Paul Manley is a name you need to know in the restaurant industry in the Carolinas. The President and CEO of Damian Dining has been involved in the creation of some of Charlotte’s neighborhood staples like Crepe Cellar, Growlers Pourhouse, and Sea Level. But Manley got his start with an interesting gig.
“I cut my teeth at the Cheesecake Factory,” said Manley. He managed an opening in Denver, Co. “Everybody has their predetermined thoughts of what they think about Cheesecake Factory, but there’s no better place to learn this industry.”
Working for Cheesecake Factory was like a bootcamp in running a restaurant. It gave Manley training that stuck with him for the rest of his career. His experience there came in handy after becoming the chief operating officer with a hospitality group in Charleston.
“That was a pivotal point for me because that’s when I really got to be able to, instead of constantly following the playbook I was able to create a playbook,” said Manley. He was able to learn the restaurant industry in a more organic way, outside the corporate world. “To build a brand, or put a brand together, a concept, or working on really discovering a new city and just eating for 12 hours until you just can’t fathom another meal, but learning a ton along the way. It was a great turning point for me.”
From there came Pearlz Oyster Bar. Manley worked with the owner and the executive chef to bring the thought of a concept to reality. How exactly did this process work?
“The owner said, ‘This is kind of what I have in my mind, but I don’t know what it looks like.’ And so it was myself and our chef at the time, and we visited New England, New York, Seattle and ate at a bunch of different places and really put that brand together. That changed the direction of my career because I loved the process so much and I was so passionate about that restaurant, Pearlz Oyster Bar on East Bay in Charleston.”
And the restaurant is still successful. “I’d like to think that was me but timing, real estate, and a good concept.”
Building out a concept is the most rewarding part of the process for Manley, though it also comes with added pressure. “You can get it wrong pretty easily, and God knows we have more than once,” he said. “That whole process that goes from, ‘it would be really cool to do this,’ to functional, profitable business—it’s addictive, honestly. It’s a lot of fun because there’s a lot of pressure. There’s a lot of other people’s money on the line, typically, and you have to be able to deliver that.”
If the creative and development process seems appealing, Manley has some advice. “It’s an incredibly long and arduous process and it’s one where you’re presented with just multiple obstacles on the way. It’s just the challenge of those different pieces and the wherewithal to see the long game,” he said. “The journey of that long game and that journey of getting there is what I fell in love with and I enjoy tremendously. But there’s a lot of ways to bail out of there, and there’s a lot of ways to do it wrong, and I would say that the number one piece out of everything is building the right team, getting the right people around you. It could be chefs or managers or staff, or it could be owners and investors.”
The key is to see the long road and be able to chip away at it every day, since it’s not going to fall in your lap. “Some people open up, and it’s busting at the seams, and 90 days later they’re making more money than they every imagined, and I have yet to see that, personally,” said Manley.
Though some restaurants have seen that overnight success. Manley cites Mac’s Speed Shop and Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar. But a restaurant isn’t just the concept, or the design, or the location. It’s a business and needs to be run like one.
“I think that a lot of times people take that part for granted, and it’s a great point,” said Manley about the back end of opening a restaurant. “What are you doing about accounts payable? What kind of terms are you setting your vendors up on? Are you paying people weekly? How did you structure your rent deal? All of those kind of parts that really make it all put together.”
A restaurateur can’t phone it in when it comes to the financial side of things, either. During expansion brands can bring in a chief financial officer. But in order to get to the point where a restaurant group needs one, the owner has to have that skillset, too.
“You have to understand a balance sheet. You have to understand a cashflow statement. Those are the things you have to learn on your own because you can’t afford to pay someone. Subbing those things out to contractors, people that really are smart, is great, but you already have to have that skillset because you have to understand what they’re looking for. You have to understand what their skillset is in order to pick somebody that’s good at it,” he said. “So all again, things that are snoozers to a lot of people really do matter.”
When it comes to choosing real estate for a concept, Manley acknowledges that he learns something new every time. For instance, parking spaces. “Right now just parking doesn’t matter. Every time you take five parking spaces away in NoDa, the restaurants get busier. So it just doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
What currently scares Manley about restaurant development is when all the new growth is in one place, like Waverly. “I look at that and say, there’s 17 pioneers down there right now and I’d rather be a settler down there when things shake out,” he said. “I’d rather get into a neighborhood and in a place that’s already been established and pay the rent.”
Manley’s latest project, The Waterman, is an extension of his longtime work with seafood establishments, dating back to Pearlz. That’s no accident. Manley fell in love with the communal aspect of oysters and the culture of oyster farmers. Before opening Sea Level in Uptown, Manley spent time on the coast, meeting these farmers and getting to know the industry, and fell in love with a small town called Sea Level.
“It’s just this beautiful tiny little dot on the map. I just fell in love with this place and as we were building the oyster bar I wanted a house oyster. We wanted this connection with the coast and we ended up signing on that piece of real estate Uptown, and then we ended up naming it Sea Level after the town, Sea Level, North Carolina,” he said.
The oyster farm-to-fork approach continues in his next venture, The Waterman. The team from Sea Level signed a lease on a new space in the Harris Teeter shopping center on South Boulevard. The space includes a rooftop bar (which, of course, will be the oyster bar) and will be a more casual version of Sea Level.
“The name of it is the Waterman because everybody that works on the coast, makes their living from the sea, they’re all considered watermen,” Manley explained. “We wanted to build a place that’s an homage to that rough and tumble seaworthy guy that’s hanging out, having a beer, having some oysters. It’s a much more casual, not so serious place.”
Manley is targeting a summer opening for The Waterman, located at 2729 South Blvd., Suite D.
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