By PAM KASEY ∙ firstname.lastname@example.org
GRAFTON — A few of the state's restaurateurs have found success with a risky formula: a special eating establishment in an out-of-the-way place.
Gourmet Express in Grafton is one of those hidden gems.
If "express" made you think "fast food," get that out of your head. This restaurant's name harks back to Grafton's history as a B&O railroad hub.
Grafton native Howard Gaines opened Gourmet Express in 2009 for several reasons.
For one thing, he spent his career learning the business, starting as a breakfast cook weekends at Jambie's in Morgantown in the 1980s, then later working at Oliverio's Ristorante in Bridgeport for 16 years.
There, he said, he picked up management skills, such as how to deal with disgruntled customers and how to bargain with food companies.
Gaines also worked for one season at the Pete Dye Golf Club.
With all that experience, he came to a point in his career where he wanted to try his own ideas.
Second, he's an entrepreneur by nature. His father ran his own business, and Gaines established HG Power Cleaning in 2004 to provide industrial cleaning services to Mon General Hospital and other local businesses.
"My father always told me you're never going to make the money unless you go into business for yourself," Gaines said.
But the larger reason had to do with Grafton.
"You can buy hot dogs and hamburgers all up and down the road here, but there's no fine dining," Gaines said.
"Why should everybody have to go to Bridgeport or Morgantown or Fairmont to eat?" he asked himself. "Let's start something here."
He bought a run-down 1920s building from his father and, with the help of family, fixed it up over several years with cash on hand.
Now in its third year, Gourmet Express offers an upscale Italian menu.
"Everything's made fresh from scratch," Gaines said.
"We get down here at 7 a.m. and start our soups and sauces so they'll be ready by dinner time," he said. "Our steaks, they're all center cut."
The restaurant's most popular dish, he said, is fall-off-the-bone baby back ribs.
"We season them with a special rub and slow cook them for 12 hours every night," Gaines said. "We've had thousands of people tell us they're the best ribs they've ever had."
Salmon is another favorite, he said, and "we also run a stuffed tilapia with lump crabmeat, and people love that dish. We only run that on Fridays."
Gourmet Express quickly became so popular that Gaines added seating upstairs, and now it can accommodate 80.
He also added catering.
And because someone was in the kitchen making soups and sauces in the morning anyway, he added breakfast — only to have it become so popular that he had to discontinue it, at least for now.
"This restaurant did almost $900,000 worth of business last year. Putting that much food out of this little facility, I've got my hands full," he said, adding that the restaurant employs about 30.
"I just need to get a bigger facility," he said.
Plans for that are in the works. Gaines has bought two adjacent properties and is negotiating to buy a third. That will give him enough space for a banquet room and additional parking.
He's is pleased with the restaurant's success.
"You wouldn't believe the number of people that come from Morgantown, Fairmont and Bridgeport to eat," he said.
"I'd say over half of our business comes from outside of Taylor County. They come here because they're going to get the same quality they get at home and, instead of paying $29.99, they'll pay $16.99," he said. "We've turned the tables."
Gourmet Express is located on U.S. Route 50 on Grafton's west side and is open from 11 a.m to 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays. For information, call 304-265-0333.