summer 2000

class notes

Richard Mott, ’82

Jeff Cohen, Evening Program Student


Richard Mott, ’82
Serving Up Success

When the class of 1982 bid adieu to the GSB, most graduates headed off to jobs on Wall Street or with Fortune 500 companies. Richard Mott stayed behind to run the business school’s coffee shop.

“I heard a lot of jokes like, ‘What’s the matter, Rich, can’t find a job?’ or, ‘What are you going to do, sell hot dogs?’” Mott recalled.

Actually, Mott had his share of job offers. It was his choice to run the shop. Now, almost two decades later, classmates no longer make fun of Mott. Over the years, his modest enterprise has percolated into a food service and restaurant business with 250 employees and $12 million in annual sales.

Mott’s University Food Systems still operates the cafe in Stuart Hall, as well as at 18 other outlets at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, the Illinois Institute of Technology, John Marshall Law School, and the School of the Art Institute.

Meanwhile, Mott’s other business, Park Restaurants, operates two eclectic restaurants in Chicago’s Lincoln Park and Hyde Park neighborhoods, with a third in the planning.

“I can’t claim that this was part of any grand plan,” said a bemused Mott. “I just thought it was a good opportunity and I didn’t want to work for anyone else.”

Trial and error forced Mott, 43, to be a self-made man at an early age. A high school football star in New York, he “flunked out” of two colleges before taking a job shoveling coal into a furnace at an iron foundry. “I would come home at night and cough up sand and coal dust. It really was a Dantesque version of hell,” Mott said. “I was 19 years old and I decided that was not what I wanted to do the rest of my life.”

He started taking night courses at the University of Buffalo, then enrolled full time. He played football, was president of student government, and graduated magna cum laude in 1979 with a degree in political science.

He immediately enrolled at the GSB, where a lack of funds forced him to stretch his studies to three years. “I would go to school one term, then take one off to make enough money to pay for the next term,” Mott explained.

It was an opportunity to make money that attracted Mott to Stuart Hall. At the time, the administration allowed students to bid for the right to run the coffee shop for a year, enabling them to use profits to fund their education. Mott won the bid in 1981 and was awarded the contract again in 1982 when the students who had outbid him dropped out at the last minute. He was so successful, Mott has run the shop ever since.

“Rich is an entrepreneur in the true sense of the word,” said John Huizinga, deputy dean for faculty, who taught Mott in a money and banking class and keeps in touch with him today. “Rich is always willing to take risks, but they always are calculated risks. He had the true entrepreneurial spirit long before entrepreneurship caught on at business schools.”

As he gained experience and built up capital at his first outlet, Mott began to win bids to run additional coffee shops at Chicago and other area universities. With a menu of coffee, espresso, pastries, sandwiches, and soup, the shops--typically no larger than 400 square feet--cater to students, offering them conveniences like late hours and free check cashing.

A related business, Sugarplum Catering, operates a kitchen that provides breakfast and luncheon items for the coffee shops and for meetings and events at the various institutions.

“We have developed a specialty business that is too small for ARA or Marriott,” Mott said. “It’s not the glamorous side of the business, but it provides most of the growth.”

The glamour is in Mott’s restaurant operation, which consists of two locations nestled in historic buildings owned by the Chicago Park District.

The first, Jackson Harbor Grill, opened in June 1997 in the shadow of the Museum of Science and Industry. Located in an old U.S. Coast Guard station on Lake Michigan, the restaurant is accessible by land and water, with boats docked outside providing a picturesque view for patrons. The Caribbean-Creole menu features such dishes as blackened chicken with Louisiana whipped potatoes and mussels in angel hair pasta, topped with a delicate cream sauce. Because of its location on the lake, Jackson Harbor Grill is open seasonally, May through October.

In April 1998, Mott opened North Pond Cafe in Lincoln Park. It is housed in a former ice skating warming house built by the park district in 1912, which now overlooks North Pond near the Lincoln Park Zoo. When Mott first won a bid to run concessions out of the brick building, he envisioned selling hot dogs and soda. Yet he was captivated by the history and architecture of the warming house and spent $700,000 to convert it into a sit-down restaurant.

The decor of North Pond Cafe reflects the arts and crafts movement of the late 19th century, as does the menu. Entrees are prepared using locally grown foods and feature such offerings as grilled duck breast with glazed turnips and potato puree and roasted Atlantic salmon with browned organic carrots and creamy black rice.

Impressed by Mott’s efforts with the two restaurants, the Chicago Park District is working with him on a third project. Bluefin, a 140-seat seafood restaurant, is set to open at Montrose Harbor in May 2001.

“We’re thrilled with what Richard has done,” said Linda Daly, special projects manager for the park district. “He truly had a vision and invested a lot of his own capital. There were some skeptics who said he wasn’t going to make it because of logistical challenges, such as parking and visibility. But he made a go of it.”

Despite his successes, Mott remains cautious about getting too involved in restaurants at the risk of neglecting his food service business.

“Too many restaurants fail because people get into the business for ego reasons,” he said. “You can’t fall into that trap. You don’t open a restaurant just because you think it will be fun, you’ll get your name in the paper, and your friends will have a place to hang out.”

Along with his own levelheadedness, Mott has another safeguard against an inflated ego: his family. Mott employs his mother, Marion, as bookkeeper, and his three brothers, Doug, Jeff, and Phil, ’90, work in management and administration.

“If he gets too full of himself, I take him out on the basketball court and beat him,” said Phil Mott, the company’s chief financial officer. “Working with family has its good points and bad points. But Rich and I have managed to work together for 18 years without throttling each other.”

While working with family can be humbling, Richard Mott also finds it rewarding. “Sometimes we snap at each other, just like any other family. But there’s also a strong support system there,” Mott said. “I like having the family environment at work, so I try to treat every employee like a member of the family.”--John T. Slania

Continued: “Sober Advice from a Seasoned Restaurateur”

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