Tom Wilscam was 14 when he became a soda jerk, and 25 when he became manager of his first restaurant. It was a small place, not a very busy one, located between Golden and Boulder, Colo. He worked there after graduating from college, making a little money while sending resumes to prospective employers. The restaurant owner, who wasn’t much interested in running the place anymore, asked Wilscam to take the lead.

“He gave me the key, and I said, ‘I don’t know a damn thing about food necessarily,’” Wilscam recalls.

Since then he has learned a lot about food and how to run a restaurant. He developed a bagel chain, which became Einstein Bros. Bagels [3] after he sold it to Boston Market [4]. He retired from the business after opening 72 restaurants, but found that retirement didn’t suit his temperament. He and a partner formed a restaurant consulting business, Cromwell Corp., and a few years ago he began to focus his attention on franchising a farm-to-plate concept called Grains of Montana, which he had helped the owners to develop, and Juan’s Mexicali, a fast-casual Mexican restaurant he developed with his consulting partner, Gary McGill.

What prompted you to come out of retirement?

My wife told me to “get out of the house, you’re driving me crazy.” I got into consulting. About three years ago we decided we’d like to do franchising instead of doing consulting. With the consulting, all we were doing was selling encyclopedias. There’s no residual income from consulting.


AGE: 73EDUCATION: business degree from the University of ColoradoEXPERIENCE: 50 years in foodserviceHOBBIES: fly-fishing, skiing mountain climbing

Who would be the ideal restaurant franchisee?

If they have an entrepreneurial background, in some ways that is more of a positive trait than if they’d been in the corporate world all their life. People in the corporate world are used to people above them making decisions. “The buck stops here” is something they never had to deal with.

At your age, what drives you to keep developing restaurants?

Probably ego, if I were honest. It’s fun, and I enjoy the business. I don’t know of any other business where you can be as creative as you can [in the restaurant industry]. I enjoy making a living, too.

What are the challenges you face in developing restaurants?

First of all, making sure the concept is timely. Ten or 15 years ago fast-casual Mexican might not have been as popular as it is now. Then there’s location. What might be a good location for one concept might not work for another concept.

Is the restaurant business overcrowded with concepts?

It doesn’t seem to be. I would have thought that it would be with McDonald’s [5] and Burger King [6] and maybe Wendy’s [7] and how many more there are today. And then around the corner there’s Jack in the Box [8] and Carl’s Jr. [9], but they all seem to be doing well if they’re good.

When there’s no competition, you can get along by being mediocre. I would rather go into a market where a lot of good restaurants are doing well, then all I have to compete with are those restaurants. I don’t have to educate people about going to a good restaurant.

What’s your next project?

What the next concept will be I have no idea at this point. You have to keep your hand on the pulse of the public to know what’s going on. I keep waiting to wake up some morning and say, “I’m getting tired of this stuff. I want to start smelling the roses.” But I guess I’m not built that way.