By Michelle St. Onge | Photo by Jessica McCafferty
Restaurants have always been a second home for Carol McLean, owner of Irises Cafe and Wine Bar in Plattsburgh. Her first restaurant job was in Peru at the age of 14, and she’s been involved in the industry ever since. “I’ve always looked at restaurants as a form of entertainment and as an experience,” she shared, “When people go out to eat, they are usually in a good mood, and have come out to celebrate or just have a good time. I’ve always been drawn to that.” In between gigs, McLean tried to attend college, but found it wasn’t right for her. She held odd jobs here and there including offices, retail and car rentals. Through it all, she consistently gravitated back to her focal point in restaurants.
During her early twenties, McLean set a goal to open her own restaurant by age 30. She enjoyed the work, was good at it and it made for a good living, but she knew she needed a good sum of money before she could strike out on her own. She decided to sell real estate to help her save a nest egg. “It gave me an education about how to make the numbers work in commercial real estate,” McLean recalled. She also worked in management at Anthony’s restaurant for a number of years, which helped prepare her for the challenges of running her own business.
In 1997, the City Hall Place business where Irises Café and Wine Bar is currently located closed and was available. McLean seized the opportunity to start her restaurant, which focused on her passions of fine food, wine and great martinis. She rented space in the building, which included 10 apartments as well as the restaurant. When the building went up for sale ten years later, McLean took the plunge and bought it.
During hard financial times such as the COVID-19 pandemic, she was able to supplement the restaurant with income from the apartments. Looking back at 25 years in business, McLean credits a lot of her success to the people she works with. “I’ve been very lucky to have great staff,” she explained, “including several who have been with me for many years.”
McLean recently invited Strictly Business to the table to share some of her insights with our readers.
SB: What important lessons did you learn early in your career?
CM: When you own a restaurant, you need to know how to do all the jobs yourself. It is very hands-on work and you can’t always rely on other people. There will be times when people don’t show up and you’ll have to think on your feet and cover for them. I’ve seen many people buy a restaurant who have never actually worked in one, and that can cause a lot of problems.
SB: Who was your most influential mentor?
CM: I learned the most from Drew and Linda Sabella, the previous owners of Anthony’s Restaurant. They had strong core values and were such great people. They treated their employees so well and did things the right way even when it was hard. When I started there, I had experience working under several other owners. Working for the Sabellas was such a standout difference. They always followed procedures and rules, and never cut corners. I learned a lot from them and really enjoyed my time working for them.
SB: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
CM: Not long after I started the restaurant, someone advised me to sign every check by hand before it goes out. I have always done that, and I still do. This way I see everything that I’m paying for, and I know exactly where the money is going. The margins in the restaurant business are so small that it is important to have a solid understanding of the books. If you’re not careful, a simple $10 or $12 increase from a vendor a few times a week could make your year-end expenses rise enough to eat into your profits.
SB: What business lessons did the pandemic teach you?
CM: We increased the number of days we were closed and we have decided to keep it that way. Before the pandemic, we were open every day but Sunday. Wednesdays through Saturdays were always our busier days, and we often lost money or just broke even on Mondays and Tuesdays. The pandemic helped me to realize that a four day a week schedule actually works just as well for us. During the whole of 2022 we were open four days a week. We did more in sales in 2022 than we did in 2019 before Covid when we were open six days a week. Plus, the staff really enjoy having three days off in a row!
SB: What advice would you give to someone starting out as a restaurant owner?
CM: You need to work in a restaurant and gain experience in all aspects of the business before you become an owner. If you haven’t, you don’t know how connected things are and how important everything is to the overall success. Take a dishwasher, for example. The dishwasher is a hugely important position. If the dishwasher calls in sick, everything just goes downhill. It is a fast-paced position, constantly washing and recirculating everything from sauté pans to table service. When the dishwasher is backed up, there isn’t even a place to put dirty dishes. These are the kinds of things you only learn by working the jobs yourself.
SB: What is your favorite quote and how does it speak to you in your life?
CM: I am not sure of the source but the quote I live by is “If You Always Do What You’ve Always Done, You Always Get What You’ve Always Gotten.” I have followed this in many aspects of my life, and it gives me the motivation to change. I find that I stress a lot when something isn’t going well that I need to confront. It’s easy to just keep doing what you’re doing, and change is hard. This quote helps me take the first steps to make changes and reminds me that changes are usually for the better.
SB: If you could talk to your younger self, what advice would you offer her?
CM: I was definitely a workaholic when I was younger, so my advice would be to not work so hard. Owning the restaurant, I was always here, sometimes from open to close — even on Sundays when we were closed. As I look back now, I missed a lot of holidays and time spent with my son growing up. I do regret that. I value family time a lot more now than I did when I was younger. I also have elderly parents now, so to me it’s important to spend the time with them.
SB: Is there a local personality or business person you admire?
CM: I have always admired Dena Archer of Archer Bodyworks. She has a successful business that she expanded by taking risks. She has invested more in it over the years and she continues to add services. She is also a really kind and empathetic person.
SB: What are you most proud of professionally?
CM: I am proud of the fact that Irises has made it to 25 years. We started with nothing but the concept. One of the best decisions I made was to buy the building when it came up for sale. About 15 years ago my initial lease was up, and my landlords asked if I was interested in buying. I didn’t think I could find a way to pay for it until they offered me owner financing for a portion of it. When everything is paid off, this property will help me fund my retirement.
SB: What do you believe the North Country community should do today to ensure a prosperous future?
CM: We definitely need to expand and support downtown and our independent businesses. If I could wave a magic wand, I would love a hotel down here. If we had a hotel with underground parking within walking distance of the waterfront or downtown, I think that would be huge. You’d bring in a captive audience of tourists or business people who are traveling, to eat out and shop downtown.