“Obviously, Wayne has been very successful. He runs a tight ship, but the quality and the service are exceptional and none of that is going to change,” Russ explained.
“A lot of people would come in and start changing things - and there are things we may want to add in time (a Sunday brunch is among things being considered), but we're not taking anything away,” he said, adding that popular menu options and market choices as well as everyone's favorite servers would still be there. “Our staff is staying the same, and my goal is to maintain the same quality, consistency and standards our guests have come to expect.”
Located at 1777 Netherland Inn Road overlooking the Holston River, Riverfront Seafood Restaurant is one of just a handful of locally-owned, full-service restaurants in Kingsport. Started as a labor of love in 1991 by Wayne and wife Angie, the restaurant has grown from its humble market beginnings to its current location complete with patio seating, an extensive lunch and dinner menu, a full bar and a fresh market where you can purchase quality raw seafood and prepare it for yourself at home.
Russ, who has spent years in the business both as a vendor and as a manager, always dreamed of owning his own restaurant some day. He never imagined it would be this one - where his father, Doyle, was a frequent customer. Both Doyle and Russ' brother, Miles, were on hand when Wayne broke ground on Riverfront's current location in 2002.
“I don't know why he chose me. I'm just grateful he did,” said Russ, fighting back emotions. “It's been a lifelong dream, starting a restaurant and for him to entrust me with this place, his legacy, means so much. For Wayne and Angie to choose us is an honor and a blessing.”
The transition caps quite a year for Russ and wife Serena. The couple has moved into a new home, welcomed a new baby - their seventh - just 10 weeks ago, and are just a few days away from the next step in a process that Wayne and Russ have been working on for nearly two years.
Wayne started Riverfront just down the road from its current location in 1991. He and Angie had been married less than a year and worked tirelessly to build the business into the unique full-service restaurant it is today.
“Our restaurant is very unique to the region. Customers tell us how much they appreciate the quality they get for the price they get it. Some places on the coast don't even offer that and we've really worked hard to provide it here,” Wayne said. "We serve upwards of 100,000 meals a year in this restaurant.”
The Michelli's oldest daughter Ashley, now 21, was practically raised at Riverfront Seafood and still serves on staff at the restaurant. Younger daughter Jenna, 10, is sure to play a role in helping Wayne and Angie stay busy once the long hours come to an end.
“Running your own business is not an easy thing. It takes a certain amount of dedication and discipline to do things that people wouldn't necessarily do as an employee or manager even," Wayne said. "It's a family affair and there are a lot of sacrifices. It's a 24-7 responsibility.”
Wayne spent months contemplating that very thing in 2015 when a bad car accident left him hospitalized.
“It really gave me time to think about what's important in life. We had built this from nothing to what we have here today and I enjoyed doing it. I love cooking and interacting with guests and employees. But the accident reminded me that you never know how much time you have.”
So Wayne started thinking about stepping away from the day-to-day pressures of owning his own business and wondering: “How would I want to do a transition?” He knew he wanted the restaurant and market to live on. The key, he said, was finding the person he considered “the right fit” to continue the legacy his family had built.
He came up with a short list of folks he thought might be interested and started talking to them about his vision for the transition. Russ rose to the top of the list, and the two hatched a plan to have him come on board as a manager “to learn the ropes” and see if it was really what they both wanted.
“We kept it quiet a lot longer than I thought we would,” Russ admits. “I came on board as part of the management staff and spent a year and a half learning the ropes, seeing what he does and how he does it. I wanted to learn everything I could.”
The sort of “undercover boss” approach gave Russ a birds-eye view of the operation Wayne and Angie had created - the quality, the efficiencies, the standards. “It would have been very overwhelming trying to do this on my own. ... Wayne has been such a great to help to me,” Russ said. And that won't end when Wayne hangs up his apron this week. Wayne plans to continue to mentor Russ on daunting ownership-specific challenges like taxes, payroll, licenses and anything else he might need for as long as he might need it.
Just don't expect to see Wayne around the restaurant much - at least not in the next few months.
“Russ needs to put his own personality on this business. For the first three to four months probably, I don't even want to be in the building if there's a guest or an employee here - out of respect for him and the transition. I will be in - whether it's on Sundays or before anyone gets here in the mornings - meeting with him and helping him in any way I can. There's things I've been doing for 27 years that you just don't know coming in,” Wayne said.
In the meantime, the long-time owner who has spent long hours and countless days at the restaurant says he's “got stuff to keep him busy.” He'll catch up on family time and maybe even do a little flying - a hobby he hasn't had much time for since inheriting a plane several years ago.
“I want to thank everyone for allowing us to live our dreams for the last 27 years,” Wayne said. “I just appreciate all the support from the community, the region actually. We have people from North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee who are regular patrons of this restaurant. I just want to thank them all and thank God for everything that's happened over the last 27 years.”
Riverfront Seafood Restaurant is located at 1777 Netherland Inn Road in Kingsport. The restaurant offers Express Lunches, Early Bird Specials, a full bar and a patio with unparalleled views of the Holston River. There's even a fresh market where you can purchase quality raw seafood and prepare it for yourself at home. Both the restaurant and the market open at 11 a.m., Monday through Saturday. Reservations are recommended for parties of 5 or more. For reservations, call (423) 245-3474. To learn more, visit www.riverfrontseafood.com.