Job Spotlight: April Byrd, owner and chief cook at Sugga's Restaurant and Catering

Being around a successful business is nothing new for April Byrd.

After all, her great-grandparents, the Rev. Eugene and Isabell Brown, opened the first African-American dry cleaner in Columbus around 1950. Brown's Cleaners closed after Isabell's passing in 1997.

Her mother, Cassandra Ryan, also has operated a tax service for years, a venture Byrd still helps with seasonally today. Her grandmother also has operated a clothing store.

But several years ago, Byrd, 36, was looking to do something different and make her own way in the world. She turned to an inspirational DVD, "Reposition Yourself," by prominent Bishop T.D. Jakes Sr. She had been considering opening a child development center on Macon Road, but notes taken from the DVD led her in the direction of planning and starting a restaurant.

"It just so happened I had started cooking four years before that. I never thought in a million years that me and cooking would mix," said Byrd, recalling a meal of cabbage and potatoes and roast that didn't go so well.

It's safe to say the cooking has improved, with The Columbus native soon opened the doors of Sugga's Restaurant and Catering on 18th Avenue, off Wynnton Road and near Wendy's, on June 23, 2008.

Byrd put her faith, savings, hopes and dreams into the Southern cooking restaurant and it has drawn a loyal following situated in space that has been home through the years to everything from Mexican to Cajun eateries.

Come Tuesday, she will kick things up a notch, so to speak, opening a second Sugga's in Harmony Place shopping center on the city's north side, at the corner of Whitesville Road and Airport Thruway. The 254-seat restaurant will be larger than the current 101-seat location, and open seven days a week, with longer hours.

The Ledger-Enquirer sat down with Byrd recently with the restaurateur to discuss her job, what it has taken to get this far, and the road she has taken to the expansion. This interview has been edited for length and clarity in the print edition, with an expanded version at www.ledger-enquirer.com.

First off, did you know starting a restaurant is very risky?

I found that out. Because at first I thought I'd go borrow some money, get it done, do it. That's all I heard (from lenders was to be in business) five years, five years, and before then they really don't want to do anything with a new restaurant. So I took all my money I had saved and spent it. I spent it to where I had $15 or $20 in change. It was gone.

That first day in 2008, how did it go opening Sugga's?

The day that I opened, the lady at the health department was supposed to come back. The only thing she was supposed to do that day was check my refrigerator. But she was out sick ... By the time 10 o'clock came, I was like, what am I going to do? I called and asked for her supervisor and she came out and, oh, goodness, she took 45 minutes. Customers were wrapped around the building waiting ... The only thing she was supposed to do was check the refrigerator, but she did a complete inspection. I couldn't unlock the door until she was finished. We were about 45 minutes late opening. But it was fine. It's just been going great since then and getting better.

Your bookkeeping background would seem to be a good skill for opening a restaurant?

I thought it was. I said, oh, this is going to be a cinch. Not really sounding arrogant, but being confident, with the experience that I had, I was going to be good. But, oh no. I stood in the middle of that kitchen one day and I said, April, what did you do?

It's hard. The restaurant business is a very, very, very hard, stressful business. You have to like it. If you're doing it just because someone else is doing it, if you're doing it because you feel like you may cook good on a holiday, let me tell you, it's nothing like cooking a lot of food on a holiday for your family and keeping it going. There's more to it than cooking.

A lot of people think they cook well, so they can run a restaurant?

No. Cooking is the minor part, because when you're dealing with attitudes and customers and different people mixing together.

Keeping people happy is crucial?

Yes. That's major. And that's why I credit back to the customer service experience I had at Blue Cross, and then I did work for Total Service Resource that used to be on Front Avenue. I worked there for three years and those molded me as far as customer service and understanding how customers need to be treated. Customer service is number one with me, because if a customer is not happy, then you have a problem. They're not always right, but if they're not happy, you have a problem.

Now if I know that they're just trying to take advantage of me, I don't do it. But if I know that they're genuinely not satisfied, then I'm going to rectify the situation.

I had one person tell me one day that something was salty. I tasted it and it wasn't salty to me. But, oh well, here you go. Then I had someone who didn't pick up her order, but she wanted me to give her money back. I couldn't do that because I opened on a Saturday just to give her that order because she had so much stuff going on.

The financial aspects are challenging?

They are, because you need to know that every penny -- I would say dollars -- but every penny matters. Here it matters, and that's what I try to explain to (employees) all the time ... If you go through a drive-thru and I ask for two packs of ketchup, that's all I want. I know what that does, big corporation or not. Don't give me a handful of ketchup because I'm not going to use it; I don't need it. I tell them no thank you, and give them back the difference. That matters.

How do you go about selecting a menu?

I try to throw different things in, especially on Sundays. If you come during the week, we have a set menu. I try on Sundays to do different things, but still have some of the core items that are on the menu everyday.

I throw spaghetti in there on Wednesdays. It's more of a relaxed day. Salads I've tried, but no one will buy salad here. I've tried pasta salad, garden salad, chef salads. They will walk past them. With spaghetti, I will have customers get green beans, mashed potatoes, yams, but not the salad. I'm like, wow.

I said I'm going to try salads in the new location and see what happens since I'm in a bigger area where I will have customers looking for a salad.

Why did you decide to open a second location on the north side, with the different dynamics and more competition?

I'm the type that if (an opportunity) has been brought to me and it's truly for me, it's going to work. It's going to work as long as I keep myself on the right path and do what I'm supposed to do. All things that I need to happen will happen ... I've had a lot of people come in here and say, oh, you're going to close down this place. Nope, nope, nope, it's not my motive, period, point blank ... This is going to stay open.

How long has the new location been in the works?

Since February of last year. It has been a long journey.

Will you have the same menu up there?

The same basic menu, but I'm adding more. Here we have 10 wells where we put food. But there are 21 up there ... I'll do different things that I wasn't able to do here, like chicken and dumplings, I'll have them up there. I just didn't have space on the line here to do them. Chicken pot pie, I love it, and we'll have it up there.

Here, we do scallop potatoes only on Sundays. (Up there) I would like to put them on weekdays and maybe grill some steaks and do the scallop potatoes. There will be different things (up there) that here, if I were to do that, it would take away from what customers are coming for. Like on Thursdays, I have customers that come for ox tails. But if I were to put another meat here, I would have to take something away and they would be upset.

How do you keep the energy level up for you and the staff?

That's not easy. We joke around. I play the radio every morning. I play my gospel. I tell them I don't want any negative spirits in here. It's too early in the morning for that. ... But I'm playing my music, because that calms my mind.

What's the most popular item on your menu, and what's your favorite?

The most popular for customers are the macaroni and cheese and the candied yams. And my favorite is barbecue chicken, or either the ribs (with sweet but spicy sauce).

What piece of advice would you have for someone thinking about starting a restaurant?

It's not easy. You definitely need to put a lot of thought in it. And it must be something that you love. When you go into opening up a restaurant, cooking has to be something you love. Cooking cannot be just a repetitious thing everyday. It has to be: You get up, you're excited, you're ready to come in here, and you're ready to go. My cousin jokes with me about this, but you've got to cook from the heart; you've got to cook with love.

Do you do some of the cooking?

I do most of it. (laughs) I'm going to maintain. I do the bookkeeping here. But I'm not going to do it up there.

How many hours a day do you put in?

I'll get here about 7 or 8, and I'll be here until about 3 or 4. And if we have catering, I'm here for all of it. My problem is I have to start learning how to pull back. I have to let (employees) do things (on their own). Because I'm the type that if you're not going to do it like I asked you to do it, then I'd rather do it.

What do you find most rewarding about your job?

People telling you how they enjoyed the food and the customer service and being here. Most people, when they come and talk to me after a catering or after they've eaten, they tell me they love the feel and they know this is a place where God dwells.

Every morning before I come in here, I ask (the Lord) that when you bring the customers in, my words are literally: Let them know that I'm existing, Sugga's, only because of You, because that's it.

That's what it's about.


Name: April Byrd

Age: Turned 36 last Thursday

Hometown: Columbus native

Current residence: Lives in Midland

Education: Graduated from Columbus High School in 1996; took psychology classes at Chattahoochee Valley Community College and Columbus State University

Previous jobs: Customer service position with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia, works in her family's bookkeeping business, Midtown Associates

Family: Daughter, Kayla Griffin, 16, and son, Cameron, 13

Leisure time: Enjoys doing nothing in her time off, maybe a little barbecuing and relaxing on the porch; she hasn't been on a vacation going on three years