Breadsmith and Rocket City Diner are among several new eateries to open in the Pine Belt.
Stephanie Dupont, co-owner of Breadsmith, and Jim Thompson, managing partner of Rocket City Diner, are optimistic that 2012 will be a good year for the area’s restaurant industry. Breadsmith, on Hardy Street, opened in October, and Rocket City, on U.S. 98, reopened in 2011 after operation from 1989 to 2000.
Q. Right now isn’t the best time to open a business – maybe not the worst, but certainly not the best. What made you decide to open an eatery in 2011?
Dupont: My sister, Heather Bickham, and I have always wanted to open a business, and we decided that now is better than never. Bread is a staple, and Hattiesburg really needed a place to get high-quality, fresh artisan breads.
Another reason we decided to open Breadsmith is because of their community involvement. All leftover bread is donated to local food pantries each day, which greatly helps in today’s economy.
Thompson: It’s true that across the board in this economy it doesn’t seem logical to open a business, especially a restaurant. That being said, we were able to do a market survey and a social media “what if” and decided that there was enough feedback to make our decision a lot easier.
Q. What made you choose Hattiesburg?
Dupont: Hattiesburg is a great city to live in and start your own business. We both went to school at William Carey University and then decided this is where we wanted to open a business.
Breadsmith is a new concept to this area and has been well received.
Thompson: Choosing Hattiesburg was a no-brainer; Rocket City was a Hattiesburg staple for many years and we, as a restaurant group, decided that our location and design were a very good fit. We just felt that there was an opportunity and a demand from the public showing a desire to see Rocket City return to Hattiesburg.
Q. How has Hattiesburg treated your business so far? Are you doing good business? Is the local economy sustaining you?
Dupont: The response from Hattiesburg and the surrounding communities has been remarkable. We have some of the most loyal customers; many coming several times each week. We opened just in time for the holidays, and business has been going strong. Our business is faring very well in this economy. Our customers have been very pleased with our products, and we look forward to serving this area for many years.
Thompson: Hattiesburg has welcomed RCD with open arms, and local media outlets were very generous with their time. We are proud to be part of the restaurants in Hattiesburg and the surrounding areas and look forward to many, many years of serving the Pine Belt.
The local economy is what it is, I mean Hattiesburg has become a “melting pot,” so to speak, of many different restaurants, and we know that in order for us to stay in the upper ranks of the rest of the great restaurants in town, we have to stay true to what we are, which is: good times, great food.
Q. Do you think you’ve found your niche in the market? Has catering to a rather specific crowd brought you success?
Dupont: Yes, we have certainly brought something new to Hattiesburg. Customers tell us on a regular basis that they are so happy there is a place to get great fresh artisan bread and this is what Hattiesburg needed.
Thompson: We do truly feel we have found our niche and our target audience. We made sure exactly what audience we would be targeting and knew this was going to be accomplished through marketing and design in the infant stages of this business decision.
We couldn’t have imagined that the look and the feel of the restaurant would have turned out so perfectly, it is exactly what we envisioned, but I guess that is what happens when you find the right person and let them loose.
In our case, we worked closely with Kelly Thornton Lowery of JHM Developments. We let her do her magic, as she has done with many projects in this industry, and the result was remarkable! Our niche was a vintage style, high-energy diner, with fast service and multi different levels of entertainment throughout the week.
Q. Tell me about the niche you’ve chosen and who you market to.
Dupont: Hattiesburg needed fresh bread and that’s what we set out to accomplish. Breadsmith specializes in European-style artisan breads and sweets baked fresh every day with only the finest ingredients.
Our breads never have any preservatives or additives. We definitely seek to educate our customers on the high quality and freshness of our products.
We market to a wide variety of consumers. We tend to target those 35 years and older, but have found that our customers range from college students to retirees, with many coming on a regular basis.
Thompson: We currently market to anyone needing a quick in-and-out business lunch break to a full family outing for burgers and milk shakes in the evening.
Not only does Rocket City Diner offer “diner” style food such as burgers, sandwiches, hot plates and blue plates, but we also have some healthier options such as salad entrees and fish tacos.
A restaurant like Rocket City Diner becomes a destination, offering a unique atmosphere with good family fun and entertainment.
Q. Is Hattiesburg still a (relatively) safe haven for new restaurateurs?
Dupont: As long as restaurateurs find a way to stand out and bring something different to the market, they should be able to succeed in Hattiesburg.
Opening a business is always risky. We didn’t know what to expect when we opened Breadsmith in October, but we have been well received by the community.
Thompson: With Hattiesburg being heavily involved with the University of Southern Mississippi and its population, I believe it will always be a “safe haven” for new restaurants and businesses, based on the fact that every year the population changes in some shape or fashion, and when your surroundings change so frequently, so do the ideas of incoming and current businesses.
Q. What are some of the challenges facing a retail, prepared- food vendor in the Hub City?
Dupont: One of the biggest challenges in the food industry is rising prices of raw goods. Being a bread bakery, we are definitely conscious of wheat prices and are always looking at ways to reduce costs while maintaining the quality and freshness of our ingredients that our customers have come to expect in our artisan breads.
Thompson: Some of the challenges we face as a restaurant include always being involved with the changing of the economy and changes in what consumers expect. You have to stay consistent in your operations and as well as what you can provide that keeps you in your “niche.”
Q. Is there still room to grow in Hattiesburg’s restaurant market?
Dupont: There definitely isn’t a shortage of good places to eat in Hattiesburg, but if someone found the need for a certain cuisine or other niche, then Hattiesburg is certainly welcoming to new restaurants.
With our business, we have the advantage of being able to take on wholesale accounts and bring our bread into your favorite restaurant or grocery store.
Jesse Bass, staff writer