RALEIGH - Were it not for the fact that his boat is in dry dock, Parker Kennedy says he and his artist wife would be planning their weekly escape to Wrightsville Beach. But a smile stretches his salt and pepper gray mustache when he's told that some have expressed doubt about his ability to get away at all."Well, I have to be here for the customers," he says simply.
As the owner of downtown Raleigh's Caffé Luna, Kennedy prides himself on customer service. Whether they're politicos at power lunches or relaxed theater patrons, Kennedy says he enjoys lavishing attention on his mostly upscale clientele. Yet, another reason Kennedy may have difficulty pushing away from the table is more fundamental than his sense of responsibility. "We enjoy what we do, and we have a good time," he says.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Kennedy and his staff were playing beat the clock to ready Caffé Luna for its 5 p.m. dinner opening. There's an ordered chaos as the staff arranged dinnerware, poured water and prepared the kitchen for diners who come to enjoy Tuscan recipes in a relaxed atmosphere. It has been this way since 1996, when Kennedy opened the doors of his 80-seat establishment in the corner of the historic Montague Building on Hargett Street. Only several months before, Kennedy and his wife were living in New York City; he worked as a high-end wine buyer and his wife, Nicole White Kennedy, was an art director for the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency. But Kennedy, who moved from Raleigh with his family when he was 16, says he wanted to return to his hometown, so he kept his eyes peeled for opportunities in the classifieds of the local newspapers. "Then, I saw this place," he says. "It was a Chinese restaurant then, just at the corner." He jumped to make an offer on the real estate, and he and Nicole pulled up stakes in New York.
"We actually came down before we closed the deal," he says. We were here for six weeks with no income, trying to make that deal. It was very dicey." He was 49 at the time, and Kennedy says his plan was to spend the rest of his life working and living in Raleigh. So he signed a 20-year lease for the property. "We were betting the ranch, that's certain," he says. "But you've got to bet the ranch, do you know what I'm saying? You've got to be willing to take the gamble." To risk anything less, says Kennedy, is to doubt your vision. The gamble paid off.
"We opened on my wife's birthday, April 30th, and we started making a profit that August," says Kennedy. The next year, when a neighboring bookstore went out of business, Kennedy made a successful bid to expand into the space. Business was booming, and Kennedy says the expansion was necessary. "So, we went into the hole some more, what can I tell you?" he says. Two years after that, an adjoining beauty salon pulled the plug, and Kennedy didn't waste a second to bid on the space, transforming the plywood-floored shop into Caffé Luna's large Tuscany and Palm rooms, with rich, hardwood floors and custom doors and archways. In these rooms, as in the main dining room, the walls are lined with Nicole's original paintings.
Now, what began as a corner restaurant seating 80 has expanded to accommodate about 240 patrons, serving an estimated 500 dinners on a busy day, which is just about every day with the exception of Sunday, when Caffé Luna is closed.
Seated at a corner table in the Palm room, Kennedy gestures at the large area before him, with empty tables that soon will have a customer in every seat. He smiles. "You know, I never would have been able to come around to having all this at once," he says. "I mean, really. We had this sort of thing as an aspiration, but I couldn't have walked into this much at one time. But the luck of being able to get this, one slice after another? Nobody has chances to expand like that."
He declines to talk specifically about finances, but he says he's proud that everyone on the staff of 35 is paid well for their work. "We make a good living here, but none of us is getting rich," he says