Fort Mill Times

Picky eaters open restaurant of their own in Tega Cay

Michelle Serkin was a picky eater growing up. All of the portions on her plate had to be carefully divided and none of the different foods could touch each other.

Her husband, Jason, insists he is just as picky, but not as choosey. He says he could eat the same thing every day for breakfast and lunch, an omelet followed by a BLT sandwich with brie and avocados.

The couple likes eating out for breakfast on the weekend, likes freshly prepared foods and a restaurant that has a homey feel.

So it should come as no surprise that these two – who met at a Starbucks coffee shop – are in the restaurant businesses.

They have just opened the first Toast Cafe franchise in the former PDQ site at Stonecrest on S.C. 160 West.

It’s the fourth location for the upscale breakfast-and-lunch restaurant that got its start in Huntersville, N.C., in 2005. Toast Cafe has three restaurants in the Charlotte region: Davidson, Dillworth and Ballantyne. Its owners have an aggressive expansion plan, adding a franchise in Raleigh and considering expansion in the Birmingham, Ala., and Tampa, Fla., markets. More locations in South Carolina are also likely.

The Serkins’ path to Toast Cafe, however, wasn’t direct. But it was deliberate. The Serkins seldom make a decision without painstaking research and careful planning.

About four years ago the couple decided they needed to move from Monmouth County, N.J., where Jason ran a recycling company and Michelle was a teacher. They wanted a different atmosphere in which to raise their two children, Evan and Phoebe.

They liked the Charlotte region and looked on both sides of the Carolinas border. “Fort Mill kept pulling us back,” Michelle said.

After moving south, Michelle returned to teaching school, while Jason was a stay-at-home dad. Just like in New Jersey, they started looking for weekend breakfast places. They didn’t find many. Michelle asked her colleagues at Sterling Elementary school in Pineville, N.C., for recommendations.

The consensus was Toast Cafe.

They made their first Toast visit in 2010 and liked what they found, a restaurant that served freshly prepared food and had a homey atmosphere.

They discovered the Toast Cafe owners were looking to franchise. They got online and sent an e-mail to the Toast Cafe franchise Web page. It bounced back. So did a second email. The next time Jason called one of the Toast cafes and talked with a manager.

The phone call was just the first step for the Serkins. Jason spent almost a year training at the Ballantyne cafe. Michelle trained for six months.

While they were quick students, they had to learn everything about the restaurant business. “We even had to learn how to carry food trays,” Michelle said.

The result was “we didn’t walk into a new restaurant cold,” Michelle said.

The Tega Cay location held a soft opening last week. By Friday, the third day it was open, the parking lot was full for breakfast and the Serkins were already bringing in extra staff. Yesterday was their first Sunday. Traditionally that’s the busiest day for Toast Cafe’s Charlotte-area locations.

While the cafe is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. seven days a week, food prep starts at 5 in the morning as the staff peels potatoes, starts to make the salad dressing and soups, cracks the lobsters and pasteurized eggs. The lobsters are delivered daily from Maine. The prep work results in a larger-than-usual kitchen staff, the Serkins said, about 10 employees. Overall the location employs about 30.

The remodeled restaurant has a fireplace on the screen porch, lots of wooden roosters scattered about, and menus with a message: “Every server is your server.” Prices for breakfast range from $6 to $12, and the average lunch is about $10. The wait staff takes each order on a computer tablet so there are no tickets the kitchen staff can’t read. The tablets are also connected to the point-of-sale terminals.

The Serkins are not daunted by the fact that about one-third of new restaurants fail in the first year. They make it a point to stress that they are quick learners, calm people and hard workers, and they have a great product and great location.

Their training taught them to “be ready for (business) to be constant, and we want people to leave happy,” they said. “We care about what we do.”

It also doesn’t hurt that they are bringing a little Jersey bravado to their Toast – “Go big or go home!” says Michelle.