Mike Mariola began his restaurant career working in kitchens, eventually becoming a chef. In 2002, he and his wife, Emily, opened their first restaurant, South Market Bistro. From there, they have grown their business exponentially, finding particular success with a chain of five restaurants known as The RAIL.
At The RAIL, customers dine on locally sourced burgers, Ohio craft beer, and milkshakes. The RAIL partners with local breweries and holds special beer-tasting events called Ohio Beer School. Each location features an open-air patio, and Mariola has created what he calls “really unique, fully enclosed four-season patios with a fireplace and glass garage doors that open.” He adds, “It’s about the atmosphere too.”
After three years of looking for a site, Mariola recently opened a fifth The RAIL location in Columbus, Ohio – their first freestanding location, which they worked with a developer to build. “Columbus is known nationally as a test market for restaurants, so getting us open there and the success we have seen so far is a great sign,” says Mariola. “The building and signage really help us to stand out.”
Mariola sought mentoring from SCORE after a colleague suggested that he find a business mentor with restaurant-specific experience. He worked with Robert Earp, meeting with him two or three times a year. Mariola says that Earp “asked tough questions from day one to help me evaluate our business model and to plan for future growth.”
He advises other small business owners, “Truly following the SCORE mentor’s advice will get you out of your comfort zone, and that is where you will really start to shine.”