I never return home without a list of new friends and the most recent trip was no exception. One reason is that I am never hesitant to talk to strangers, something that comes more naturally, I believe, when you are a solo traveler.
Here are two entrepreneurs I met during my recent stay in Aiken, S.C.
Betsy’s On the Corner is on the corner a block from the apartment where I stayed for a month. Consistently good food wasn’t the only reason I often patronized it. I was curious about what the new owner was doing that the two previous restaurants in the same location failed to do.
Why is this place crowded every day it’s open and why were the curbside tables and chairs occupied even when it was 30 degrees in Aiken?
Betsy Simon, the owner, doesn’t have all the answers, but she has enough to share with others who may have a yen to go into the restaurant business.
First, she advises caution. Take time looking for the location, planning the menu, and investigating what your competitors are doing.
Her prior career experiences helped her in planning the restaurant. Those included teaching home economics, real estate, and interior decorating. To that Betsy adds the cooking knowledge she gained from her mother and grandmother.
Betsy calls her style “country cooking" using fresh foods. The chicken and dumpling soup that is a house specialty is made following her grandmother’s recipe. Despite the many hours running the restaurant, she is often seen supervising work back in the kitchen.
In the 18 months she has been in business Betsy also has found time to make cakes and pies from scratch. The baked goods don’t last long, but they are worth the wait until she is in the mood to bake another raspberry or blueberry pie, German chocolate cake, or coconut cream cake.
“I have always loved to cook and entertain. I grew up as a soda jerk and as an adult I always cooked and baked things to take to the office,”she recalled.
Her service goal is to keep the tables turning and the customers content. From the time the order is taken to serving it is 10 minutes.
“That’s what we shoot for,” Betsy said. That is also why the 15 employees move fast in the kitchen and the 70-seat dining room. Their T-shirts inscribed with “I Work This Corner” add whimsy.
Betsy has other criteria for the staff to remember besides fast service. “I want this to be a happy place,” she said. She credits a wait staff of grounded mature women, compared to high school students who, she said, often have interests outside work, as a key to her success.
She assures that despite the 14-hour days the restaurant is her grand finale; no more career moves.
Although she is always smiling and says everything is wonderful, she admits there is a downside.
“It’s hard work. I am exhausted. Would you like to walk my dog for me? He hasn’t been for a walk for three days,” she said.
I struck up a conversation with Debra Halborn at the counter at Betsy’s On the Corner, and in minutes learned she is a cat lover and book author.
She lives in Aiken, but she was eager to explain why she left New York more than a decade ago.
“The morning of 9/11 I told my then-boyfriend that I was moving with the four cats.” Debra recalled climbing to the roof of her garage that morning where she could see the smoke from the Twin Towers and hear the sirens.
She put her house on the market that day. Two years later when it sold she and her four cats, Ralphie, Diva, Spooky Bear, and Alice, left New York. Debra lived in Pensacola before moving to Aiken six years ago.
The cats were the inspiration for a book she designed with a space theme. Titled Greetings from the Starcat Cluster, it includes scrapbook and postcard pages and is sold both for children and adults.
Debra records her ideas for future books in sketch and notebooks that she keeps handy in her car and in her home.
Her Web site features several of the original sketches she doodled before turning them over to artist George Angelina for digital illustrations. The book is $25, including shipping cost. It is only available online at www.starcatcluster.com. Debra said that a portion of the sales goes to Feline Rescue and Feral Cat Trap-Neuter-Return.
Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org