Terry B’s New Owner Talks About What’s Next

Late last summer Terry B’s was sold to A&W owner, Coley O’Brien. He recently spoke to Dexter Rotary about his plans for the restaurant at their weekly Thursday morning breakfast which coincidentally meets … at Terry B’s.

Coley began his presentation with a brief visualization exercise to help the group understand what it means to purchase a restaurant, in his case Terry B’s. He tells the group,

“As I reflected on what points I wanted to speak on today, I want to try and find a way to put all of you in my shoes and to also to put myself in your shoes as potential or current Terry B’s customers. So in order to do so, I want you to visualize something: you’re going out with your spouse to dinner. You guys choose this wonderful restaurant in downtown Dexter. You’re very excited to go out and spend an evening with your spouse.

“You choose this place right on main street. It’s an old farm house, beautiful place. You walk up the sidewalk to the front door. You walk through that front door. The bartender is waving with a smile to greet you, familiar faces are always recognized. They recognize you. You recognize them.”

Sounds great doesn’t it? Everybody likes a place where they are known. Add to that the charm of a small town, out on the deck overlooking Main street, in late Spring, maybe a Summer night, or after a football game, and it reminds us of why we chose Dexter in the first place.  Coley continues,

“Also as you walk through the front door to your right is the hostess. She greets you by name. She seats you at your favorite table, another familiar face, just a real personal experience. A short time later your waiter or waitress shows up, asks you if you’re going to be having the same beverage you have on all your trips to this restaurant. You gladly say yes.

“Not too long later your waiter or waitress delivers those drinks and also asks you if you’ll be having the usual tonight. You say yah, sounds great, we’re going to do the usual. And as you’re sitting there waiting for your food, maybe quietly reflecting on the atmosphere, the cozy friendly feeling, the warm that irradiates – reflecting on how happy you are to be there and sort of a recognition as to why you always choose that place for special occasions.”

Back in 2004, Coley and business partner Alex Wallace were tossing around business ideas when word reached them the owner, at that time, of Dexter’s A&W was getting ready to retire and sell the business. The two bought the iconic drive-in business and property. In 2010, Coley bought out Wallace from the business but they retain their partnership in the property ownership.

“Your food arrives. You have another excellent meal. Again, it just reaffirms why you have chose that particular restaurant for your special occasion. You finish up your meal, completely content, walking out the door, kind of looking forward to your next special occasion so you can visit the same restaurant and share that same experience all over again. “

O’ Brien has taken A&W, both property and business, to the point where he is satisfied with how it is operating. He then set his sights on another business opportunity, another restaurant preferably. Terry B’s wasn’t really up for sale, but over the course of a number of conversations where one thought led to another, Terry and Coley struck a deal. About purchasing the restaurant, Coley told the group,

“There’s two other additional details as I try to put you in my shoes and me in yours that I want you to try and envision. The first one is that I want you to envision that you are the person who just acquired the restaurant that I’ve been speaking of. The second thing is that for the past eleven years, every year that restaurant has lost money. I ask you rhetorically, “What would you do?”

Coley has struggled a bit with what direction to take the restaurant. Without ever having visited Terry B’s, Coley said, “my initial gut reaction was we had to blow everything up. Everything needs to change: new menu, new branding, new positioning, just an entirely new restaurant. Everything different.”

A visit to the restaurant with his family, however, changed all that.

“We sit down and we order our food. I’ll never forget sitting out there, taking our first bites of food and looking at my wife and saying “Wow, this food is really amazing.” I was absolutely blown away. As we’re having this wonderful meal I’m looking around on the deck and it’s sparsely attended … I come inside, walk through this room here, like a ghost town walking through here.

“I walk back, sit down with my wife and my evolution sort of changed from everything needs to change immediately to what I think we have here is a messaging issue. I take myself as a prime example. I had the wrong idea of what Terry B’s was. I was quite frankly ignorant as to what was going on and to what the food was, what the style was and everything.’

“My wife and I decided was what we had was a messaging issue, a marketing issue. We mulled around in the process, trying to market, trying to reposition ourselves a little bit, just try to let the community know who we are and what we’re doing here.”

Coley explains this was the mindset for a couple months. But after further thought taking into consideration Terry B’s has never shown a profit in its eleven years of operation, his thought has returned to making changes. He told the group, “What we’re looking to do is along the lines of rebranding, renaming, repositioning, new menu, new style, a different look and feel on the inside.”

Coley was quick to emphasize his respect and appreciation for the former owners.

“I did want to make clear at this point I don’t want it to sound as if I’m speaking ill of Terry and Kate because I have a great deal of respect for how they ran this restaurant and I have a great deal of admiration for what they were accomplishing here.”

“They were treating it as a place they could come with their family and friends and have a great time. There was not a profit motive there which I think is a really cool way to do things. Also Terry used it as a place for some of his patients to come in and work and gain employment. Those were admirable things. So I just want to make clear that I’m not speaking at all of Terry and Kate in a derogatory manner.”

O’ Brien compared the difference in goals between himself and the former owners.

“A restaurant, or any business for that matter, a business that’s not making any money isn’t really a business, it’s just a hobby. A hobby cannot write bonus checks for their employees, a hobby can’t give their employees raises. A hobby can’t set up a 401K for employees. So just trying to give you guys an indication of where I stand with things, the direction we’re headed.

“I feel I can’t do the things I want to do for the community if we’re not making money. Ultimately that’s what it boils down to. I love giving back to the community but everything is kind of prefaced on a sustainable business.”

When asked about a new name, Coley said there would be a name change. The new name will relate to the city history with a specific reference to the property itself. He has the general idea of what he wants to go into the name, but hasn’t decided yet specifically what it will be.

O’Brien describes the style as “somewhere between where we are now (with Terry B’s) and Red Brick.” His plan is to reduce menu prices, adding more mid-range price points and develop a “lunch menu with some sandwiches which works further toward our price point reductions.”

After the Rotary breakfast, Coley was meeting with the design team helping him with the changes. While he hasn’t settled on specifics yet, he does have feelings about the look of the restaurant and the need for a new personality.

“I would drive by on Main St and I would see the white table cloths and glasses and everything set up in the window. That to me just wasn’t my kind of environment where I felt comfortable eating or bringing my children. I think it’s very important for a restaurant to reflect the personality of its owner.”

There is no specific time table yet for remodel and menu changes, but O’Brien would like it to happen as soon as is feasibly possible. In the meantime, keep stopping in at Terry B’s for a great experience as it makes its transition into something new and exciting. We’ll keep you posted.

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