Restaurant owner loyal to the business

Restaurant entrepreneur looking for — and finding — opportunities at 74

Editor's note: We interviewed Mary Seto Miller at length in early 2015, resulting in this in-depth profile of the woman who, with her family, owns four Dayton-area restaurants, including the Barnsider, which Miller has sold and which will shut down Saturday night, May 14, 2016 after more than 41 years in business.

Restaurateur Mary Miller tried to retire a couple of years ago.

It didn’t work out so well.

“I’m not made for retirement,” said the 74-year-old Miller, who co-founded and co-owns three Dayton-area restaurants and is involved in a couple more. “I guess I’m what they call a Type A personality. I’m happier being busy.”

Miller’s holdings consist of restaurants of widely varying concepts in three separate communities: The Barnsider, which she co-founded 40 years ago in Harrison Twp.; The Wellington Grille in Beavercreek, where she spends most of her time overseeing dinner service; and Harrison’s Restaurant in Tipp City.

Her brother, Raymond Jean, who is a partner in the three restaurants, and her daughter, Kelley Andary, own the Blue Berry Cafe in Bellbrook (It was Miller’s suggestion to buy it). And Miller is also involved in a new restaurant near the University of Dayton, Ginger & Spice Asian Bistro, although she has no direct ownership stake.

And she is considering another new-restaurant opportunity in the Vandalia area. “I can’t sit still very long,” she said.

Born in China, Miller moved to Hong Kong as a child, then emigrated with her family to Canada when she was 13. She attended community college in Michigan before finding a job in an Asian restaurant on Reading Road in suburban Cincinnati, where she learned the restaurant business from the bottom up, from bartending to the kitchen.

The restaurant’s owners were so impressed they decided to take their first vacation in many years and left her in charge for a week.

After settling in Dayton, Miller was poised to open a Chinese restaurant in Needmore Road north of Dayton when a partner — who was also going to be the chef — bailed out at the last minute. A series of events then led her to lease the space that would become her first restaurant: The Barnsider, which opened in 1975.

More than two decades later, in 1998, Miller — who by then was living in Beavercreek with her husband Bob and the couple’s three daughters — decided to open a restaurant in their newly adopted community. The Wellington Grille, also co-owned by her brother, was the first business to open in the Beaver Valley Corners shopping center just east of Beavercreek High School. They purchased Harrison’s Restaurant in Tipp City with their accountant, Mark Swindon, in 2005.

Along the way, Miller’s restaurants faced plenty of competition, much of it from chain restaurants opening near shopping malls. She would see sales at her restaurants — especially Wellington Grille, located in the same community as The Greene and the Mall at Fairfield Commons — sag for two to three weeks after each new restaurant opened, then slowly come back.

Miller said she adjusted her menu to include more comfort food, and became a bit more casual. She offered daily specials that were affordable. And she focused on hiring employees who became loyal and hard-working. A bartender at The Barnsider has worked for her for 39 years. A server at the Wellington Grille has worked for Miller for two decades.

The formula has worked. Miller doesn’t release sales figures, but says, “We’re doing well enough. We’re paying our bills.”

And she’s optimistic enough about the future to consider building an enclosable patio at her Beavercreek restaurant while also contemplating an opportunity for a new restaurant in the Vandalia area.

There is reason for optimism. According to the National Restaurant Association, Ohio ranks 5th in the U.S. in the number of people employed by restaurants and food-service jobs, with 557,200 — and that number is projected to grow by 37,600, or 6.7 percent, over the next decade, because of growth in the restaurant industry.

While the operating environment will remain challenging, total restaurant industry sales are expected to reach a record $709.2 billion in 2015 – a 3.8 percent increase over 2014, marking the sixth consecutive year of real sales growth for the industry, according to the restaurant association’s 2015 Restaurant Industry Forecast. Restaurants will employ 14 million individuals this year as the nation’s second-largest private sector employer, representing about 10 percent of the total U.S. workforce.

“With the economy slowly improving and national employment trending upward, signs are pointing in the right direction for restaurant industry growth,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association. “Certain components of the business climate remain a challenge, accelerating industry sales in some regions and putting a damper on them in others, but the overall industry is definitely in a better place now than several years ago.”

Miller said she still gets immense satisfaction from operating restaurants, and has no intention of stepping away anytime soon, especially after her first attempt at retirement failed miserably.

Her advice to restaurant entrepreneurs? Don’t do things half-way.

“Give everything a lot of thought, do your homework and due diligence, then either do it or don’t do it — no ‘what-ifs,’” she said. “Once I do something, I don’t look back.

“If you do your homework, put your best foot forward, and work your butt off, your choices of success are very, very good.”

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