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For Horizons Owner Mark Melikian, the Sky’s the Limit
Mark Melikian

Mark Melikian says the key to his longevity is fairly simple — giving customers what they want, and at an attractive price.

Mark Melikian has seen a lot of changes come to Wilbraham Road (Route 20) since he opened Horizons Restaurant & Bar on that thoroughfare 22 years ago.

“There was much less here then,” he said, referring to the stretches both east and west of his establishment and gazing skyward as he tried to recall the landscape in 1988. “There was a tennis club back then; now it’s a soccer center of some kind. There was just one auto dealership; now there’s several. And of course Post Office Park (the elaborate business center a mile or so west of Horizons) hadn’t been built.

“It’s getting pretty developed now … there’s a lot of new businesses, and a lot of new chain restaurants,” he continued, noting that the former has helped his enterprise, while the latter he could definitely do without, although he has stood up well to the groundswell of competition.

That’s rather obvious if he’s been witness to more than two decades of change and progress on Wilbraham Road when many businesses, not to mention restaurants, have come and gone in that span.

Melikian says he owes his feats of longevity (something fairly rare in this sector) to some basic business principles and some strategic approaches specific to the restaurant industry and the niche he serves. He tries to keep things simple, for example, and focus on what the customers say they want, not what he believes they might want. He keeps his prices reasonable and puts the accent squarely on value.

This approach has kept regulars coming back and a steady stream of newcomers coming to the door, he told BusinessWest, adding that over roughly three decades in the business he’s seen a number of business cycles, and the current downturn has been particularly challenging.

“This has been going on for two years now, really,” he said of what has evolved into what some have dubbed the ‘Great Recession.’ “It’s been challenging; we’re talking about disposable income, and everyone has less of it these days.”

In this environment, restaurant owners and managers have to control their spending, become even leaner (restaurants always run lean), and look to create new business opportunities, he said, adding that he’s doing all of the above.

For our annual Restaurant Guide, BusinessWest talked with Melikian about Horizons, the restaurant business, surviving a recession, and, in general, what it takes to achieve longevity in this ultra-challenging business.

For Appetizers

Melikian said he took what would have to be considered the road most taken when it comes to restaurant ownership.

He started (where else?) washing dishes at the old Willow Glenn House in East Longmeadow, a restaurant and banquet facility owned by his father and two uncles. He graduated to other kitchen duties involving food preparation, developed that requisite passion for the business, and went to school to hone his skills.

“I don’t know what possessed me to do it, but I applied to the Culinary Institute of America and got accepted,” he joked. “I took a sabbatical from college and went off to pursue this; I guess I really knew early on that this is what I wanted to do with my life.”

After working as a chef in a number of restaurants, including a few in Florida and New York, Melikian, like most others who start down this road, wanted to run his own restaurant. Actually, this was a dream also shared by his brother, Jeff, so they pursued it together.

With some financial backing from their father, the brothers Melikian acquired the then-closed Top of the Hill Restaurant, a long-time, if at times troubled, fixture on Boston Road in Wilbraham in 1987. They renovated it, renamed it Horizons, and a few years after opening it put on a large expansion (the current bar area).

Jeff, now with Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, left the business several years ago, leaving Mark, now playing the role of chef/owner — “I supervise everything” — to cope with the changing scene on Route 20 and an ever-more-competitive business landscape.

He’s fared well by catering to a broad constituency that includes everything from retirees to business professionals living in Wilbraham, East Longmeadow, Longmeadow, Belchertown, Ludlow, and other affluent suburbs east of Springfield.

The former is the bread and butter, if you will, for the luncheon business, while the latter dominates the dinner clientele. Meanwhile, younger audiences find the bar area an attractive spot for watching a ballgame, listening to live music (now featured regularly), and enjoying a good meal.

Such well-roundedness helps Horizons at all times, but especially when the economy is soft, said Melikian, adding that he relies on a steady diet of regulars, but also a constant stream of newcomers. He draws both by keeping the menu, which he described as “Creative American,” varied, but also dominated by staples such as prime rib — cooked on the bone — as well as steaks, seafood, and pasta dishes.

And while discussing what has become a recipe for success he almost apologizes for its simplicity.

“You just try to do the right thing and treat people right— offer quality products at affordable prices,” he explained. “It sounds mundane, but that’s what you have to do; that’s what it comes down to.”

Elaborating, he said this means listening to customers and responding with what they want. “We try to cook the food I think people want to eat, and not necessarily what you’d like to do,” he explained. “Everyone would like to be able to serve a $40 steak, but you have to take what the market gives you.”

As for the recession, Melikian speaks for others in the business (actually, they speak for themselves; see related story, page 23) when he says that the key to surviving and thriving is to simply “keep an eye on things.”

And by that, he means everything from the prices he pays for food and other items to controlling waste to keeping any and all other expenses in check.

“It’s like any business; you can’t control what comes in,” he said, referring to the volume of business for a given day, week, or month. “But you can control what you spend.”

Such steps are necessary, he said, because this recession is more challenging than any he’s seen previously (and he lived though the downturn in the early ’90s), and people simply don’t eat out as much when they have less disposable income or if they are uncertain about the economy — and until recently, that meant just about everyone.

“People still come in, just not as often,” he said. “If you used to see them once a week, maybe you’ll see them once a month now.”

To compensate, Horizons is doing more off-site catering, said Melikian, noting that it recently handled a wedding at the Barney Estate in Springfield, one of many such assignments in recent months, and, in general, it is stretching its imagination when it comes to ways to generate additional revenue and reduce expenses.

“And that’s a challenge, because your fixed expenses have gone up, and you can only charge so much for what you do,” he said. “You can’t say, ‘this steak used to be $15, but now I’m going to charge $25 to cover my expenses.’ Well, you could do that, but no one would eat it.

“Instead, you have to find ways to cut back, but not sacrifice quality, the things that make people come to your restaurant in the first place,” he continued. “It’s not complicated, really. You just keep an eye on everything.”

Just Desserts

Returning to the matter of chain restaurants proliferating on and around Boston Road, Melikian said he’s seen many come — and a good number go.

There have been other observations, as well. “When one of them opens, you always notice some drop-off in business as people go to check it out,” he said. “Then, things gradually return to normal, and after their good start, some of the chains slow down, and before long you see their people coming to your door looking for work. There’s a pattern there.”

Melikian has stitched his own pattern, one of success and longevity that has made Horizons a true landmark and enabled its owner to be a witness to 22 years of evolution on Route 20 — and counting.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

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