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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Amber Moshakos bets on downtown Raleigh as others flee

Amber Moshakos President, LM Restaurants since January 2018 Education: B.S., N.C. State University, M.M.H., Cornell University Family: Husband Tyler and four children

Onion Special Bread closed on Raleigh’s Fayetteville Street in March. Clouds Brewing shut its downtown location in early April, followed later in the month by The Capital Club 16 Restaurant and Bar. Clyde Cooper’s Barbeque, in operation since 1938, put its Wilmington Street building up for sale and is looking for a new location away from downtown; its owner cited crime and fewer customers after the pandemic.

Amber Moshakos, president of Raleigh-based LM Restaurants, however, sees opportunity. She just struck a partnership with Highwoods Properties to open the 150-seat Birdie’s Barroom & Kitchen on Fayetteville Street in the heart of downtown. It’s a strategy the company used when it moved its Taverna Agora to a then-downtrodden area on Hillsborough Street nearly a decade ago.

The company has used a similar tactic in opening restaurants in Deerfield Beach and Pompano Beach in Florida and Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina. And it’s working. Most LM Restaurants are now back to where they were before the pandemic, though Moshakas declines to give specifics for the privately held company.

“Restaurants play a really important role in our community,” says Moshakos, sitting at a rooftop table at Taverna Agora. “When restaurants and bars are there, they become these gathering centers for the community. I enjoy being part of that. We are putting a stake in the ground and being part of something to help revitalize a community.”

Earlier this year, the company spent $14.9 million at an online auction to buy a 10-story office building on Fayetteville Street, a block from the historic N.C. State Capitol. The fully leased building will be used “outside of the restaurant industry,” she says.

It’s part of a broader post-COVID growth strategy for the company, the parent of the Carolina Ale House chain that has 24 locations. Moshakos says it’s looking to grow in South Florida, between Jacksonville, Florida, and Wilmington, North Carolina, in Charlotte and in Tennessee.

Carolina Ale House trimmed its locations from 28 during the pandemic by not renewing leases, but will open a new location in Deerfield Beach later this year and is looking for real estate for others.

In addition to Carolina Ale House, LM Restaurants operates nine other concepts, including two Oceanic locations, which feature seafood such as tuna, shrimp, little neck clams, oysters, flounder and mahi-mahi. All told, the company operates 33 units in four states.

Transition time
There’s lots of moving parts. The company bought some property next to its Cove restaurant in Deerfield Beach that will be used for a Greek restaurant, a parking deck and a boutique hotel. There are plans for a barbecue restaurant, with famous North Carolina pitmasters Ed and Ryan Mitchell, at its original Carolina Ale House location on Glenwood Avenue. Another Lucky Fish restaurant is in the works for Dania Beach, Florida.

“Finding the right real estate is difficult,” says Moshakos. “We like to own our real estate. One of the things that’s a differentiator for us as a family is we don’t have to grow. We have the opportunity to do smart growth as the right opportunities come up.”

LM Restaurants is also going through a leadership transition as Moshakos takes on more responsibility for future visioning. That job has long been held by her father, Lou, but two years ago the company hired Tannia Dougherty as chief operating officer, and she is now running much of the daily operation. Dougherty had been with the company from 2013 to 2017 as director of marketing and technology.

“Now Amber is moving into that visionary position,” says Katherine Goldfaden, the vice president of brand strategy. “You’ve got succession planning in action. Everybody sees the future of the company.”

Says Lou Moshakos about his daughter: “I try to slow her down sometimes, and I can’t. She is unstoppable. I don’t know where she finds the energy. I think she’s doing a great job.”

Amber Moshakos didn’t want to be in the restaurant business. Lou Moshakos and wife Joy started the company in 1978 with a Deerfield Beach, Florida restaurant, the Seafood Shanty, where 2-year-old Amber was fed raw oysters by her dad while she crawled underneath his feet. (“No pediatrician would ever support that decision,” she says.)

Seeking a northern market for its Miami Subs operation, they moved to Raleigh in 1992, opening a sub sandwich location on Western Boulevard and eventually expanded to 10 locations in the state. The first Carolina Ale House opened in 1999 in a former Chinese restaurant.

The three Moshakos daughters grew up working in the restaurants, but Amber Moshakos wanted to go to medical school after she graduated from N.C. State University with a degree in biological sciences and a minor in business. Dropping a milkshake one day while working at one of the family’s locations was a “traumatizing event,” she says. “I shied away because of this event.”

Her father, however, convinced her to work in the business for a year after graduation. She stayed from 2003 to 2007 and then went to Cornell University to earn a master’s of management in hospitality. She also met her husband, Tyler Kaune, at the Ivy League school.

Amber Moshakos returned as vice president of corporate affairs and moved up to president in 2018. “Amber went to school,” says Lou Moshakos. “I didn’t. I had to learn from my mistakes. She’s more particular. She’s more organized than I was ever. I’m not the type that’s very organized when it comes to paperwork.”

The focus on helping communities and employees (who are called “team members” and customers are called “guests”) started with her parents. At the first restaurant, Joy Moshakos worked in the kitchen, and Lou Moshakos shucked oysters and clams, so they knew what their employees faced. Goldfaden says Amber Moshakos “knows everyone at the company,” which in late April totaled close to 1,900 workers. During a visit to Taverna Agora, she spends time talking with recently promoted general manager Rudy Rodriguez. “He’s doing a great job,” Amber Moshakos says.

“I love working with people,” she says. “I’m fascinated by finding ways to help people, and when I look back on my career, I see that as a pattern.”

Brand longevity
After the first Carolina Ale House, the company opened one in Cary in 2002 and another in north Raleigh in 2003. It now has 13 locations in North Carolina, six in South Carolina, three in Florida and one each in Georgia and Tennessee. Lou Moshakos developed the idea after sitting in London’s Gatwick Airport on a layover while traveling back to Greece, his home country. While there, he watched soccer fans cheering their teams in an ale house. The first Carolina Ale House lost a half million dollars in the first year before it caught on.

Not every site has worked. A Carolina Ale House on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill closed in May 2017 after being open for about 18 months in a renovated car dealership. Amber Moshakos says customer traffic was inconsistent during the week, while Goldfaden mentions parking issues. “We’re always looking for the next location,” says Goldfaden. “It needs the right parking and the right footprint and the right neighborhood.” Workers were offered jobs at other restaurants. The only Carolina Ale House location in Texas, in Killeen north of Austin, closed the same year after being open since 2014.

But Carolina Ale House remains the company’s “growth brand,” faring well even during the pandemic because of its robust take-out business, Goldfaden says. The new Carolina Ale House in Deerfield Beach, scheduled to open this fall, is near the south Florida city’s main beach pier.

Lou and Joy Moshakos moved back to Florida in 2015 and have been building the company’s presence there with an Oceanic and a Lucky Fish in Pompano Beach and The Cove in Deerfield Beach. The latter restaurant, which was reporting $6 million in annual revenue, is on track to do $10 million this year after a rebuild in 2021 and 2022. The company was the first to enter into Pompano Beach’s public-private partnership to revamp the area called Pompano Beach Fishing Village. “When you see some areas that have deteriorated, and you really want to give it a little spark, you gotta go in and create the business, and the business is going to employ people,” says Lou Moshakos. “And they’re going to pay taxes and take care of themselves.”

Amber Moshakos says her parents remain active in the operation. She expects to receive a phone call one day that her father has died while visiting one of the restaurants. “It’s OK
because he will have died doing what he loves,” she says. (The senior Moshakos is in good health.)

The company is helping revitalize other communities. LM Restaurants funded the rebuilding of the Crystal Pier in Wrightsville Beach, which re-opened in 2013 as a public fishing pier. “That was a passion project,” says Amber Moshakos. The company’s Oceanic restaurant, which first opened in 1990, is nearby. It suffered significant damage from Hurricane Florence in September 2018 but reopened in April 2019. Another nearby company restaurant, Bluewater Waterfront Grill, also suffered damage but has recovered.

Vidrio, a high-end Mediterranean restaurant, opened in 2017, in the same building as a Carolina Ale House on Raleigh’s Glenwood Avenue. A Lucky Fish opened in 2020, during the heart of COVID, primarily because of its outside seating. The company worked on the Lucky Fish concept for five years before its debut. The new Lucky Fish is opening where the 75-year-old Dania Beach Grill had closed in 2019 and been abandoned.

A’Verde, a Mexican restaurant, opened in Cary in March 2022. It was developed by chef Katsui Tanabe, who appeared on three seasons of “Top Chef” and was a winner of “Chopped” on the Food Network. Amber Moshakos hired him to be the company’s “culinary innovator.”

As for Birdie’s Barroom & Kitchen, Highwoods Properties has been looking to add a restaurant in its 29-story Wells Fargo Capitol Center tower on Fayetteville Street to make the area more amenable to tenants and other downtown workers, says Brian Leary, chief operating officer of the Raleigh-based real estate company. In January, Wells Fargo said it would vacate its space in the Triangle’s largest office building, with employees moving to other area locations.

Leary says Highwoods created a package for what it wanted in the restaurant and pitched it to nationally famous operators but quickly decided on LM Restaurants. “We found our soulmate in Amber and LM Restaurants,” says Leary, noting her ability to also make money from events such as weddings. “She’s special because of her passion.”

Scheduled to open later this year, it will include a barista-led cafe, a bar and indoor and outdoor seating, as well as private meeting space. “We needed a place like Cheers,” says Leary. “I’d much rather have the best meal of my life in a saloon than the best drink of my life in a restaurant.” If Birdie’s is successful, more could come, says Moshakos, who was named to the National Restaurant Association board earlier this year.

Sticking it out

Because most of its restaurants have outdoor seating, LM Restaurants fared better than peers during the pandemic. But company-wide sales, which had been about $100 million, fell by 60% in 2020, and it laid off nearly 2,000 workers. Moshakos, Goldfaden and others were in a conference room with Lou Moshakos on the phone when Gov. Roy Cooper ordered restaurants to close in March 2020. “The whole room wept,” says Goldfaden. “We’re on the phone with Lou, and he’s crying.”

Goldfaden says she noticed a change in how Amber Moshakos operates because of the pandemic. “You grow a little more cautiously, you resource differently,” says Goldfaden. “You change your business because you never want to find yourself in that position again.” Henry’s Restaurant and Bar in Wilmington, which LM Restaurants had acquired in 2008, was sold in 2022 to old family friends. Another Wilmington restaurant, Hops Supply Co., closed in 2023 because the company sold the land to a developer who approached the Moshakos’.

Her husband, Tyler, has been working for the company since 2016 and is now director of strategic technologies. He started at LM Restaurants in guest relations and has been working on improving its delivery operations. He doesn’t report to Amber, but she says they work well together. “He’s clued me in on things going on at the company, and I tell him different things that I’m trying to accomplish,” she says.

As for the next generation, Amber Moshakos says her 11-year-old daughter is a project planner and excellent at conflict resolution. “The company has grown to the size where if she wanted to be a lawyer, we can have a position,” says Amber Moshakos. “So whatever she wants to do.”

Sounds like someone who knows how to help people, and communities, succeed and grow.

Chris Roush
Chris Roush
Chris Roush is executive editor of Business North Carolina. He can be reached at croush@businessnc.com.

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