Ray Tavakoli stands next to the buffet of breakfast items set up for the grand opening celebration earlier this month of the new Huckleberry’s restaurant in Clovis, which he co-owns. Photo by David Castellon
Written by David Castellon
Not long ago, Ray Tavakoli was a restaurant industry bigwig, having spent the last couple of decades overseeing 50 Hometown Buffet locations, Old Country Buffet locations, Tahoe Joe’s and other restaurants in five states for a corporation.
But running a few dozen restaurants for his bosses didn’t hold the appeal of actually owning a restaurant for the Fresno resident, who last year got together with two partners to start their own eatery.
They did just that, franchising a Huckleberry’s Restaurant in Clovis on July 29.
While some might see the transition from executive to first-time restaurant owner as a step down, so far Tavakoli sees it as a smashing success, noting “It’s been excellent. Since we opened the restaurant, we’ve had record-breaking sales here in Clovis — No. 1 sales in the company right now,” among the 10 Huckleberry’s in the San Luis Obispo-based chain that extends from Northern California south to the two in Fresno and the Clovis restaurant.
Despite being restaurant owners less than two months, Tavakoli said he and his partners are looking to franchise and open five more Huckleberry’s in Visalia, Fresno and Bakersfield, though it’s too early to tell when and where they may open.
As for the partners’ only restaurant right now, Tavakoli, sitting down to be interviewed during an early-morning grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony on Sept. 10, said the trio decided to purchase a franchise because “Huckleberry’s has a really great name brand, and one of the things I liked about it was being able to go home at 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” as the entire chain serves only breakfast and lunch, each restaurant closing daily by 3 p.m.
Location, location, location
As for the location, the partners selected a 50-year-old-plus restaurant building at 2100 E. Clovis Ave., across the parking lot from Clovis’ recently opened Costco store.
At the time, the partners settled on the spot, a Carrow’s Restaurant that had been operating there for 20-plus years, but “They did not have a lease with the landlord, so we put our bid in, and the landlord accepted our bid, because they knew we were going to be spending some money remodeling the restaurant, and it’s going to be a greater restaurant.”
And the partners did spend some money on the remodel, nearly $1 million, Tavakoli estimated.
Among the renovations was removing part of a load-bearing wall to open up the dining area, which required bringing in engineers; removing the old, dated carpet and the old tile under it; and removing the lower ceiling, leaving the space open to the roof and exposing the vent tubes and water pipes overhead, giving the space an industrial chic look.
Tavakoli said the large front windows had stained glass on the top portions of them dating back to when the building was a Bob’s Big Boy restaurant, but they didn’t fit the new look Tavakoli and his partners were looking for, so the stained glass portions have been walled off with wood and are no longer visible.
‘Surprises for sure’
“The kitchen was not in good shape. So we had to spend a lot of money replacing equipment, cleaning it up and bringing it up to … standards,” he recounted.
“There were surprises for sure,” added Tavakoli’s girlfriend, Barbie Keldesen, who helped with the work, noting she spent two-and-a-half months “cleaning every floor, every doorknob, his office — everything,” along with repainting the kitchen and some other portions of the restaurant.
Despite the challenges and costs involved in the renovations, Keldesen said Tavakoli never seemed to regret quitting his executive job four months ago and jumping into restaurant ownership.
“There were surprises for sure,” she said, noting that besides the ones her boyfriend mentioned, “We had to redo the plumbing, had to redo handicapped [parking] spaces to get up to code.”
Most of the planning and coordinating to get the Clovis Huckleberry’s off the ground fell on Tavakoli’s shoulders, as he’s the partner with the restaurant industry experience. He also oversees the operation, which included taking part in interviewing over three weeks the more than 800 applicants for 51 jobs at the new business.
“Just opening a new restaurant has given me a great feeling of ownership, and being able to select every one of the employees and managers, I feel great coming to work every day,” Tavakoli said.
While ownership can be tough, as “everything falls on your shoulders, there is nobody you can turn to but yourself,” he said the benefits outweigh all that.
“When you’re managing, you’re doing it for somebody else, so the true ownership feeling is excellent. I have two other partners, and I’m doing this myself. I feel great coming to work every single day.”