Keith and Cheryl Early say their success in the restaurant business can be boiled down to one overriding principle.
“You are not an owner; you are an owe-er,” Keith said. “I learned at an early age that it’s all about how you treat the customers and staff. Cheryl and I are kindred spirits in that we always have believed and understood that. We owe the customer a great experience for being our client and the staff is who represents us.”
That philosophy has proven to be successful, with the Early’s currently operating three Bungalow restaurants in Northern Virginia, with a fourth being remodeled and renovated in Ashburn.
“It’s about making friends with a handshake and a smile,” Keith said. “The only difference between a Heineken here or an Amstel Light there or even a burger or a pizza is the delivery system and that’s the staff. Without that, everything else doesn’t matter.”
Keith Early said he became interested in the restaurant business at a very young age.
“My mother was a waitress, and when they needed somebody to bus tables, they would bring me in,” he said. “I became a bartender, waiter, it didn’t matter. I decided to pursue the industry.”
Keith’s first venture was Eskimo Nells in Arlington.
“It didn’t last long, but I got my feet wet,” he said. “It made me realize that the pursuit of your passions and the people you meet is what it’s all about.”
The next venture as owner-operator was Rhiannon’s in Springfield, which he described as an “upscale fine-dining saloon.” While he didn’t find his forever business there, he did meet his forever partner – Cheryl Rose.
“We actually met in the restaurant business,” Cheryl said. “I was a waitress, and I did every other job there was, secretarial, flight attendant, cocktail as well as a five-star captain.”
They quickly found they had the same goals in life and a shared a work ethic to achieve those goals.
“Cheryl was a single mother back then,” Keith said. “I noticed right away that nobody could clean glass like her, Rhiannon’s was under construction and she volunteered to help clean up.”
With a smile, Cheryl responded, “Attention to detail is important.”
In 1997, the Early’s opened Bungalow Billiards and Brew in Chantilly. The initial Bungalow had 12 pool tables and 24 craft beers on tap but, according to Keith, it was “not a smoky pool hall. It was more a place for guys and girls to enjoy themselves together, it fast became the community gathering place.”
That was also the start of what continues to be the cornerstone of the Early’s success story.
“I told Keith that if we are going to have a business like this, the food was going to be the best – period,” Cheryl said. “Keith was in the POS business and I had gone back as a flight attendant and I wasn’t going to give that up until I was sure this was going to be a success. I wanted to make sure we had something to fall back on.”
The Chantilly Bungalow was so successful that the Early’s were able to open a second location a year later in Sterling’s Cascades Marketplace. That location was eventually sold in 2008 to Brian and Taylor Jenkins – former employees who met while working for the Earlys.
“We have bought and sold several restaurants,” Cheryl said. “and have owned and operated seven different restaurants in our career.”
“This building we actually own,” Keith said. “It was formerly a Lone Star Steakhouse and it was only about 4,000 square feet. We wrapped an addition around it to where it is now 12,000 square feet.”
As their business has grown, so has their family. The Earlys are proud to have their four children involved in the family business in various capacities.
Jeff Goleno, 36, is Cheryl’s son from before she met Keith. He operates from the Chantilly property where the corporate offices are and handles marketing for all the restaurants.
“Jeff has two sons, so we have two grandchildren,” Keith said. “He does all our marketing materials and does our social media and our website.”
Sean, 29, works at the Lakehouse and is poised to take over the business when Keith and Cheryl step away.
“Sean grew up in the restaurant business,” Keith said. “We always joke that he was christened on the bar at Rhiannon’s.”
Dylan, 24, has worked as a busser, server, bartender and in the kitchen with food prep. He now handles management responsibilities on the late shift.
Haley Early is 21 and is studying communications at George Mason University. She has also been a hostess and a server and can be called upon on a moments notice.
“All the kids have come in and out of the business,” Keith said. “I like to say you have to let them go at least three times before they understand that it’s a job. It is our hope that they will form a lasting family partnership.”
Cheryl said the children adjusted well to balancing family life in a work environment.
“When Sean and Dylan are working with customers, they never say they are the owners,” she said. “We taught them not to do that. It’s so nice to get a Yelp review and they say how well they were treated by Sean or Dylan and there is no mention that they are part of the ownership. It makes me proud they are my kids.”
Like most restaurants in Loudoun County, finding quality employees who can afford this area’s cost of living can be difficult. Keith and Cheryl said they deal with the workforce shortages with constant recruitment and retention efforts.
“We always have a sign up that we are hiring,” Keith said. “We have always had a no-tolerance policy as far as customer abuse. We don’t let people disrespect our employees.”
Cheryl said attracting good employees and keeping them happy can be a challenge.
“We treat them very well. and they can make good money,” she said. “I also think it makes a difference that we are diligent in keeping a clean facility. They know what they can expect that every time they enter.”
The Earlys also said loyalty from key employees has been important in growing the business. They said Facilities Manager Tim Reedy and Chef Bobby Vickers are crucial to the operation.
Danny Bishop, CFO and Kristen Dean, HRD are the glue that binds the whole company.
But without day to day management from our outstanding managers, so it is not just family management, there is a complete and solid team that makes the Lakehouse what it is.
“When we travel, we like to sample a lot of different food and we take pictures of what we like,” Keith said. “When you get to a certain level, you become very chef-centric. Chef Bobby has always been able to understand what we want to see and put a new twist on it.”
The Earlys are also proud of former employees who have moved on from “Bungalow U.” Jason Bursey was a bartender for us and now he has Parallel Wine and Whiskey in Ashburn and he has food trucks,” Keith said. “Kevin Bendarz was a flair bartender and we even put him in competition in Las Vegas. Now, he has a comic shop in Ashburn and he owns Ashburn Pub, everything these guys do is extraordinary.”
The Earlys don’t even seem to notice the hard work and long hours they have endured as restaurant owners.
“I like to think we have created places that are fun, so I like being there,” Keith said. “We just feel very fortunate and very humble about it. She and I are a real team and we have been doing this together for 35 years. And that is its own reward.”