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Business: Restaurant finds novel financing – customer loyalty

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

It wasn’t long ago that Steve and Eileen Perrone didn’t know if they would be able to reopen their gourmet market and restaurant in Litchfield.

After making the decision to expand, they started renovations last year on a larger space across Highway 17 from where they had operated successfully for eight years. They had a private backer to help them finance the construction and everything seemed to be off to a good start.

Then came a shattering blow from the economy. The backer had to pull out and the couple found themselves in a hard situation that ultimately left them out of business for 13 months. It was only last month that Perrone’s, now expanded to include a café, wine bar and full dinner menu, reopened in what used to be three separate units.

“They apologized and said they couldn’t help it,” Steve Perrone, who is the chef as well as owner, said of the backer. “We’re not mad, but the bottom line was we were in the middle of construction. These three spaces were all torn apart, all the walls were broken down, and I had spent all my money waiting for other money that never came through.”

Even with collateral, a bank loan didn’t seem like an option given the economy.

It was a low point for the Perrones and it’s a story they haven’t shared publicly before.

“I’m sitting in my room and I don’t want to leave until I come up with a plan. The windows are covered [at the restaurant] and rumors are flying,” Steve recalled, Eileen seated by his side in the soft light of the new wine room. “We went through a little funk. But we pulled ourselves out. We had no choice but to get it done or we could lose everything.”

It was a fundraising letter from Brookgreen Gardens that was Steve’s unlikely inspiration for a way to get construction started again. The letter asked patrons to write checks for special opportunities including having their name inscribed on a plaque at the gardens, Steve said.

“I looked at Eileen and said, ‘what if we apply the concept to food?’ ” he recalled.

What the couple came up with was a plan to offer some of their most loyal customers the opportunity to pre-pay for future meals with the purchase of gift certificates in large amounts: $2,500, $5,000 and even $10,000. In a year, some easily spend that much with Perrone’s anyway between catering services, take-out platters and in-house purchases.

The plan gave the Perrones the funds to continue renovations and get their business open again. Their customers, in turn, would get to continue eating the food they loved, and as an added incentive, the Perrones added a percentage of value to the top of the purchase price, along with perks such as private dinners.

“It was very creative financing,” Eileen said.

“Our customers rallied around us,” Steve said. “They prepaid for their purchases and they had enough faith in us that they believed we would succeed and they would get their money’s worth.”

That kind of customer loyalty and support is a huge compliment and the Perrones are grateful and honored to have earned it, they said.

They didn’t specify how much they raised through pre-sales, except to say it was “a lot.” It was at least enough to get the project finished, even if it didn’t happen as quickly as anyone would have liked.

“It wasn’t enough to have workmen come in and blow it out in two months,” Steve said. Funds had to be used carefully, which limited the pace of the project.

Steve strapped on a tool belt and did some of the work himself. Eileen did the interior decorating. And several friends stepped up to help as well, including Andy Perry, a local cabinet maker who helped with the wine bar area, crafting the bar and tables out of Brazilian hardwood.

Stephanie Arnold did freehand artwork in a clear glaze on some of the walls to give added interest and elegance.

The Perrones’ pride in the space is as clear as the glass of the display cases in the gourmet market.

“We put our heart and soul into this place,” Steve said. For all that time and money were an issue, they spared no attention to detail and managed to create an elegant yet comfortable atmosphere. Between that and the food, customers have so far been delighted, and Steve is creatively fulfilled in a way he wasn’t in the old space.

In its past incarnation, Perrone’s had about 20 seats and served lunch, but most of the business was for take home items out of the case.

“The dilemma was that the case could only fit a certain amount of things – 30 to 35 items,” Steve said. “If I wanted to put something new in, I had to take something else out.”

All the items in the case were the ones that had been the biggest sellers over the market’s eight years, those that were less popular having long been culled out.

As a result, removing anything from the case tended to draw complaints from customers.

“The majority ruled and the majority was ‘don’t change the case,’” Steve said. But making the same dishes day after day was becoming a frustration for him. He was getting bored.

He got some relief when Perrone’s starting having late night events at the end of the week, serving small plates.

“It gave me the culinary freedom to do whatever I wanted. I could change the menu from week to week or from Thursday to Friday and from Friday to Saturday. It was a lot of fun for me after being pigeonholed.”

Now that he has his kitchen set up in the new restaurant, there’s a full dinner menu, as well as a lunch menu, and customers can order small plates, medium plates or a full scale dinner. He can experiment and try new things, meaning his customers can too, but regulars can still find all their old favorites in the case, the same as they have for years before.

“I’m having the time of my life here,” Steve said, speaking eloquently and enthusiastically about foie gras, lobster royale, lamb chops and scallops.

Perrone’s is still growing, adding weekly to the menu.

“We’ll probably have five or six dinner specials every night when it’s all said and done for someone who wants to eat a full-sized dinner,” Steve said.

But already, Steve, with the help of David Lillich, is doing impressive things in the kitchen. One thing customers are sure to get excited about is sous-vide cooking, French for “under vacuum.” It’s a method of cooking food sealed in airtight plastic bags submerged in a water bath. The food cooks at a precise temperature and for longer than it would using other methods.

The process ensures the item is cooked evenly throughout. If a customer orders lamb chops cooked medium rare, for example, the dish would be medium rare all the way through. Using other methods, the outside of the meat would be overcooked to achieve a medium rare center.

“You’re sacrificing 30 to 40 percent of the product for the center,” Steve said. “With this, you’re sacrificing nothing.”

Perrone’s also boasts a state of the art wine dispensing and preservation system that assures the proper temperature and optimal quality of wines by the glass.

“What it does is make sure that wine by the glass is always fresh,” he said.

The wine bar offers 30 different wines by the glass all day, along with 30 small craft and Belgian beers.

Altogether, Perrone’s now has about 80 seats.

“We don’t want to say there’s no place like it,” Steve said. “But really there is no other place with this feel and this decor.”

It’s a combination of old and modern, he said, “but it’s extremely comfortable. It’s a mom and pop. We’re not rich and we’re never going to be rich doing this, but we do it because we love it.”

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