As she approaches her sixth year as a restaurant owner, Monique Trudnowski has a lot to be proud of.
The Adriatic Grill, which she co-owns with her husband, Bill, and a third partner, John Howie, grossed $3.1 million in its last fiscal year, no small feat when the Washington Restaurant Association reports 50 percent of such establishments fail in the first five years.
The restaurant at 4201 S. Steele St. in Tacoma officially opened in February 2008, but Trudnowski and her husband celebrate the anniversary of the day they bought the establishment, which was June 2007. Since opening, it has grown from 30 employees to 63.
Trudnowski, 38, recently was honored by the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation. Its Faces of Diversity: The American Dream Award recognizes restaurant owners who have overcome obstacles in their pasts to achieve the American dream.
As a child, Trudnowski belonged to a military family. After retiring while stationed at Fort Lewis, her father left the family. A homeless teen and single parent without a high school diploma, Trudnowski credits hard work and dedication for her success. She also prides herself on employing others in situations similar to hers.
Question: What does this award represent?
Answer: They’re trying to highlight the fact that restaurants are an industry of opportunity, and that you can really come from anywhere and have restaurants be your vehicle to achieve your dream. I was really proud that Tacoma is now on the map across the nation for helping someone achieve the American dream.
Q: Why were you chosen?
A: Some of the reasons were the obstacles I overcame as a young person. I was a homeless teen, we were a working homeless family growing up and I did not achieve a high school diploma. Then, I was a single mom at 17. So here’s someone who didn’t have the best opportunities.
But my first job at a restaurant was as a host and a busser. I fell in love with it and had the opportunity to move up through restaurants. I became a server, then a bartender, then a manager, then an interim general manager, and now I’m an owner/operator. It was probably a 20-year path. I was able to get experience through hard work and sweat.
Q: Why did you open the restaurant in Tacoma?
A: Chef Bill and I were living in Seattle and both had corporate jobs before buying the restaurant. We looked at a couple different cities, so we said, “What about Tacoma?”
I had grown up here, I had faced adversity here, but I had also found opportunity here. So I wanted to come back to Tacoma, and invest in the community and find the opportunity to find another Monique, that single mom or homeless working teen who doesn’t have a high school diploma but has the drive. That’s my commitment to being a business owner. Restaurants are about more; they’re about people.
Q: What made you decide to start in restaurants?
A: As a single mom, I chose restaurants for the flexible schedules. It wasn’t a 40-hour workweek where I couldn’t afford day care. Secondly, I didn’t have a high school diploma, but I knew how to work hard. A word I like to use is “experiential equity.” Restaurants give experiential equity because as long as I was willing to work hard, show up on time, be healthy, be safe, I would be rewarded for the work I performed, and that’s really what restaurants do for people.
Q: You’ve mentioned you are committed to the community. How does this influence how you do business?
A: Every person who comes in the front doors, the front desk and the servers realize these are our friends, our neighbors, our fellow churchgoers, people at our kids’ schools. The culture of Adriatic Grill is every person who comes in here, we first want them to feel welcome, and secondly we want them to come back. Restaurants and food are so celebratory. They’re about friends and family and visiting and milestones, and that’s built into restaurants and the community.
Q: The Adriatic Grill opened the year the recession hit. How has it managed to not only remain open, but thrive?
A: One of the driving forces was our commitment to our employees. We looked at it as we don’t have the option to close. We have 55 people who depend on us for rent, for their car payments, milk money for their children and for diapers.
The second thing that helped was consistency in food and service. With the recession hitting, people were really choosy about their dollars. They want to know who’s going to give them what they’re looking for.
Also, as small business owners, there were sacrifices. There were times our kids would have to stay with us and sleep on the benches at the restaurant. There was a year we had one car, and I would take the bus with the baby and bring her in to work because we couldn’t afford child care.
The strength of Bill and I being a husband-and-wife team and a business partner team is we think with that same mind and we understand that short-term sacrifices will yield a long-term result. If we can make those sacrifices, they will benefit our crew, and then the crew can take care of our guests. They don’t have to worry about if they can pay rent. We will bear the brunt of that. Let them focus on what they need to focus on.
Q: Did you begin your career in restaurants with the idea that you would one day own one yourself?
A: Absolutely not. I always thought, “Restaurants will be how I support myself for now, and I’ll have a grown-up job someday.” My husband really had the vision for that. I thought he was crazy but he had the vision, drive and focus. I’m grateful for that, because I hate cooking. I love to eat though.
Bill’s inspiration was two things. First, Adriatica was a Greek restaurant in Seattle that he loved, and people know that restaurant even though it’s closed now. And then the Adriatic Sea is the source of such comfort food. You have Eastern Italy, the Balkan states and all of those fish, which reminds us of the fish in the Pacific Northwest. Plus, with six children like we have, you can feed them with pasta. You can feed a lot of people with pasta.
Q: What advice do you give to others who aspire to owning a restaurant?
This has to be your passion. When you’re not eating, when your light bill is cut off at home and you have to explain that to your children, when you’re making those sacrifices, money isn’t going to be there to get you through. It’s going to be passion and dedication that gets you through.
I see so many restaurateurs who love to cook, or think. “I’m a great cook. I’m going to open a restaurant.” There are so many more facets than that. The frustrations are high, and the money is not. Having that passion has to be at the core of your being. Either you love it or you don’t.
Leah Traxel: 253-597-8670