In It Together 

The restaurant business is tough. The Memphis Restaurant Association can help.

The restaurant business is a very difficult chosen profession," says Sam Long, who owns and operates Seasons at the White Church in Collierville with her boyfriend Brian Harwell.

"This is what Patrick O'Connell, chef at the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, wrote in my menu when I asked him to sign it: 'Good luck in this difficult chosen profession,'" Long recounts. "When you open your own restaurant, you need all the support you can get, and the Memphis Restaurant Association provides just that," she says.

A native Memphian, Long owned her own catering business when she was 18 years old. She worked with Erling Jensen at La Tourelle and at Erling Jensen's, with Jeffrey Dunham at the Grove Grill, and at restaurants around the country. Even with her background, Long discovered she had some things to learn when she opened her own restaurant.

"Knowing how to prepare the food and how to provide good customer service is one thing. Knowing the ins and outs of government regulations, health department requirements, city codes, insurance policies, you name it, is a different thing altogether," Long says.

The Memphis Restaurant Association (MRA) was founded to "protect its members from unfair government legislation and unethical business practices, to provide information on ways to improve and maintain a healthy, profitable business, and to create a spirit of fellowship among its members."

With 190 restaurant members and 140 associate members, new and old restaurateurs find an abundance of information and insight just a phone call away.

"I get calls from members all the time," says Dunham, president of the MRA and chef/owner of the Grove Grill. "Somebody might have trouble with the new grease-trap regulations. Somebody else might have an accounting question. There is always something. The great thing about belonging to the MRA is that if I don't know the answer, I usually know someone who does," Dunham says.

The MRA got its start in 1947 -- by accident or through persistence, one might say.

There aren't many local restaurant associations around the nation. Restaurateurs typically join statewide associations that provide greater lobbying power on a national level. Many of the members of the Memphis association also belong to the Tennessee Restaurant Association (TRA) and the National Restaurant Association (NRA).

The TRA was founded in 1936 and consisted of several chapters spread throughout the state. Memphis, according to Huey's owner Thomas Boggs, a former MRA president, was the largest chapter. Due to its location, restaurant owners in Memphis were able to observe trends in nearby states.

"Memphis restaurateurs saw what was going on in Atlanta when it got approved for liquor-by-the-drink," Boggs says. "Atlanta turned into a convention city, and the Memphis guys wanted a piece of that business. But they knew that the only way to attract some of those people was through liquor-by-the-drink."

However, the TRA wasn't interested in supporting the Memphis chapter, which consisted of such influential figures as Robert Anderton of Anderton's, Charlie Vergos of the Rendezvous, and Harry Zepatos of the Arcade.

"When those guys realized that they wouldn't get any support from the TRA on this issue, they decided to split and start lobbying themselves," Boggs says. The Memphis Restaurant Association was born, and even though it took many years, its founders were successful in their quest.

"The way the MRA was founded pretty much defines what it is today," says Dunham.

"As recently as a few years ago, we had a law that didn't allow restaurants to serve liquor, beer, or wine before noon on Sundays. Well, the MRA took the lead and lobbied to change that law, and now restaurants can serve alcohol at 10 a.m. on Sundays," Dunham says.

click to enlarge JUSTIN FOX BURKS

But what's the MRA's role aside from fighting controversial liquor issues? What's its role in an industry with steadily growing competition that might make some people hesitant to join such a tightly knit network?

"Sure, our industry is competitive, probably even more so now than 50 years ago, but there is also a strong sense of camaraderie in this business. We do want people to succeed," Dunham says.

Wight Boggs, wife of Thomas Boggs and the MRA's executive director, takes a different approach to the question "Where do we stand?"

"Besides industry advocacy, our dining and buyer's guide, and the networking opportunities, the MRA is involved in a lot of community projects -- the Food Bank, MIFA's Feed the Need Week, Youth Village's Soup Sunday, Zoo Rendezvous, to name just a few," Wight Boggs says. "This is a great way -- especially for people in the restaurant and food industry who tend to be very busy -- to be involved in the community and to give back," she explains.

One of the criticisms the MRA faces frequently is its image as a good-old-boys club. Wight Boggs knows it's an impression that's hard to shake because the association still gets linked to such figures as Vergos, Anderton, and even her husband Thomas. However, she also knows that change can only happen if the next generation gets involved.

"Like many members, when I first joined the MRA I didn't go to the meetings and I wasn't very involved until Thomas Boggs stopped by one day and gave me the speech," Dunham recalls.

"The speech" is something that Boggs himself had to listen to, when "Big Charlie Vergos" ordered him to the Rendezvous and "wore him out."

Vergos, a firm believer in giving back to the community, had a laundry list of complaints about the "young generation of restaurateurs," which counted Boggs. He made his point with Boggs, and Boggs made the same point with Dunham. And now Dunham is making that same point with the next generation of Memphis restaurateurs.

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