Young restaurateur makes a go of it in hard times

Tuesday, April 28, 2009 | 11:32 a.m. CDT; updated 6:27 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Brian Coley is the owner-chef of Coley's American Bistro. Coley, a 23-year-old MU graduate, takes on several roles at the bistro, including chef, manager, owner and even dish washer. Coley said he sees the main attraction of the restaurant to be a mix between the food and the ambiance. Coley's American Bistro is located at 15 S. Sixth St. in the District.

COLUMBIA — Given today’s economic climate, opening a restaurant might seem less than ideal. But for Brian Coley, head chef and owner of Coley’s American Bistro, it was now or never.

A May 2008 graduate of the hotel and restaurant management program at MU, Coley opened Coley’s American Bistro, 15 S. Sixth St., in October. Because of his age, 23, Coley worries people won’t take him or his restaurant seriously.

“The fear that people won’t take me seriously is always in the back of my mind,” Coley said. “But to combat this I try to maintain a high level of professionalism, and I go to every table and ask how their meal was and let them know that I appreciate their business.”

Coley might be a new restaurant owner, but he is far from new to the restaurant business. At age 14, he started washing dishes at Los Bandidos, a Mexican restaurant in Columbia that closed several years ago. After working there, Coley found a job as a cook at Dali’s, where he stayed for several years and through a few name changes and owners.

Coley used his past restaurant experience and his MU education to guide him through drawing up his restaurant plans — a process that has taken him and his mother, Marcia Coley, who is his business partner, the better part of two years.

"He pretty much has set his goals himself and made things happen on his own,” said Coley’s father, Doug Coley, an engineer wood specialist at Boone County Lumber Co. “I thought to myself, 'This is my baby, and all of a sudden he is making business decisions and taking risks all on his own.' You sit back as a parent and it worries you.”

Despite his fears, the elder Coley thinks his son has enough experience in the restaurant business to make his venture a success.

Although Coley has endured economic hardships over the past six months, he said he is seeing more regular faces and a steady increase in customers, and that gives him hope. With virtually no advertising, Coley's business relies almost completely on word of mouth.

Coley's American Bistro features a large bar and a plasma screen TV set to sports channels. But according to his father, Coley is adamant that he doesn't want his restaurant to be a sports bar. Instead, he wants to target families who can come to the restaurant to unwind from their day.

Most menu items cost less than $15. As head chef, Coley enjoys taking popular menu items and giving them his own twist. For instance, he is particularly proud of his Asian-inspired hoisin pork, made by taking marinated pork medallions and pan-searing them in a garlic-soy reduction.

Coley also boasts about his black bean chicken nachos and his half-pound burgers.

Jeffrey Guinn, a resident instructor in the hotel and restaurant management program at MU, had the chance to work closely with Coley as his teacher at MU.

“When it comes to food, Brian has a very creative imagination and comforting palate,” Guinn said. “He has the ability to put together complimenting and contrasting flavors and textures, resulting in wonderful plates.”

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