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Duchess Worldwide, Inc. Press Room

December 18, 2005:

by ROB VARNON, Connecticut Post, Bridgeport, CT

Short-order cooks, a menu with more than 100 items and, most important, family pride are how Duchess Restaurant has remained in business in Connecticut despite challenges from the superchains, Michael Berkowitz and Gary Lavin said. 

Berkowitz and Lavin, who eschew titles while running Duchess, sat in one of the booths of their Shelton eatery this month to talk about the changes and challenges confronting them as the business approaches its 50th anniversary. Their fathers and Berkowitz's uncle founded the business as a diner in 1956 in Stratford.

One challenge they appear to be meeting these days is competing against large corporations that have franchises all over the state. Coincidentally, McDonald's, the biggest hamburger chain, is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its first franchise this year. So as Duchess was getting started, the McDonald's empire was beginning to expand across the country. 

Founded by the McDonalds brothers in California in 1948, the restaurant started to expand in 1955, shortly after business legend Ray Kroc became a partner.

McDonald's then sprouted up in Duchess territory, and Lavin said some people expected Duchess to die. Instead, it weathered the storm and learned to live with the giants.

Today, there are 16 Duchess Restaurants in Fairfield and New Haven counties, 14 of which are owned by Berkowitz or Lavin family members. The company has about 450 employees; the restaurants in Naugatuck and Orange are operated under franchise agreements. As a privately held company, Duchess is not required to disclose financial information.

A key component to the company's success is that it didn't abandon its roots as a diner, Berkowitz and Lavin said.

restaurants receive ingredients daily, which is why the refrigerators in Duchesses are much larger than the freezers, they said. Some Duchesses receive six deliveries a day, they said. It also explains why franchising has proved to be difficult, Berkowitz said.

"Our system is a little harder to run than other people's and we don't want to put it into the wrong hands," he said. To support the restaurants and ensure the quality of ingredients, Duchess bought a bakery and meat distributor, Berkowitz s aid.

Though run as separate businesses, City Line Meat in West Haven and French Bakery in Stratford are owned by family members.

As with many businesses in Connecticut, Duchess is wrestling with higher costs for energy and products, but Berkowitz and Lavin said they are doing their best to become more fuel-efficient, for example, to save money.

James Ferrell, vice president of operations for the Connecticut Restaurant Association, said energy costs are a huge hurdle in the industry because most restaurants operate 18 hours a day, meaning they use tremendous amounts of power. Ovens run throughout the day, burning natural gas, lights and refrigeration units must be powered and the facilities must be heated in winter and cooled in summer.

Food prices are also going up as transportation costs rise, Farrell said. The good news is that the market for restaurants appears to be strong in Connecticut, mainly because of the variety of eateries here, Ferrell said. In some ways, they compliment one another by giving consumers choices in menus and service, Ferrell said.

The variety of offerings on Duchess' menus appears to be an advantage.

But finding short-order cooks might be as big an issue for Duchess as energy costs.

"I'm convinced it's a natural talent," Lavin said, noting how important the role of cook is at the restaurants.

At Duchess, it's not as simple as slapping a burger on a grill and flipping it when a timer goes off. Duchess cooks have to prepare everything in a hurry, from scratch and to order, Lavin said. Burgers and eggs are cooked to order, and customers sometimes concoct unique and strange sandwiches on the spot.

Lavin and Berkowitz said the company has stuck with the short-order cook style because it has worked for almost 50 years.

Duchess consistently experiments with new sandwiches and meals, often rolling them out at its Fairfield location. More than 100 items, including wraps, have found permanent homes on the menu, alongside the mainstays of hot dogs and hamburgers. Lavin and Berkowitz couldn't say how many items have come and gone over the years.

While there have been additions to the menu from time to time, the most obvious change at Duchess is at the counter: Flat-panel monitors hang below the cash registers and a large monitor sits mounted in the middle of the menu board, displaying images of the variety of food available. "We have such a big menu, you can get lost, and we used to have a lot of promotional signs cluttering things up," Lavin said, explaining why Duchess is going digital.

Duchess is also exploring keeping its drive-through open 24 hours and having workers take orders at cars, using computers and wireless connections when lines form.

When confronted by challenges, Berkowitz and Lavin said their biggest concern is not to disappoint their fathers.

Most family owned businesses fail when the second generation takes over, Berkowitz said, adding, "Our fathers always remind us of that fact. So we're going to let the third generation screw it up." Rob Varnon, who covers business, can be reached at 330-6216.

(c) 2005 The Connecticut Post.