Written by Arthur Treff | Photos by Anthony Harden
“I was surfing the BMW website, shopping for my next motorcycle, and I saw a button that said, ‘Become a Dealer’ so I pushed it.”
That’s how Thomas Montgomery, and his wife, Sabra Kelley, became the owners of Eurosport Asheville, the successful BMW motorcycle dealership just across the river from Biltmore Village.
Thomas pushed that button in the fall of 2009. The couple’s job at the time was running the restaurant they’d opened four years earlier, 12 Bones. Famous for ribs, the humble roadhouse had been written up in Southern Living, The New York Times, and is Barack Obama’s first stop whenever he comes to town.
One of the best parts about interviewing people for Capital at Play is hearing the stories; how they’ve achieved their level of expertise, or what drew them to the path they’ve created for themselves. When we heard that the people who started 12 Bones had also created Eurosport, we had to hear their story.
Large chunks of Thomas’ childhood were spent riding motorcycles. His dad introduced him to riding at an early age. He entered motocross races, loved the excitement, and started to win. By the time he graduated high school, he was a sponsored amateur motocross racer. A very tiny motorcycle is on display near the cash register at Eurosport Asheville; it is Thomas’ first bike.
Graduation passed, and Thomas left bike racing to build a career. He enrolled in college to study engineering, but, after three years, Thomas found he didn’t enjoy the engineering course of study; it lacked the movement and excitement he craved.
Montgomery next took a job in a new restaurant in his hometown of Columbia, Missouri (population 70,000), called Trattoria Strada Nova. The owner, Teri Rippeto, a few years his senior and a veteran of the restaurant trade, had relocated from San Francisco to open her own eatery.
Thomas was hired to wash dishes, and he fell in love with restaurant work immediately. The sense of urgency and the unrelenting pace of the work quenched his thirst for excitement, but the sense of teamwork with the rest of the crew satisfied Tom on a much deeper level.
Over a three-year period, he worked his way from the back of the house to the front, then back again. He started as a dishwasher, progressed to bus boy, then to waiter, and eventually became a chef.
Brilliant managers have a knack for hiring the right people and nurturing them until a cohesive team materializes. Teri was one of those managers, and Montgomery absorbed skills that would become integral to his future success.
Tucking the restaurant experience under his arm, Thomas headed west and bounced around the Pacific coast, taking odd jobs in Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco. Looking for chef positions, he combed the want ads, but most shops considered his experience limited.
The last straw was broken when he appeared, resume in hand, to a high-end restaurant in San Francisco. They needed two waiters, and he was one, out of 346 applicants, many of whom had far more experience than Montgomery.
After being turned down for the job in San Francisco, he moved back to Columbia to cook for Teri; although disappointed, he was happy to once again be part of a seasoned back-of-the-house team. One night after work, Teri suggested that unless he attended cooking school he’d never command the salary he deserved and would have to prove himself at every job interview.
So, it was off to Montpelier, Vermont, for New England Culinary Institute (NECI). To say that Thomas was motivated is an understatement. He was so eager to finish up school and get back into the work force that he signed up for classes at any hour. Taking a full load during the day, he’d spot a bread course that met at baker’s hours (3am) and take it.
Montgomery did six months of course work in three. He got very little sleep, but in spite of his workload, he had the time to meet and fall in love with his future wife, Sabra Kelley, a fellow student.
Like Thomas, Sabra was searching for a job with more action. She already had a bachelor of science in agricultural and biological engineering from Cornell, and had supported herself working in restaurants. Jobs in her field weren’t plentiful, and she preferred being on her feet and busy, so Sabra decided to stick with the cooking/service side of the food chain.
At the end of her studies at NECI, Kelley found an internship as a pastry chef at the Ritz Carlton in Chicago. Thomas, already smitten by her, passed up a prestigious internship in sunny Maui and accompanied Sabra to the windy city one cold November day.
Chicago was where Thomas found his niche in the business. He started as a sous-chef at the Foundation Room, a private club within the House of Blues. Here, he began to apply what he’d learned back home in Teri’s restaurant and forged a cohesive kitchen team. Success at this prestigious post sent him to the company, Mainstreet and Main, the parent company of the Red Fish Grill.
It was with Red Fish that his team building, kitchen-process optimizing, and sang froid all came together. Thomas became a recognized expert in opening new restaurants, and fixing established ones that had gone astray. Meanwhile, Sabra became an accomplished pastry chef at the Ritz.
The pair left Chicago for Denver, where Thomas was to open another Red Fish grill for Mainstreet and Main. Sabra’s Ritz credentials secured her employment as a pastry chef in a high-end wedding cake establishment. Always on the go, Sabra also earned a master’s degree in landscape design during her four years in Denver.
[quote float=”right”]Thomas eventually left Mainstreet and Main and spent some time as a sous-chef for Wolfgang Puck. Afterwards, he was the head sous-chef for four more restaurant openings, and consulted for investors wanting to open new dining rooms.[/quote]
Years later found Thomas burnt out on restaurant work, so he took a research and development job with a frozen pizza dough and pasta company. Montgomery’s focus was to work with customer chefs to devise custom dough recipes for chains like Maggiano’s Italy and Rock Bottom Breweries.
Out of the Pan…
Metropolitan Denver’s big city atmosphere had the couple longing for small town life again. Hearts set on settling in Ireland were dashed, when they discovered that finding lucrative employment with a short commute to their apartment was next to impossible on the emerald isle.
Asheville was a vacation spot they’d visited and liked, and their furniture was still in storage, so why not? On Sept. 1, 2001, the couple signed a rental agreement, ten days before the World Trade Center attack…not perfect timing economically speaking.
Sabra scraped together enough freelance landscape design/installation jobs to eke out a living, while Thomas’ mind was on self-reinvention; he took construction courses at AB Tech and bought a house to renovate.
Western Carolina University needed a chef to run their catering business; they asked, and he said yes; which was not the highlight of Thomas’ kitchen career, it was the opposite. He vowed never to set foot in anyone’s kitchen again, and went back to renovating his Asheville home, all the while sampling southern cuisine.
…and Into the Fire “We got tired of driving to Memphis for ribs,” says Thomas. “When the flood of ’04 destroyed Daisy’s Diner in the River Arts District, we thought that that building was the perfect location for a roadhouse.” The couple decided to give restaurant ownership a try. They talked about many food concepts for their new enterprise, but the discussion always came back to barbeque. Once the focus cuisine was decided, Thomas got busy buying and fixing up used kitchen equipment and taught himself to smoke meats. 12 Bones opened in December 2005. Do the Math “I calculated that we could break even on our costs if we served 125 meals a day,” says Montgomery. “Within a month, we hit that number with lunch only, and by the summer, we were serving 300 meals a day.” Kelley and Montgomery hit their stride. By year three, the daily waiting line ran around the building, and 12 Bones was serving 600 lunches on the average day. The couple’s duties evolved; Sabra took the front of the establishment as well most of the planning. After taking classes on Quick Books, she also took over all the accounting and payroll. Thomas focused on taste and food quality and building a tight kitchen team. His powers of observation were honed from more than a decade as a sous-chef in prestigious restaurants, and he continually tweaked the food process to eliminate any wasted movements or bottlenecks. Serving 600 happy lunch customers out of 12 Bones’ tiny building was a staggering feat of kitchen production and unflagging customer service. “It took us a while to put a cohesive team together,” says Thomas. “We were looking to reproduce the family experience we’d both experienced in successful restaurants. Early on, we were just looking for experience, but once we got the process down, we began to hire people with personalities we’d want to spend the entire day with.” The Sweeten Creek 12 Bones location was opened, because eventually Kelley and Montgomery were employing five chefs, all graduates of recognized cooking schools, all would be welcome in five star establishments; the couple wanted to keep them happy.
…and Into the Fire
“We got tired of driving to Memphis for ribs,” says Thomas. “When the flood of ’04 destroyed Daisy’s Diner in the River Arts District, we thought that that building was the perfect location for a roadhouse.”
The couple decided to give restaurant ownership a try. They talked about many food concepts for their new enterprise, but the discussion always came back to barbeque. Once the focus cuisine was decided, Thomas got busy buying and fixing up used kitchen equipment and taught himself to smoke meats. 12 Bones opened in December 2005.
Do the Math
“I calculated that we could break even on our costs if we served 125 meals a day,” says Montgomery. “Within a month, we hit that number with lunch only, and by the summer, we were serving 300 meals a day.” Kelley and Montgomery hit their stride.
By year three, the daily waiting line ran around the building, and 12 Bones was serving 600 lunches on the average day. The couple’s duties evolved; Sabra took the front of the establishment as well most of the planning. After taking classes on Quick Books, she also took over all the accounting and payroll.
Thomas focused on taste and food quality and building a tight kitchen team. His powers of observation were honed from more than a decade as a sous-chef in prestigious restaurants, and he continually tweaked the food process to eliminate any wasted movements or bottlenecks. Serving 600 happy lunch customers out of 12 Bones’ tiny building was a staggering feat of kitchen production and unflagging customer service.
“It took us a while to put a cohesive team together,” says Thomas. “We were looking to reproduce the family experience we’d both experienced in successful restaurants. Early on, we were just looking for experience, but once we got the process down, we began to hire people with personalities we’d want to spend the entire day with.”
The Sweeten Creek 12 Bones location was opened, because eventually Kelley and Montgomery were employing five chefs, all graduates of recognized cooking schools, all would be welcome in five star establishments; the couple wanted to keep them happy.
Feeding the President
One day, while Montgomery was working at the Sweeten Creek store, three men in black suits and sunglasses walked in and said: “The president’s motorcade will be here in 15 minutes.”
His staff handled the wave of chaos with aplomb; the Obamas were served, as were the regular customers. Thomas’ perceptive sense of restaurant process served the team well when the president came back a second time.
“We noticed some guys in dark suits returning the same time every day, one week, so we knew something was up,” says Thomas. “We were ready. I did a quick briefing with the Secret Service men. This time, no press was allowed in the kitchen. Secret Service would take care of the outside and control the press; we’d do the rest. I dedicated one chef and one server to the president’s party.
How does it work at 12 Bones when Barack and Michelle appear? They get in line, they order, pay cash, and enjoy themselves. After they leave, the rest of the security detail is fed, as well as the remaining regulars.
Certainly becoming a regular stop on the president’s Western North Carolina schedule was good for the restaurant, but 12 Bones was already luring diners via word of mouth and recognized media outlets. The jewel for Thomas and Sabra was how serving the Obamas made their employees feel special; it was a validation that they were involved in something special.
Startup: Frugality Foremost
Like many successful businesses, 12 Bones was started by debt-averse owners, and to those who know, it is a recipe for very long hours during the start up phase. They drove hundreds of miles to find used kitchen equipment. Then, once home, got busy cleaning and repairing their purchases.
Paint colors were chosen by what was available for free from local paint dealers, who were more than happy to give the restaurant gallons of discarded goods due to poor color match. Most of the fixtures and furniture were used.
Meal cost was calculated so that the couple would know when they were making or going beyond their expenses. The original plan was to serve lunch and dinner, but the restaurant was very successful just serving weekday lunches. Thomas’ years of experience had taught him to manage growth conservatively, so 12 Bones would stick with lunch only
Five years after opening, 12 Bones was thriving, but it was still a lot of work. The pair was contacted by other restaurant owners for advice, and some of these requests became consulting gigs. Their restaurant may have only been five years old, but for Montgomery, it was preceded by a grueling 15 years in the industry.
Road to Change
Thomas bought a motorcycle to unwind, his first since high school. It was at this point that the idea to get involved in the motorcycle industry arose. That fateful evening, when he pushed the ‘Become a Dealer’ button on the BMW website, Thomas was surprised to find out that the city of Asheville was on the German company’s radar for a new dealership.
“I thought it was an exciting possibility; I had a gut feeling, a seat of the pants thing,” says Sabra of the dealership idea. “We’ve always been about tangible things; making or selling a good product to good people, so it wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine ourselves selling bikes.”
Thomas shouldered most of the startup tasks for opening Eurosport Asheville, and, just like starting the restaurant, he was cautious about incurring debt. BMW has definitive ideas about all aspects of their dealerships; from financial stability, to business plan, vehicle versus clothing stocking quantities…all the way to the floor tiles and sign out front; all of which were potentially costly.
But this wasn’t Thomas’ first time opening a business, so he calmly negotiated with the Teutonic decision makers until they approved a plan that he could afford. He sold them on his strong customer service ethic borne out of decades in successful restaurants.
It worked. August 2011, twenty months after he pressed the button on BMW’s web page, Montgomery was approved as a dealer for the German marque, and Eurosport Asheville opened their doors.
Eurosport’s employees were selected for having the same customer-focused, team-oriented qualities that had served so well in his restaurant work. At 12 Bones, neither Sabra nor Thomas played the omnipresent owner, chatting up the customers in the dining room, letting them know who was in charge.
Thomas fostered that same dynamic in Eurosport, where he focused on running the business, but empowered his employees on the floor to stand on their own and develop customer relationships of their own.
He had never run a retail establishment before, but Montgomery knew that incremental growth was smart growth, so during the first year the dealership didn’t have a boatload of retail stock on the floor.
BMW marketing had forecasted that Eurosport would sell 72 new motorcycles in the first year, which Montgomery’s team beat by coming in at 103 units sold. As of March of 2015, new unit sales are up 20 percent over the first year at 120 units, which is very respectable growth, considering that the dealership will be four years old this August. When sales of used bikes are rolled in with sales of new, Eurosport averaged one bike sold per day in 2014.
The parts and service departments each have returned an impressive year over year growth of 19 to 20 percent. Thomas reasons that parts and service growth is a predictable follow-on to the number of motorcycles sold; customers who’ve had a good retail experience will be back to have their machines serviced.
What of 12 Bones? Sabra was running the restaurant while Thomas was running Eurosport across town, but as the bike dealership took off, it became too much. The couple had been consulting for folks who were interested in purchasing a BBQ establishment in San Francisco. When they decided to sell, Sabra and Thomas approached their clients with the idea of buying 12 Bones instead. A private sale was made in 2012, six years after the flood of Daisy’s Diner.
Sabra sums up the lessons learned at 12 Bones well. [quote float=”left”]“Most people imagine that continually coming up with creative recipes is the hardest part of restaurant ownership, but it’s not. The hard part is consistency – serving good quality food, day after day after day.[/quote] I know it’s boring to think of, but regular customers want their favorite dish to taste the same every time.”
And: “The best part of 12 Bones was the loyalty of our staff. We treated them as our friends and family, and many have said that it was the best place they’d ever worked. That made us feel great.”
Nurturing the Startup
Spring of 2015 finds Sabra content to be in a supporting role at the dealership, keeping the books and writing payroll. She rounds out her days working at a retail landscaping store in Weaverville and taking the occasional landscape design job.
“For me, it’s fun to just walk into Eurosport,” she says. “There’s a coolness factor. Tom and I have always lived simply, and I grew up in a very frugal Massachusetts household, where we never had anything shiny or new. I think my father was wearing clothes he’d gone to college in, so it’s fun to be surrounded by top of the line bikes.”
Eurosport, which was founded on a strong management foundation, is doing quite well, and the team continues to find ways to offer a higher quality shopping and riding experience to their customers.
During the first year in business, Thomas was approached by a group of BMW riders who wanted to start a riding club that would be aligned with his shop. This is not uncommon in the industry, and Thomas said yes. The Asheville BMW Riders are self funded and governed, but they are allowed to use the shop for meetings and events.
All of the club’s monthly events are broadcast via a Facebook page. There are advertised rides, which begin and end at the dealership. In this way, the shop becomes more of a lifestyle destination, a place where customers can meet like-minded riders for social reasons, which translates into more floor traffic for Eurosport.
The dealership’s general manager also spends considerable time on social networks every day, serving up content marketing, such as videos of bikes for sale, or answering customer questions. It’s all about maintaining customer involvement.
After the 20+ years he spent in the restaurant business, Thomas appreciates the change of pace that Eurosport offers.
“Conversations with customers at the bike shop are different,” he says.[quote float=”right”]“In the restaurant, there wasn’t time to get into any depth. At Eurosport, I have more time to talk and get to know people — I’m experiencing customers more fully.”[/quote]
Running a BMW dealership, the hours are a bit more relaxed versus running a restaurant.
“At 12 Bones, we’d get the kitchen cleaned up by around 5:00 in the afternoon,” says Montgomery, “but there were still several hours to go, smoking meats and ordering ingredients.”
For couples or family considering going into business, Sabra has this to say. “Divide and conquer. Do not make all decisions as a committee, it takes too much time. Thomas owned the back of the house responsibilities, and I took the front at 12 Bones.”
Sabra has learned a bit about how a home life can be managed. “Don’t discuss business 24/7 and don’t just start talking business at breakfast. Establish your personal business hours. There’s nothing wrong with scheduling a meeting with your spouse, as a matter of fact, that’s the best way to do it…otherwise you’ll find yourself always working and burnt out.”
Thomas Montgomery is a friendly, quiet man who inspires respect in employees and customers alike. He’s a good listener, and his life floats on an even keel of discipline and calm. He’s enjoying the relatively relaxed pace of the dealership, which allows him to spend time with Sabra and travel on two wheels. This summer, he plans to start at the Canadian border, and ride the dirt ridgeline of the Continental Divide all the way to Mexico.
What’s down the road for these serial entrepreneurs, these ‘repeat offenders’ of the small business world? Sabra seems content to work with plants, and Thomas continues to grow Eurosport Asheville…but we’d bet our reputation as writers that someday, Thomas will arrive home and say:
“Sabra, I saw this vacant building on the way home; it’s an amazing location! It would be the perfect location for….”
Stay tuned, because whatever they do next, they’ll do it well, customers will keep coming back, and it sure will be fun to watch.
What can Budding Entrepreneurs Learn From Kelley and Montgomery?
> Any business is about numbers, and they must be analyzed to make proper decisions.
> Always forecast conservatively; it’s better to be surprised by better than expected results.
> Do not incur debt, unless you need a piece of equipment that will ruin you if it fails…such as a refrigerator or freezer in a restaurant.
> Take on debt only for sure things, such as buying the building you’re operating in, or investing in a business segment with a calculated, guaranteed, return.
> Do not add employees unless the addition will yield a calculated guaranteed result.
> Treat your employees like family and friends, not ‘important assets’.
> ‘Customer’ and ‘Service’ are the two most important words in a business owner’s vocabulary.
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