Michael Tolson was earning a living as a real estate professional in New York and he never dreamed he would return to the restaurant business. He had a problem, however. He needed to return to his native Arkansas to be closer to his mother and other family members.
The Chow franchise was about to be born.
Tolson said he moved back to Northeast Arkansas about eight years ago, and spent several years working at the Paragould Country Club. He met many of the locals and developed relationships with them. By 2015, he was ready to open his own restaurant in downtown Paragould. Tolson partnered with Ziad Guerra to open a fine dining restaurant, Chow At One Eighteen.
“We’ve been busy from the very beginning. … We got a great response from the community,” he said.
The restaurant industry is one of the largest economic sectors in the United States. Customers spent $799 billion in 2017, which represents 4% of domestic U.S. GDP, according to the National Restaurant Association. The figure represents about 48% of money spent on food. There are an estimated 1 million restaurants nationwide.
“The impact of our industry’s vitality extends far beyond our own restaurants’ walls and our huge number of employees – 14.7 million,” National Restaurant Association President and CEO Dawn Sweeney said in a statement. “It translates into healthy contributions to state and federal tax revenues. What’s more, for every dollar spent in restaurants, an additional $2 is generated in sales for other industries, generating even more tax dollars and economic activity.”
Tolson was aware how lucrative the industry was when he left high school. He spent several years working at restaurants and learning his craft. He trained under a Thai chef, but most of what he knows comes from his work experiences. He’s worked in the food industry in a number of places including New York City, San Francisco, Dallas and the Cayman Islands.
While he worked, Tolson pursued a degree in economics. He didn’t want a degree in economics to find a new profession. Much of running a food service business is managing labor, food and other expenses, he said, adding that many restaurants professionals are lacking in operational and management skills.
At one point, Tolson decided to leave the industry, and told his mother he didn’t think he’d ever return to food service. His mother gave him a piece of advice.
“She said, ‘Never say never.’ She was right.”
After he started Chow in Paragould, Tolson decided to expand. There was a space at the downtown shopping center in Cherokee Village. There are several reasons he decided to open a branch in the city nestled in Sharp County.
Several of his Paragould-based customers own homes in that area, and its large retiree population would provide a strong customer base. Chow in Cherokee Village was born, and in that venture, Tolson decided to partner with his nephew, Jeff Penn.
The company’s next effort will be to open a food service business inside the new First National Bank building on U.S. 49 in Jonesboro’s Hilltop area. It’s still under construction, and Chow Gusto is slated to open in April 2019.
Opening a new, fine dining restaurant can be an expensive venture, Tolson said. He spent about $300,000 to buy equipment and build out the Paragould location. There were about $75,000 in startup costs for the Cherokee Village location, and he expects the Jonesboro location to cost $425,000 to open. Those figures don’t include food costs, employee training and other related expenses, he added.
Chow employs 12 full-time employees and has about 15 to 20 part-timers Tolson calls on to help with catering jobs. The Jonesboro location will add up to eight more full-time employees, he said.
The Chow brand offers a broad range of culinary choices, Tolson said. One thing unique about the concept is that the menu changes on a weekly basis. Some of the offerings include Jamaican jerk salad, strawberry and spinach salad, Brown Derby Cobb salad, a Cuban panini, Atlantic salmon wrap and many others.
Items listed on its specialty list include Mercedes’ handmade tamales, grilled chicken fettuccine Alfredo, veggie burrito bowl, filet mignon, butternut squash risotto with pan-seared sea scallops, and others. Italian dishes are Tolson’s favorite to prepare. Pastas, including raviolis are homemade, he said. Chow’s customer base is accustomed to its unique menu changing, and the new menu with specials is posted each week. The company also has a catering service.
“We are very diverse here … we have a lot of different kinds of foods we prepare,” Tolson said. “Our customers have a lot of options.”