Restaurateur: Dean Ogan

Start with a solid business plan. Gain experience in a successful restaurant. Make sure you are well-funded. These are the keys to success for aspiring restaurateurs according to Dean Ogan — rules that he has followed through his career in the restaurant industry.

Ogan is the owner and founder of Rocky Top Hospitality, which runs several well-known Triangle restaurants including Tribeca Tavern, Draft Carolina Burgers and Beers, and Twisted Fork. His newest concept is Rockwell’s American Grill, open since January, which features American comfort food, breakfast all day, family-style dining and fresh takes on classic deli fare.

His career in the restaurant business began at the age of 14, when he worked in restaurants and bars along the Jersey Shore. Ogan started Rocky Top Hospitality in 1997 and the company’s first restaurant, Michael Dean’s, opened its doors in 1998 in Raleigh. That initial location is still in use and now serves as the base of the company’s off-premise catering division.

Ogan surprised local diners by recently closing two downtown Raleigh restaurants, Bogart’s and Red Room. He cited an abundance of downtown dining options combined with a desire to steer the company toward new ventures as contributing factors. “We’re going to focus on streamlining our brands. Tribeca is a very good model for us, and we think we can open multiple locations on that brand,” said Ogan. “Our catering business has become a behemoth for us. It went from just doing catering from Michael Dean’s for years, to now we have a 14,500-square-foot wedding venue where we’ll do 100 weddings this year.”

In a culture of celebrity chefs, food TV and haute cuisine, Ogan maintains a down-to-earth attitude and focus on solid business foundations. “The big thing has been figuring out how to do this not only as a restaurant operator but as a businessperson,” he said. “Running restaurants is all systems. Systems and structure are everything.”

That detail-oriented mindset helped Rocky Top weather a storm of aggressive growth, opening five restaurants in 26 months at one point.

“The last four or five years have been wacky,” said Ogan. “When the economy started going south in 2007 and 2008, we had to tighten the belt. It was really challenging. Last year we worked through it. We’ve kind of figured out our model and how we’re going to do things.”

Part of that model is to support other small businesses by sourcing as many ingredients as possible from local operations. “I’m a small-business guy, and I should be supporting other small-business guys. We do that at every opportunity,” he said.

Neomonde Bakery in Morrisville, Ashe County Cheese Co. and Beaufort County’s Coastal Cattle Co. are just a few of the North Carolina businesses whose products are used in Rocky Top kitchens. Ogan makes an effort to ensure that guests know and appreciate the care that went into selecting the ingredients. “Guests need to understand that we went through a lot of effort to source that silly little hamburger,” he said. “It’s important and also kind of fun.”

Ogan stays busy refining new restaurant concepts and searching for the right place to execute them. “I have lots of different things I want to do. It’s about location first really, and then getting the concept right for that location second,” he said. And that’s why he chose Cary for Rockwell’s American Grill. The causal atmosphere and classic comfort foods are perfect for families looking for a great neighborhood spot with something to please every palate. Its ice cream sundae menu is the cherry on top.

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