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Clarkson grad followed family footsteps into restaurant business

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Clarkson grad followed family footsteps into restaurant business

'You go in with a business plan expecting certain things, and you learn in the first year that a lot of it was wrong'
Clarkson grad followed family footsteps into restaurant business
Shane Spillenger outside his bar and restaurant, Nanola, in Malta.
Photographer: ERICA MILLER

MALTA — Even though he tried, Shane Spillenger, owner of NaNola Restaurant and Bar, a New Orleans-themed establishment in Malta, just could not get away from the restaurant business.

Many of the 32-year-old’s childhood memories center around the restaurants owned by his parents, Ralph and Sharleen Spillenger. If you ask him to pinpoint one stand-out memory, he can’t. There are too many to choose just one. To name a few, he recalls marriage proposals, a St. Patrick’s Day when he worked for almost 24 hours and could hardly stand any longer, and the New Year’s Eve of 2000. “We thought Y2K was going to destroy us all,” he said.

Over time, he worked just about every position in one of his parents’ restaurants, the Bayou Café in Glenville and Albany, and Jillian’s in Albany. He watched his parents navigate the roller coaster that is the restaurant industry — for example, when his parents expanded their business in a good economy, only to have difficult times when the economy turned. After he graduated from Clarkson University in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in business and technology management and a minor in law studies, he decided he wanted to try something different, outside the family business. “I wanted to see if my degree could get me another job I would like,” Spillenger said.

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He attended job fairs for prospects. He worked a heating and cooling job and small construction jobs, and even tried his hand at sales for a mattress company after Jillian’s closed. “The job market was not as fruitful as I had hoped,” he said.

Spillenger then decided to go back to what he knew, the industry in which he had experience and people who believed in him.

Spillenger’s father helped him find investor Larry Davis, whose other ventures include Commsoft, McGeary’s Irish Pub, DiCarlo’s Gentleman’s Club and, most recently, Tiki Boatworks, LLC and Tiki Tours LLC, to provide the major financial support for his new business. His father and friends provided hands-on help preparing the building.

He leased a building in Malta that had been constructed in the late 1970s and originally housed a restaurant. Later tenants converted it into a home design center, so when Spillenger rented it, it took six months of planning and construction to convert it back into a restaurant, as the kitchen and bar areas had been removed.

Spillenger’s father was a musician who had traveled around the country, and he had especially enjoyed New Orleans. Spillenger himself had visited the city seven times and thought the New Orleans theme would fit in well with his personality. The establishment’s name is a play on words, with “nano” meaning little and saluting Malta’s nanotech industry, and “Nola,” the nickname for New Orleans, thus making “little New Orleans.”

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He has tried to recreate the cuisine and atmosphere of the famed southern city. Recently, he brought on a new chef and relaunched his menu with the goal of growing his dining business in 2018 to represent half of his revenues. The growth and development of housing in Malta is encouraging for him.

NaNola hosts a trivia night, a wing night, and a jam night on Wednesdays, as well as showcasing live musicians after the dinner hour on Fridays and Saturdays. One musician, Bob Moses, was nominated for a Grammy just a week after he played at the restaurant. NaNola also offers catering.

Being the restaurant owner has been an eye-opening experience for Spillenger. “Working for my family, you don’t realize the ins and outs until you’re the one having to write the checks and pay the bills,” he said.

Despite having grown up in the restaurant business and acquiring a wealth of knowledge from his parents, Spillenger still had a steep learning curve when it came to owning his own establishment. “You go in with a business plan expecting certain things, and you learn in the first year that a lot of it was wrong,” he said.

For example, he thought the nearby Saratoga Race Course would generate a lot of business, but that isn’t the case. What does bring in crowds, though, is a host of loyal customers from the Malta Speedway not far down the road.

He opened the restaurant just after the GlobalFoundries chip factory was up and running in Malta, which helped the business, but then as contractors were laid off, business fell off. Despite fluctuations in the business community like that one, Spillenger still sees growth as he adapts and changes according to the market.

Spillenger has noticed several differences in the industry from when he was growing up. The increased costs of marketing, goods and labor coupled with changes in people’s spending habits have provided a challenge for those in the restaurant business, but one that Spillenger is determined to meet with success.

Since the economy tanked in 2008, people are more careful about spending, he’s noticed. “We don’t have the best economy now, so people are always thinking about how they spend their money. They’re more fiscally responsible and don’t go out as much as they have been,” he said.

He can remember when he was tending bar in his early 20s there would be groups of college kids with their parents’ credit cards who would order rounds of 10 Long Island iced teas or Jager bombs at $150, whereas now, they’re asking for the cheapest beer. In addition, he has seen drinking habits change. People are more aware of drinking and driving, thus limiting how many drinks they order, which Spillenger sees as a good thing.

With restaurants, he said, word of mouth is a major way to grow business. Some of that now comes from social media platforms, an area that has exploded over the past 10 years. There are challenges and drawbacks to it, he admits. Online reviews can help or hurt, and the immediacy of social media constantly puts businesses in the spotlight. “People can review you in seconds online,” he said.

Increases in wages for wait staff has also been a challenge. “When it increased 50 percent a year after opening, it was a major adjustment,” he said, and there will be scheduled increases each year. Spillenger questions whether tipped employees in the industry really want the higher wage as opposed to tips. Also, Spillenger knows that he cannot simply pass on increased expenses to customers. “Restaurants that have tried to adapt prices and/or surcharges to combat this have failed,” he said. “It was just something we had to absorb, as well as the rising cost of food, beverages, taxes and permits.”

In addition to operating NaNola, Spillenger does concert promotion and works as the booking manager for Jupiter Hall in Crossgates Mall in Albany County. The Jupiter Hall job gave him a glimpse of the corporate side of the industry. While he has become a bit stricter in the way he operates the restaurant as a result, he still tries to maintain a fun atmosphere for his 20 employees. “I like to promote a place where people like to come to work,” he said. Happy employees will help produce happy customers, and as Spillenger notes, “In the hospitality industry, you’re literally selling fun.”

He doesn’t regret his decision to return the restaurant industry. “I grew up more or less doing this stuff, so it was tough to get out of,” he said.

Despite the challenges, he’s optimistic about the future. “Although five years into my business I have faced some very difficult times, I would not continue to work if I did not truly believe I had a tremendous opportunity,” he said.

In addition to ongoing support from his parents, he’s also backed by his wife of three years, Kate, and if history repeats itself, perhaps one day, his now 2 1/2-year-old son, Jack.


The more you know

NaNola's name is a play on words — with “nano,” meaning little and saluting Malta’s nanotech industry, and “Nola,” the nickname for New Orleans, thus making “little New Orleans.”

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