Operations | June 2009 | By Robin Hilmantel

Independent Living

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“In the last two months, Coke hasn’t stopped calling me,” Namour says. Company reps even offered to pay Namour reparations for each case of Pepsi he’s ordered. But Namour is sticking with Pepsi.

“This is what an independent faces,” he says.

12:15pm - The brunt of the lunch rush has been in full force since noon and will continue for the next hour. The line is often so long it goes out the door. Although it’s raining outside, customers wait to be served.

Namour has always subscribed to a hands-on philosophy. If a customer wants something not on the menu, he talks to the kitchen staff to ensure it comes out right.

“We’re in the hospitality industry,” he says. “It’s named hospitality because we’re going to accommodate you.”

He works the cash register, delivers food, and talks to as many customers as possible, offering to throw out their trash for them and saying goodbye when they leave.

Before getting a to-go box for one woman’s leftovers, Namour asks her why she hasn’t touched her fries. Was something wrong?

They were good, she says. She’s just full.

“If a person has a bad experience, they’ll tell a minimum of 20 people,” Namour says. “You tackle the problem before they leave.”

2:00p, - Buns’ U.S. Foodservice salesman arrives.

Namour places food orders four or five times each week from three vendors: U.S. Foodservice, Sysco Corporation, and Orrell’s Food Service.

His bookkeeper sends him updated food prices, and he orders the cheapest products from each vendor, pitting them against each other in a bidding war. But Namour doesn’t sacrifice quality for price.

“It has to be comparing apples to apples,” Namour says. He would never accept a lower-quality substitute for 81/19 Angus Chuck Ground Beef or No. 1 Idaho potatoes. Even the chicken patties, which were added to the menu after famed UNC basketball player Tyler Hansbrough requested them one day, are acceptable only in 6-ounce portions so his staff doesn’t have to cut them to the correct size.

“You want idiot-proof,” he says.

The U.S. Foods rep asks Namour if he needs any bacon, but he says no; Sysco can sell him the same thing for less. The salesman says he can beat Sysco’s price.

“Notice how he didn’t offer me the lower price until after he saw I was ordering from Sysco,” Namour says.

3:10pm - Ash comes in to relieve Namour and to manage the dinner shift.

While Namour has the know-how of an industry vet, 29-year-old Ash brings innovative ideas to the table and has helped the store become greener.

From Day 1, the store enrolled in a free oil-recycling program and it recently switched to corn-based cutlery that costs only slightly more.

“Nobody’s really putting pressure on us, but we feel like we need to do that,” Namour says.

While most customers don’t notice the switch, it’s extremely important to others. Shortly after the store opened, one man returned his salad and refused to eat it because it was served on a plastic foam plate.

Today Buns uses eco-friendly plates, but it still has to tackle the switch from plastic foam cups to paper ones.

“I’ve been pushing for it for a while,” Ash says. So far, he hasn’t been able to find a cost-effective substitute.

7:00pm - The rain keeps traffic during the typically busy dinner daypart to a trickle. Luckily, customers order from the specials menu.

Most days Buns has two combinations of toppings that can be added to any burger for $1 extra, but tonight there’s a third special—goat cheese and sun-dried tomato basil spread—specifically recommended for chicken.

“We had those toppings [bacon and avocado] typically that you pay an extra $1 for,” Ash says. “But when you put it on the special [menu], people tend to order it a little more.”

Ash thinks the specials are especially popular tonight because the store decided to add a third to the list at the request of customers who wanted a chicken special.

“That’s the beauty of being independent,” he says.

1:42am - Ash starts to see the first of the bar crowd. He hides the desserts that usually sit on the counter.

While the late-night crowd is usually well-behaved, they have been known to occasionally steal the cookie jar or write on tables in ketchup while drunk. Tonight, one lights a cigarette before Ash gently reminds him that smoking is banned.

Usually the rush would start closer to 1 a.m., but it’s a Thursday—the slowest of the three nights Buns stays open late. Still, the crowd gains momentum and doesn’t thin until 2:30 a.m.

“When we opened, [Namour] didn’t think this could happen,” Ash says. He had to drive Namour by a nearby Qdoba one night to show him what they were missing out on.

Now late nights are just as busy as lunch or dinner.

3:00am - Ash starts counting down the register. It’s closing time.

Tomorrow the process will start over again—and maybe at multiple locations sometime soon.

“I’d like to look at another place like this because we know it works,” Ash says. He and Namour have scoped out a spot in Durham near Duke University, but the pair is open to other campus locations, as well.

“We could pop it anywhere else,” Namour says. “The only thing we need to do is generate capital right now.”

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