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Published November 25, 2013, 11:30 PM

Monte Jones shapes local restaurant scene after NYC dance career

FARGO – Monte Jones doesn’t believe that for every door that closes, another opens. “I prefer to look at it as for every door that closes, you just keep banging on that door and the darn thing will open up again,” he said. “That’s the way a door works.”

By: Ryan Johnson, INFORUM

FARGO – Monte Jones doesn’t believe that for every door that closes, another opens.

“I prefer to look at it as for every door that closes, you just keep banging on that door and the darn thing will open up again,” he said. “That’s the way a door works.”

With a combination of determination, luck and focusing on the details, the Moorhead native has turned an unintentional career in the restaurant business into a successful second act after he needed a change in New York.

Jones has made a name for himself in the Fargo-Moorhead dining scene in the past decade as restaurant manager at the Radisson Hotel, namesake of Monte’s Downtown and co-owner of the former Silver Moon supper club. Most recently, he became general manager of Basie’s restaurant at the Ramada Plaza & Suites in Fargo.

He spent his last two years of high school on the Minnesota State University Moorhead campus, earning college credits through a state program before finishing a bachelor’s degree in English literature and theater history.

After graduating, he planned to stay home to help care for his ill father, but was told by his mother that he needed to follow his own dreams. In 1976, Jones packed a bag and moved to New York City to become a dancer.

His art of choice was influenced by his mother, who enrolled the shy kid in jazz and ballet dancing classes.

“I wouldn’t speak to anyone, and my mom tried to think of something I could do that I wouldn’t have to talk,” he said.

He was successful in New York, making a living from his dancing, but said it couldn’t be a permanent way of life. Like any athlete, the aches and pains started to stick around longer in his early 30s, Jones said.

Tired of hearing his complaints of sore joints and pulled muscles, a friend suggested he find a new line of work and put him in touch with an acquaintance who owned a restaurant in the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

“I went there and started as a waiter, and six months later, I was running the place,” he said. “It was all kind of showbiz in a way.”

CAREER CHANGE

Professional dancing and managing a restaurant may not seem related, but Jones said both require the same trait for success.

“As a dancer, you have to have passion for your profession,” he said. “You have to have passion for this profession, too. You have to not accept second-rate, and you have to be the best, because I’m only as good as the last table of customers that walk out those doors.”

Jones spent a few years at his first restaurant in New York, the upscale lunch and dinner joint Jim McMullen’s, then switched over to Andrew’s to serve as manager. But he said the second eatery didn’t go anywhere, closing after a year.

His old boss at Jim McMullen’s called and said Jones might be a perfect fit to run America, one of the first theme restaurants that predated Hard Rock Café and Planet Hollywood.

“They didn’t know what they were doing, and neither did I, about how to do a space that big,” he said. “Somehow we made it work, and we were the hot spot for the first six years.”

After 25 years in New York, Jones moved back here in early 2001, eventually making his home in a Moorhead condo.

After a round of applications and job interviews around town, Jones was hired to manage the Radisson’s restaurant and stayed there until downtown acquaintances, including former Fargo Theatre Executive Director Margie Bailly, helped him find a new opportunity.

Bailly and other Fargo Theatre staff occasionally ate at the Radisson, and Jones talked with her about an idea he had for a new kind of restaurant downtown. Bailly invited him to attend a “wow factor” meeting of business owners, investors and other community members to figure out how to breathe new life into downtown Fargo.

“I think we were kindred spirits,” Bailly said. “We both could see in our mind’s eye what we wanted downtown to be.”

That introduced him to Doug Scraper, the former owner of Boerth’s Gallery, who was considering opening a restaurant. Jones’ ideas and vision led to what would open as Monte’s Downtown in 2002.

Scraper said the original plan was to include Jones as a co-owner, something that didn’t work out. Jones wasn’t on hand during the first months of business, but the restaurant used his name, and he soon returned as general manager, helping to shape the fine-dining scene for several years.

Scraper said he and the other former owners of Monte’s – his wife, Kathy, and Gene Finneman and his wife, Susan – planned to eventually “fade into the sunset” and have Jones take over, but Jones instead left the business in 2008.

Jones was the “catalyst” for Monte’s, Scraper said, and his extensive experience, creativity and customer service skills made him an important asset during his time there.

“He’s a real people person,” Scraper said. “For lack of a better word, he really knows how to schmooze the customers and make them happy. They don’t leave unhappy if Monte’s around.”

FINDING A NEW HOME

Jones and his partner, Jerry Erbstoesser, went their own way in early 2008, opening up the ambitious Silver Moon supper club downtown.

The new restaurant met its business projections, Jones said, and seemed on track for success. But things turned sour in 2009.

“We could’ve handled either one of the 300-year floods or the economy tanking in 2009,” he said. “Just not all in one year.”

The Silver Moon had to temporarily close during record flooding that spring, a requirement for all non-essential businesses in flood-threatened areas, despite not having any flood damage. The restaurant closed for good in October 2010, and the space now houses Mezzaluna Fine Dining.

But Jones persisted, returning to the Radisson in early 2011 as the restaurant underwent a lengthy renovation.

It was during a personally difficult time that Jones’ next opportunity surfaced. He took a leave of absence earlier this year to care for his ailing 99-year-old mother and got an offer to manage Basie’s restaurant at the Ramada.

Although he now works along 42nd Street South, far from downtown, where he built a reputation in Fargo over the past decade, he said he feels at home in this “undiscovered little treasure,” where new co-workers he hardly knew helped him grieve his mother’s death in August.

“It’s a really nice, comfortably sophisticated spot, and it’s quiet,” he said. “Of all the places that I’ve been involved with, this is fantastic, because even when the bar is full or when the restaurant’s full or when we have jazz on Thursday nights, you can still carry on a conversation.”

He still feels like “a kid pretending to know what he’s doing,” he said. But Jones said after decades in the restaurant business, he’s found a new way of being the same shy, insecure kid who grew up in Moorhead.

Jones isn’t in the kitchen preparing the meals. As manager, he said his job is to be “intuitive” – he should know the clientele’s preference for red wine or allergy to mushrooms, he said, and he makes sure the tablecloth is straight and everything in the restaurant is just right.

Those small details might go unnoticed to a casual observer, he said, but they add up to the true service that a restaurant sells.

“I’d like to think that I do more than just serve food and alcohol,” he said. “I’d like to think that I’ve helped one person create a memory.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587

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