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A pair of restaurateurs are opening a restaurant and bar in the space that formerly housed Red Lotus in Midtown, which closed last month, and employees are being given a special incentive to do quality work – a share of the profits.
“It’s going to be a simple, affordable neighborhood spot where families can come for a meal, and it’s welcoming of everyone,” said co-owner Matt Nurge. “It’s going to be rustic – a little like peasant food, and a little like street food.”
While still in the early stages with a possible opening date of sometime in January, the as-yet-unnamed restaurant and bar at 2718 J St. will have its food planned by Executive Chef and co-owner John Bays.
Both grew up in Sacramento, working in various restaurants and bars. Nurge said he knew Bays casually for years, and about six months ago, mutual friends helped them connect as business partners.
“It’s fun food, not uptight – just simple,” Bays said. “I have a braised short rib patty melt I'd like to do, maybe a ramen pot pie, just some different stuff.”
Other menu possibilities include Vietnamese chicken sandwiches, burgers with fried eggs, stir fry dishes made on the existing wok grill and a number of sandwiches.
“We want to really be busy at lunch as well as dinner and after,” Nurge said. “We have the Sutter building that’s opening up, and there will be 4,000 people in the area, and we want to deliver good food at a reasonable price.”
The Sutter building will house the hospital’s Anderson Lucchetti Women’s and Children’s Center.
He added that lunch dishes will likely range from $7 to $10, and dinner dishes will go for around $10 to $15.
Currently, the restaurant seats about 120 people, but the seating will be redone, with a distinct bar area up front and restaurant seating in the rear, Nurge said. Front and back patio seating will be a major part of the restaurant’s draw, he added, with more-permanent tables and chairs fronting J Street.
Nurge described the operation as half restaurant and half bar, and said he will draw on his experience as a bartender – most recently his three-year stint at Shady Lady Saloon – to create craft cocktails that will be on a regularly rotating menu.
“I want to keep the cocktail menu small so it’s simple, and I’ll rotate drinks like we will the food, providing whatever is in season locally,” Nurge said, adding that the restaurant’s six beer taps will likely be rotated with California selections.
In an industry that sees high turnover rates among staff – and the expenses that go along with training new employees – Bays and Nurge said they want to make employees a top priority, designating a percentage of the restaurant’s profits to them.
“It’s something to set us apart from other restaurants,” Bays said. “It lets them know they’re valued, that they’re working toward something that gives back to them, not just working for the man.”
Nurge said employees will not be asked to contribute any money to the business, and the plan is to have all of them included, with possible extra benefits for long-term employees, though nothing has yet been finalized.
“Mainly, we want to share our success with the people who help make us successful,” Nurge said. “My mom was a server for 25 years, and (the employees) carried the business on their backs, and people sat back and counted the money.”
He added that he intends to make money, but he wants to do it in a way that includes everyone.
If someone cares about what they do, they’ll stay longer, he said.
Bays added that the shared profits will incentivize employees to come up with cost-saving ideas and keep an eye toward cutting down on waste.
Both owners have histories in the restaurant industry. Nurge worked at numerous restaurants and bars, and Bays currently works for the Sacramento City Unified School District and owned a restaurant called Grapes at 11th and H streets in the late 1990s.
Alex Origoni, co-owner of Shady Lady Saloon – where Nurge currently works – said that extensive experience is one of the most important assets to becoming a successful restaurant operator.
“So many people get into the industry because they think it’s cool or because people tell them they have a great potatoes au gratin recipe and they should open one,” Origoni said. “Having a good menu is maybe about 5 percent of operating a restaurant business.”
Origoni said Nurge has a certain style to his cocktail creations gleaned from a career working for varied restaurants and bars, giving him experience in catering to many types of customers.
“That’s a huge advantage,” Origoni said.
Another advantage is being a part of what Origoni described as the tight-nit fraternity of restaurateurs in Sacramento who consider themselves friends and help each other out whenever possible.
Already, Nurge said, Shady Lady Saloon and other restaurant owners have offered their help.
“We see it as a team effort to build the industry and make the community even more interesting,” Origoni said. “Getting into that is the best advice I can give him, and it’s advice he already knows.”
Nurge and Bays said they are looking forward to joining the successful block of J Street anchored by Centro Cocina Mexican and Harlow’s.
“Success breeds success,” Nurge said. “That was one of the things that really attracted us to this space.”
Nearby residents have previously raised concerns about businesses selling alcohol on the block, and Nurge said he intends to work with the neighborhood associations in the area, and he currently has no plans to apply for an entertainment permit, which is required for amplified music in the city.
“We’re not a nightclub,” he said. “We’re more of a low-key restaurant and bar, and we want to be a local spot and still draw people from Midtown, families from East Sac, and people from the other areas as well.”
Brandon Darnell is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Darnell.