When he worked as a busboy, they met him. As a waiter, they followed him. Now, as an owner, they promote him.
Loyal Rochesterians have bolstered the career of Johannes Mueller, helping him to make his mark on the restaurant scene. Customers have seen him in multiple roles and sought him out over the years no matter where he was working.
Mueller, 55, a native of Ehrwald, Austria, has set his mind on making his establishment, Richardson’s Canal House, the best restaurant in the area.
“I think when I retire I’m going to take out a newspaper ad and say thank you,” Mueller says. “I came here as a stranger and the majority of people treated me the same when I was a busboy (as they do) now that I’m a businessman. We weren’t born here, we didn’t grow up here, (and) we came here in our mid-20s and started from scratch. And 99.9 percent of the people have been phenomenal for us.
“This would have been impossible if we weren’t supported by Rochester,” he adds.
Located in Bushnell’s Basin, Richardson’s Canal House opened as a tavern in 1818 and sits next to the Erie Canal. It was established as a restaurant in 1979 and today offers casual gourmet American cuisine.
Mueller purchased the restaurant from Vivienne Tellier Wolfe. She and her husband, Andrew Wolfe, who owned Wolfe Publications Inc., purchased the property in 1977, two months before it was slated to be demolished.
Tellier renovated the restaurant around two years before it opened for business on Feb. 14, 1979. She ran the restaurant.
Richardson’s Canal House tied for eighth on the most recent Rochester Business Journal list of fine-dining restaurants. It tied for third in April’s RBJ Daily Report Snap Poll ranking readers’ favorite places for fine dining in the Rochester area. It has 35 employees and scales up to nearly 65 people in the summer.
The family business
Mueller grew up in a village of approximately 2,500 people. His parents owned a hotel, Ausferner Hof, and the family lived on the lowest level of the building. There, Mueller was able to understand the standards of the hospitality business.
“When you have to start thinking about what you have to do for a living, I felt that the restaurant business was suited fine to me,” Mueller says. “I liked growing up around it at home.”
Mueller graduated from a hotel school, Hotelfachschule “Villa Blanka” in Innsbruck with a degree in hotel and restaurant management in 1978.
He moved to France to work in a small restaurant called La Caravelle in Evian near Lake Geneve. He worked there for nine months before returning home to work for the family business.
With his early experience in the industry, Mueller set his sights on becoming a general manager of a major hotel chain, such as Hilton or Hyatt.
He left Austria again, this time for Germany, working two years at the Hotel Bachmair am See—one of the top-rated hotels in Europe. He got to know the business working in nearly every area—kitchen, dining room, reception, receiving and shipping, and accounting.
The work was enough to dissuade him from the corporate world of chain hotels. He realized he would like to have more flexibility in a leadership position.
“After I worked those two years at the hotel I started to have doubts if I actually could survive in a corporate world,” Mueller says. “I had a strong mind, and I had problems if I had to work for people who knew less and I had to do things that I knew weren’t correct. I just couldn’t put my head down and go about it.”
Always up for a new opportunity, Mueller left Germany to live in Italy and worked at another hotel for almost a year. From there he went to Salzburg, Austria, to complete his required military service.
After serving his country, he and his brother opened up Cafe Henri, named for Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the French post-impressionist painter who portrayed the Parisian nightlife. The cafe was open from 1981 to 1984.
A fateful voyage
That year, at age 24, Mueller decided to leave Austria to begin working for Cunard Cruise Line.
The luxury cruise liner hired him as a waiter; he traveled the world for 18 months, stopping in the Caribbean, Alaska, Vancouver, Australia, Mexico, Hawaii, the Fiji Islands and Bangkok.
“You work seven days a week—breakfast, lunch and dinner. There is no day off unless the ship goes into dry dock,” Mueller says.
Though the schedule was grueling with no days off, the experience was unforgettable. He met his future wife, a dancer aboard the ship, who introduced him to Upstate New York.
Alexis Mueller lived in New York City at the time but had a sister in Brockport. The couple decided to head upstate to start their life together after the cruise liner anchored.
“I wouldn’t be anybody or anywhere if it wouldn’t be for my wife,” Mueller says. “My wife is the stabilizing force behind everything and she is the rock who keeps everything together.”
While his wife started a dance studio in Brockport, Mueller painted houses for a few months to get his bearings. He started working for the Rio Bamba on Alexander Street in 1986 as a busboy.
With a vast amount of experience in the hospitality industry, starting over again as a busboy was a bit humbling.
“There are a lot of people who are still my customers now who know me from when I was a busboy,” Mueller says. “I had to swallow my pride because I was 26, went to school, worked all over the world (and I) had to start working as a busboy. I remember one of my last customers on the cruise ship said, ‘You always have to pay your dues’ and (he told me) to say, ‘Thank you very much. I appreciate it.’
“That stuck with me,” he adds.
In 1992 he became the general manager of the Rio. He left the restaurant in 1998 for personal reasons. In August that year, a colleague in the industry heard about an opportunity to purchase Rooney’s Restaurant on Henrietta Street.
Unemployed, Mueller figured he could buy his next job.
“There I was—a mortgage, two car payments, two children—and then I got a phone call about Rooney’s,” Mueller says.
“You have to have a sense of urgency in this business. If you don’t have a sense of urgency in the restaurant business, you’re done,” he adds.
By November he owned the restaurant.
Summers were slow at Rooney’s, so Mueller contemplated other ways to bring in money.
He purchased Richardson’s Canal House and the four other buildings on the three-acre property in 2002.
He risked it all to do so, he says.
“My lawyer looked at me and said, ‘Listen, you are aware if this doesn’t work the only thing they won’t take from you are your dogs and your children,’” he says.
Walter Parkes, chairman of O’Connell Electric Co. Inc., helped Mueller find confidence in his purchase. Parkes has known Mueller for 30 years, since he was a customer at the Rio when Mueller started there.
“He was very skeptical and I said ‘Johannes, you’ve got the ability to do it,’ and to this day he’s doing a great job,” Parkes says. “He’s very businesslike, but he’s very congenial and nice. He’s doing things to make the business grow.”
Michael McConville has represented Mueller in his decisions to purchase Rooney’s and Richardson’s.
With the latter, McConville—a close friend of Mueller’s for 20 years—could tell Mueller had the drive to succeed.
“He had proven to me that he clearly knew the restaurant business and that he was successful at it,” McConville says. “I think when he bought Richardson’s it was a risk for anyone to look at, but he had a vision in terms of what it was going to be and how successful it would be.”
The deal included a bed-and-breakfast and three other rental buildings. After a year, the bed-and-breakfast was becoming a financial drain. Mueller converted it back to a single-family home and moved his family into the building.
He sold one of the other buildings to a local firm, and today the remaining two properties are rented out to businesses.
Running two restaurants soon took its toll on the owner. His son was nearing college age and Mueller wanted to spend more time with him and his daughter. So in 2005 he sold Rooney’s to Joseph Squalli, focusing efforts on his business in Bushnell’s Basin.
“I literally left at 7 a.m. in the morning and I didn’t get home until midnight,” Mueller says. “We ran both places and then I just ran out of gas. I wasted away to 165 (pounds) and I had customers asking if I was sick. We made the decision to sell Rooney’s and we concentrated on this place,” he says.
In the last few years Richardson’s Canal House has added fire pits, an outdoor bar and a new patio that helps the establishment cater to small parties.
Even as the owner, Mueller is still willing to take on any role to help the business succeed, his friends say.
“He’s very exacting,” McConville says. “You can see him talking to customers, laughing; you can see him behind the bar wiping spots off of wine glasses—that is his personality. He’s very intense (in) everything he does, whether it be in his personal life or his professional life.
“He’s been successful because he’s worked at it very hard and he’s been doing it 24/7,” McConville adds.
The restaurant has new competitors in the area, such as Branca Basin, but Mueller does not seem worried about what others are doing.
“We are a 200-year-old building with low ceilings (and) small dining rooms,” Mueller says. “We are not Good Luck, we are not Branca, but we do things really well. If you give (customers) good service, if you give them good quality food, it doesn’t have to be cutting edge but it has to be consistently good. You can’t be world-class one day and then mediocre or bad the next day.
“I concentrate more on my customers and make sure that what comes out of the kitchen is top notch than on what other places do,” he adds.
Mueller often mulls over the costs of running a restaurant today.
“Right now the biggest challenge for us is costs on the back end are spiraling out of control,” Mueller says. “People might not realize it but there’s definitely food inflation. I used to pay three years ago for a rack of lamb $8.90 or $9.25. Now you’re getting it at $14.50.
“It’s just unbelievably expensive. You can raise prices only so much, and we’re as expensive as I want to be,” he adds.
His career has had its risks, but determining his next move always has been in his hands. Every opportunity has been weighed according to his internal standards.
“I always went with my gut instinct,” Mueller says. “I would never buy a restaurant from somebody if I didn’t own the building. I’m not paying rent to somebody else—I’ll pay it to myself. I have certain standards. If I know that I’m not successful, I’m not profitable, why would I put myself through it?”
Off the job
The restaurateur relaxes by playing in poker tournaments and walking his three dogs. The formal name of the establishment is Alexis Canal House Inc., named for his wife. She says his risk-taking mentality has paid off.
“He has a very generous heart. With his upbringing he doesn’t show it—he comes from the old world, (where) you gotta be tough—but he is actually really kind of all mush inside. He really has given the shirt off his back to help friends (or) employees. He really has a work ethic like no one I’ve ever met,” she says.
“I think the combination of risk-taking ability and then to work hard to follow through is really what has made him successful,” she adds.
In the restaurant world, sometimes you’re only as good as your first impression, Mueller says. He strives to keep in contact with people who have helped him along the way.
“I always say fear is a great motivator,” Mueller says. “It gets you out of bed in the morning faster. It really drives you and (so does) my reputation. I have so many regular customers who know me, and I’ve been taking care of them for almost 30 years, be it as a busboy (or) as a waiter in all the different places. My reputation is worth more to me than anything.”
Position: Owner, president, of Alexis Canal House Inc., which does business as Richardson’s Canal House
Education: a certificate in hotel and restaurant management from Hotelfachschule “Villa Blanka,” Innsbruck, Austria, 1978
Family: Wife, Alexis; son Michael, 25; daughter Mariah, 22
Interests: Playing in poker tournaments, walking his three dogs
Quote: “I always say fear is a great motivator. It gets you out of bed in the morning faster. It really drives you and (so does) my reputation. I have so many regular customers who know me, and I’ve been taking care of them for almost 30 years, be it as a busboy (or) as a waiter in all the different places. My reputation is worth more to me than anything.”
6/5/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.