University in August, said its location between two CCU student apartment complexes brings in a number of students as his customers. But he also has lawyers and others who work in downtown Conway venturing a couple of miles southeast for his food.

He said he uses a constant stream of special coupon offers and other discounts to get customers through the doors.

Rebolini and Miroff said they anticipate business picking up as the economy improves more.

James said more people are seeing Conway as place to invest.

“Whereas for years and years and years,” she said, “people tended to look toward the beach.”