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Doug Clark: Thin-crust vision took thick skin

There are probably quicker ways to wind up in the poorhouse or on a psychiatrist’s couch, but running a restaurant has to be right up there.

Research shows that three out of every five eateries will close in the first three years of operation.

And in the past week or so, we’ve seen two Spokane restaurants call it quits: Beignets, a relative newcomer to the downtown dining scene, and C.I. Shenanigans, a fixture here for 30 years.

But today’s column isn’t about dishing out grim news.

This story is about celebrating a Spokane restaurateur who beat the odds and has the ulcers to prove it.

His name is Jim Rhoades. He emailed me the other day to proudly announce that Rock City, the grill he owns at 808 W. Main Ave. with his wife, Rose, will turn 20 on Friday.

Rock City is known for gourmet pizzas, pasta and for introducing Spokane diners to the tasty wonders of the wood-fired oven.

Originally located at 505 W. Riverside Ave., Rock City moved into the River Park Square location in 2003.

“With recent restaurant closings,” wrote Rhoades, “we feel fortunate to not be a memory in downtown.”

Jim and Rose will mark their 20th with free cupcakes and 20 percent off menu items, which will continue until the end of November.

This couple has my sincerest admiration.

Sadly, mostly everything I know about the restaurant industry comes from the rather jaundiced view I’ve obtained from being addicted to “Kitchen Nightmares” and “Restaurant Impossible.”

The formats of these two reality TV shows follow a predictable and similar pattern.

Celebrity chef goes into failing restaurant. Chef gets sick eating wormy food. Chef yells (or swears) at owner. Chef revamps menu while crew remodels restaurant.

Owner cries. Staff cries.

Chef takes credit.

After the show, however, I usually check the Internet to discover that the rescued restaurant turned into an alignment shop two weeks after the know-it-all chef blew out of town.

So it really does my heart good to meet someone like Rhoades, who has succeeded at such a tough craft.

Rhoades, 58, started in his early 20s as a humble cook in Las Vegas, a job that opened a lot of doors when he moved back to Spokane, his hometown.

“Everybody thought I was a chef,” he said with a laugh.

Rhoades worked his way up the Spokane food chain, eventually being hired to run Patsy Clark’s, one of my favorite long-gone restaurants.

He got the bug to try something on his own. Drawing on his experience and knowledge, Rhoades envisioned thin-crust, gourmet pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven.

Invention is easy. Getting someone to fund your pipe dreams is the hard part.

“Back in the summer of 1992, I was trying to find financing for the Rock City,” Rhoades wrote in his email.

“I said if you lined up all the commercial bankers in downtown Spokane, turned off the lights, I could tell you who was who by the taste of their shoe polish.

“They like the boot-licking thing.”

I like this guy.

All eight bankers he saw turned him down.

Two asked if his pies would beat Godfather’s. Another wondered why he couldn’t use an electric oven.

“Most of them looked at me like I was speaking in tongues.”

Rhoades persisted. He found a partner and enough do-re-mi to make his idea real.

Rock City was born on Oct. 19, 1992.

“Now I’m seeing the kids of our good customers coming in with their kids,” he said.

All was not rosy.

The year 1995, for example, saw a profit of just $9,400.

And the attempt to put a Rock City clone in Spokane Valley failed after just a few years.

But the downtown restaurant made it through the difficulties and thrived.

Why?

Rhoades credits his wife, their dedicated staff, keeping standards high, and making sure “we always paid everyone else before we paid ourselves.”

Having a crowd-pleasing menu item doesn’t hurt, either.

That would be Rock City’s famed Thai pizza.

“We wouldn’t be in business without it,” added Rhoades. “It pays the rent.”

So popular is the pizza’s peanut sauce that Jim and Rose now sell it in Rosauers and Huckleberry’s supermarkets.

So there you have it.

Turns out you can make it in the restaurant biz. It can be done.

Although if you’re crazy enough to try it here in Spokane, Rhoades offers one last bit of advice.

“Take what you think you’re gonna do in business and then take 20 percent off. Then ask yourself: ‘Can I make my bank payment on that?’ ”

My answer would be no, which is why I’m sticking to what I do best.

Eating.

Doug Clark can be reached at (509) 459-5432 ordougc@spokesman.com.


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