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@Work: IHOP

Oct. 15, 2006 — Allie-Allison Petrus has ambition. He talks with his hands, smiles a lot and radiates contagious energy.
Wearing jeans, a cotton shirt and tennis shoes, he looks at the plans for his newest venture — the territory's first IHOP. The former senator made the leap from public to private life a few years ago, and he couldn't be happier. His IHOP will be the first in the entire Caribbean. Outside the mainland, IHOP also has locations in Hawaii, Canada, Mexico and Japan.
"We will seat 140," he says, gesturing around the cavernous site located in the area formerly occupied by the East End Clinic, "and we will have a meeting room upstairs, which will seat 35.
Most importantly, the room will be used for employee training. It is the most important component of the operation — it's critical."
The venture will bring 100 jobs to the island initially. Petrus knows the restaurant business. He and his wife and business partner, Beverly, bought the Subway franchises on St. Thomas and St. John a few years ago. They subsequently sold the St. John shop, but opened another on St. Thomas on Back Street, in addition to the Tutu, Red Hook, Buccaneer Mall and Nisky Center locations.
Petrus said he got the idea for IHOP while looking for something new and positive to bring to the community.
"IHOP seemed an ideal match," he says. "I contacted them about a year ago, and last December they came down to look at us and at the location. Finally, in March, they decided this would be a good market."
How did Petrus finally persuade IHOP to sanction a V.I. franchise? He flashes his engaging smile: "Persistence," he says.
Petrus is thrilled with the opportunity he sees before him. "It appeals to the most sinful part of your palate," he says with a nod. He and Beverly have partnered with Lenore Edgecomb on the enterprise, tentatively scheduled to open in mid December.
"Everyone I've talked to just lights up at the mention of IHOP," Petrus says, "It's going to be a fun restaurant." He looks around the 4000-square-foot structure. Where the casual observe might see workmen, sawdust, a metal table holding the building plans and a swirl of construction activity, Petrus sees the finished product in full bloom.
"Where we are standing, here," he says, indicating a papered-over wall that faces the Tutu Mall Court, "will be all glass. Customers can look out at the traffic outside and everybody on the outside will see the wonderful things the customers are eating."
Running an IHOP franchise takes hard work. The company has stringent standards for training; it sets exacting standards for customer service. Beverly Petrus and the new restaurant's manager, John Greenaway, have gone to the States already for an eight-week training course, Petrus says, "and they have to go again for two more weeks. Then the corporation will send staff here for two weeks to help us when we open."
Petrus had a burst of ingenuity when it came to hiring a manager, one in whom he could have total confidence. "I got in touch with John Greenaway, who was the teenage host on my 'Graffiti Street' television show," he says. "John was in Florida managing the Blue Martini franchise restaurant in West Palm (Beach). He had earned a bachelor's degree in restaurant management from Johnson & Wales. I asked him if he was ready to come home, and here he is."
Nationwide, IHOP's marketing uses images of happy people. Petrus has modified it for local consumption. "I've changed that here to, 'Come hungry, leave happy,'" he says. One of the hardest tasks ahead of him involves hiring people who genuinely like other people, "people who are happy themselves," he says. "They can sing if they want — anything that is going to be fun for them and for their customers."
Petrus plans to hire a large staff initially but scale back once the restaurant has established itself. "We will hire 100 at first," he says, "and in time narrow it down to about 70. I want to be sure at first that all the customers are waited on promptly." The restaurant will operate from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, while staying open until 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
"I'm going to put ads in the theaters [at Market Square East]," Petrus says. "But what I'm really targeting is the Tutu community. I want us to be a neighborhood meeting place, where service is friendly and people can come to visit with each other."
He expresses enthusiasm about the new menu. "It's much more than pancakes," he says, "although they are great — harvest-grain walnut, for instance, and crepes, lobster omelets and huge salads. We are the only IHOP to depart from the menu; we will serve mahimahi and salmon." And, of course, IHOP's famous stuffed French toast with whipped cream.
As Petrus outlines his plans, his enthusiasm mounts, and not only in terms of hiring a happy staff. At 43, he has the energy of a teenager.
"I get up every morning anxious to go out and get to work," he says. "You can't get that feeling working for someone else. We have this mentality here that you will grow up and go to work for the government. I'd like to change that. What about going to work for yourself? Being an entrepreneur? It has such rich rewards. I get so excited just talking about it."
Petrus points to his 13-year-old daughter, Kiyanna, as a living example of his work ethic. The Antilles School eighth grader can already balance a checkbook, he says. "She learns from us, and when we are away, she helps run the stores."
Not to mention the crews running Petrus' other franchises.
"Beverly and I have 35 people depending on us for a paycheck (with the Subway restaurants). We know almost all of them personally." He smiles, "In fact," he says, "we are a territory-development agent and we were ranked number one out of 175 agents last year."
Petrus made his decision to leave public life after three terms in the Senate — from the 22nd to the 23rd, where he was majority leader. His legislation to limit Senate terms failed, but he succeeded with legislation to give the hospitals greater autonomy, and in a battle with labor leaders over tobacco funds, helping direct the money to the Charlotte Kimelman Cancer Institute and the Juan F. Luis Hospital Cardiac Center. (See "Tobacco Settlement Bond Sale Means $6.3 Million for Health Care.")
After he left politics Petrus and his wife moved to Florida to explore business possibilities.
"People think failure is bad," he reflects. "But you learn from failures. Beverly and I started a coffee company in Florida, and it failed. We learned from it. We began looking into a Subway franchise, considered other locations, and finally decided to come home — an excellent decision."
His first venture in entrepreneurship didn't work out so well, Petrus says, laughing at the memory.
"I was 21 and in college, and I woke up one night and decided I would be a real-estate tycoon," he says. "So I purchased a house and I rented it out. The tenant wrecked the house and I lost money. But I had taken the risk. There is always risk in business."
Petrus earned a master's degree in business from the University of the Virgin Islands.
"When we first went to Florida, I was going to get my doctorate in business," he says. He gestures at the raw state of his new venture: dusty, tools all over the place, workmen moving to and fro. "This is more experience than a doctorate could give me."
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