Tim Baker: Cooking Up Business

Tim Baker’s career in the Tulsa restaurant business was sparked when, right out of college, he walked out on a lucrative insurance sales job.
“It wasn’t for me. I actually made a lot of money at it, but I just hated it. So, I kind of quit one day.”
He secured a job as a waiter at Bodean’s Seafood Restaurant, where we worked while he “tried to figure out what I was going to do with my life.”
“I really started to enjoy the restaurant business while working there. I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
Now, the 30-something restaurateur behind Brookside anchors The Brasserie and Sonoma Bistro & Wine Bar is planning a south Tulsa addition to his restaurant portfolio. Baker is still toying with the concept for the restaurant, not wanting to say too much lest plans change.
“I’ve got a pretty specific idea about what it is I want to do, but at the same time I’m going to need to walk through the building and feel it a little bit. It’s not a done deal,” Baker said.
“We’re foodies. It’s kind of my art, and the old saying is, you have to find where art and commerce meet, and if you do that properly, then you have a hit on your hands.”
“I continue to be baffled by the honeymoon period for restaurants in Tulsa. I used to think the typical restaurant would go through a three- or four-month honeymoon, and business would normalize.”
At The Brasserie, the contemporary French, fine-dining restaurant that opened in Nov. 2006 and saw first-year sales topping $2 million, “the honeymoon lasted about 10 months, to the point I didn’t think it was a honeymoon. I was saying each month, ‘This is the month that it’s going to slow down,’ and it never really did.”
Then, summer hit, along with its foreboding headlines from Wall Street. The openings of several other independent restaurants with a similar customer base were planned for the same period, so “there were a lot of competitive pressures, too.”
Though the sour economy has turned The Brasserie into a “special event restaurant, we still do a very strong neighborhood business,” Baker said. “We’ve tried to adjust to the best of our ability without diminishing the restaurant in any way to try to make it easier for people to dine here.”
The Brasserie ranks in the top 10 list of romantic restaurants booked in Oklahoma on OpenTable.com, and is No. 2 on the list of restaurants with notable wine lists in the state.
Stars of The Brasserie menu include the Alsatian Tarte Flambée, Pan Seared Duck Breast, Steak Frites and Pork Milanese, with more than 75 wines available by the glass. The dining area at The Brasserie, at about 4,000 SF, seats 80 in the dining room and 50 on its patio. The bar seats 25.
Sonoma Bistro & Wine Bar, launched one year after The Brasserie, was opened as a compliment to Baker’s inaugural restaurant, since “it’s much more casual, much more everyday – an easy, breezy kind of place.” Since Baker halted lunch service at The Brasserie late last year, lunch sales at Sonoma, which saw sales at $1.5 million its first year, have tripled.
In about 3,000 SF, Sonoma can serve 70 with room for 50 on the front and back patios, and a private dining room seats 30. The Sonoma menu features Hangar Steak with Gorgonzola, BBQ Salmon Tamale and Truffled Fettuccini with Poached Chicken, as well as California-style pizzas, soups, salads and sandwiches. The bar at Sonoma features about 100 wines, sourced worldwide, by the glass.
Baker’s concepts draw upon his food travels. The Brasserie is based upon the classic brasserie, ubiquitous in France, and Sonoma is a re-creation of the wine-centric restaurants of northern California.
Being a Brookside restaurant owner has its share of glamour, but life at the helm isn’t all schmoozing and limelight.
“I hate the accounting and the office work. But, if I could go teach a class at OSU on hotel and restaurant management, it would be about cash flow. Being capitalized in the restaurant business is huge. Prior to opening this restaurant I think I read that restaurants fail due to undercapitalization more than any other reason.”
Baker has financed his ventures without partners or investors. His start-up capital mix combined a commercial loan, cash from an angel investor and savings.
“Then, I cash flowed a lot into what we did. This was a start-out $700,000 restaurant that I got going with $300,000. It took a lot of juggling. And, it was extraordinarily busy early on. We were on pace here to do about $2.5 million in the first year.”
“The last quarter crashed on us, particularly with that ice storm situation. That cost us $50,000 by itself.”
When ice storms aren’t freezing sales, Baker works to “keep staff engaged. That’s always difficult, keeping everything fresh. I told the guys when we opened the restaurant, ‘It’s my job to get the restaurant busy, and it’s your job to keep it busy.’
Baker employs 80-100 at The Brasserie and Sonoma.
“You compete [with other restaurant owners] for customers, but you also compete for employees. You have to be known as a good employer. It’s not always about money.”
For a restaurant like The Brasserie, which is tucked away in The Consortium and has no street frontage, advertising for Baker is more about branding, direct sales and philanthropy. However, getting it right is the best way to get the word out, he said.
“A lot of restaurants do special menus for special occasions and holidays, but I just want the restaurant to be correct – well-executed, the food is good, the service is good, the ambiance is right, the way I intend for it to be – when you come in. If it’s right when you get here, whenever that happens to be, it’s going to be great, rather than trying to do something different all the time.” ?



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