Richmond Times Dispatch: Restaurant veteran hopes the right formula is Home Team Grills

BY LINDA DUNHAM
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER

Garland Taylor knows restaurants. He has bought a few and created a few.

He ventured into restaurants when Shockoe Bottom was starting to heat up. He owned restaurants on Main Street in the Fan.

And he has navigated the geography of opportunity.

When he saw his peers moving to Henrico County, he saw a chance to open a signature restaurant.

Garland’s Way at 11351 Nuckols Road in the Twin Hickory Town Center was upscale and unique. The critics liked it. Diners who filled out comment cards gave it high marks. It was never empty, but the restaurant did struggle.

All the while, the sandwich shop and hamburger place across the street always seemed full.

“I went too far north,” Taylor said about Garland’s Way. Clearly, people thought of the restaurant as a special place, but not an everyday place.

Taylor likes everyday places. And he likes his tables full.

So for about six weeks he closed Garland’s Way and reconfigured it. He changed the menu and the décor. He sank more money into it. By day and early evening, his restaurant would be family-friendly. By night, after kids had gone to bed, the place would become a sports bar.

He christened it Home Team Grill. Two years later, he has three locations: the original Twin Hickory site, a Powhatan spot and, since March, the Fan.

“Look at what Garland was willing to do when Garland’s Way wasn’t working,” said Wallace Johnston, his mentor and former management professor. “He’s decisive. He looks for opportunities, not problems. Garland’s Way didn’t work, but the Home Team Grill does.”

And it doesn’t take long for Taylor to spot his mistake and fix it.

Once, when Taylor was having a business problem he couldn’t resolve, he asked his former management professor and friend Johnston about it.

“Dr. Wally told me: ‘It’s a little bit of pain now or a lot of pain later,'” Taylor said. It is something Taylor has taken to heart.

Taylor grew up in the rural wilds of Powhatan. While attending Virginia Commonwealth University, he worked in a few restaurants as a busboy, table setter and waiter. He liked the experience. After graduating with a degree in business administration, he joined an advertising agency. He and co-worker Bob Weirup formed TaylorWeirup Marketing in 1987.

But he had the restaurant bug. With business partner Wayne Street, he bought into a failing business and opened Goodfellas Restaurant in 1993 in Shockoe Bottom. By 1994, he was co-owner of two more restaurants, Coyotes in the Fan and Castle Thunder in the Bottom.

Street, Taylor said, “is my Siamese twin, joined at the wallet.” Personal commitments took Street away from Richmond, and the partnership dissolved. In 1996, Taylor sold the restaurants.

For a year, he stayed out of the restaurant business and focused solely on TaylorWeirup. Then in 1998, he spotted another opportunity: Café Communique in the Fan. He bought it and turned it into Easy Street.

Four years later, Taylor started looking for a place to create a new restaurant, selling Easy Street in 2002.

“I had the vision of building a tavern,” Taylor said, “but it ended up more of an experience restaurant.” The focus was on fine cuisine and wines and flawless service.

The demographics of this section of Henrico County indicated a healthy audience of potential diners who had the means to spend money on a good meal.

Garland’s Way opened three weeks before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Tropical storms Isabel and Gaston didn’t help either. The restaurant never took flight like he hoped.

“I knew I had made the wrong decision,” Taylor said.

These days, he is focused on the Home Team Grills. He wants to create a group of restaurants that maintain consistent standards in multiple locations. He’s pursuing the quest of franchise restaurants: how to look, feel and taste like a neighborhood restaurant while following tight corporate guidelines.

He acknowledges that it’s not just a plan that makes a restaurant, it’s the people. Keeping trained and friendly staff is always a priority. Melissa Froede, who trained him as a waiter in his first restaurant job, is now a corporate trainer for the Home Team Grill.

This year he hired a regular from one of his earlier restaurants to be his director of operations. Hans Shearer was a frequenter of Easy Street. He had a strong interest in the business of restaurants and eventually became an investor in Garland’s Way. But Shearer kept his day job until this year.

“In order to take it to the next level, ” Taylor said, “I knew that I would have to bring on high-caliber executives.”

And luck with timing. Timing can be everything.

The Fan location of Home Team Grill made its debut late. Originally scheduled to open in the fall, various delays held up the opening to the middle of last month. The first week it was open, VCU played in the NCAA tournament on St. Patrick’s Day weekend.

Crowds spilled onto the sidewalk. And the tables stayed full until closing.