Monday, May 23, 2005

Merchant & Main Grill and Bar marks 20-year milestone in Downtown Vacaville

Article Launched: 05/22/2005 09:24:36 AM

Savoring success
Merchant & Main marks 20-year milestone

By Barbara Smith/Business Writer

Bob Tooke, owner of Merchant & Main Grill and Bar talks about his 20 year restaurant success story. (Rick Roach/The Reporter)

It's a rainy weekday afternoon, and the lounge inside Merchant & Main Grill and Bar is warmly lit and quiet save the occasional thumping of dice cups at a corner table.

Vacaville businessmen Rod Boles and Chris Kistner are playing as they wait for their lunches. It's a routine they've enjoyed since the Main Street restaurant first opened.

In a day and age when many restaurants fail quickly, Merchant & Main is bucking the trend. It will mark its 20th anniversary this summer with a gala event and regular patrons like Boles and Kistner say they understand why the local eatery has succeeded where others have failed.

Boles, a telephone service company owner, says he can get a feel of the pulse of the business community inside the eatery.

"It's kind of nice to get the inside information on who's doing what, where, and how ... and you get a good meal. What more could you want?" he says.

"We meet for drinks in the evening, talk business and sports," says Kistner, a local insurance broker.

And of course, there's the food.

"It's got to be done right," Boles says. "Bob takes good care of us."

* * *

Veteran restaurateur Bob Tooke arrives to his restaurant each day before it opens and after his daily shopping rounds.

Dressed in jeans, jersey, vest and ball cap, Tooke, 52, hardly fits the stereotypical image of the owner of an upscale restaurant that has enjoyed unprecedented success in Vacaville.

"Twenty years, a long time in restaurant racket," he said in a recent interview.

Merchant & Main Grill and Bar was established in June 1985 by three Tookes - Bob, brother Jim and Jim's wife, Kathy.

That's when the downtown was a "scary" place, with empty buildings, Tooke said.

"We literally built this restaurant on credit cards," he recalled. "We had no money."

Despite some "bumps in the road," they made it, said Tooke. They bought the building in 1989. He bought out his brother and sister-in-law in 1998. The 1,700-square-foot patio was recently built with city of Vacaville Redevelopment Agency funds.

Total dollars invested through the years: $600,000 to $700,000.

Today, he reluctantly admits he's a millionaire "on paper," but clarifies that it's his friends and family that matter.

"What's cool about Merchant & Main is there has been 50 million friendships and relationships formed from this restaurant. Everybody knows each other," he said.

Tooke's daughter, Jema Hagerman, 28, is now general manager and heads the restaurant's catering business. His son Sam Tooke, 24 is a chef at the eatery. Other family members also work at the restaurant.

On Tooke's "to do" list is new stainless steel equipment for the kitchen. And there's a new menu to roll out in July. Tooke only says he's going to "tinker" with it.

While Tooke has left most of the management up to his daughter, he still works and considers his schedule of 40 to 50 hours a week a light load. Restaurant owners can expect to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week until they pay down their debts, he said.

He does what he likes to do - daily shopping for fresh food and hanging out in the kitchen to "fiddle around" and experiment.

"A restaurant is a kitchen," he said.

So what are entrepreneurs who fail in the restaurant business doing wrong?

"People in the restaurant business have to work in the business," Tooke said. "You can't be an absentee owner in this business. You're not making shirts."

* * *

Mike Palombo, the city of Vacaville's economic development manager, eats in local restaurants often. He said he has had many lunches and a few dinners at Merchant & Main.

"I think that they helped establish the fact that there was a market for a locally owned, higher class restaurant," Palombo said. "The fact is they were one of the first to offer that type of service to this community, and for a long time they were the only one who did.

"I think it's very well matched for the taste of the community," he said.

The prices and service are also key to its success, he said.

Customers are looking for a clean restaurant, consistency and reasonable prices, said Tooke.

"The number one thing we do is we're consistent," he said. "We have an extremely high quality product, everything is fresh. We buy everything daily. We call it 'just in time' buying,'" he said.

The restaurant also offers eight to 10 specials per meal.

"It keeps it interesting for people, instead of the same old thing over and over, and over," Tooke said.

He has loyal, long term employees, like one woman who has been a server for 17 years. And he offers good wages, he said.

"We pay better than most in town. In fact, I know we do," Tooke said.

The restaurant employs 55 to 65, depending on the season.

Tooke is particularly proud of his success because the restaurant cannot rely on freeway traffic to draw customers.

"We rely on repeat customers," he said. "You can't treat anybody like you're not going to see them again. We have to deal with the local people."

* * *

Tooke loves the revitalization of Vacaville's downtown and he's prospered because of it. However, the city can pour money into the downtown but whether or not it thrives depends on how much money merchants are willing to put into their businesses.

Any words of advice?

"Never rest on your laurels. Never think you're good enough, or you're dead," he said.

Tooke is planning a 20th anniversary celebration for customers and former employees at the Opera House June 6 with a nine-piece band. Everybody is welcome, he said.

"We like to feel like we're part of the locals," he said.

So what do the locals think about Merchant & Main?

"Everybody knows where Merchant & Main is. That says it right there," he said.

Barbara Smith can be reached at

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