People to Watch

Capital Region Living Magazine has named Aliki Serras, owner of Reel Seafood Co., one of the featured "People to Watch" in the March 2014 issue.

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ALBANY, N.Y. - When Aliki Serras took over her father's 30-year-old Colonie restaurant, she heard a lot of "Oh, you're LeGrande's daughter."

That was to be expected. LeGrande Serras has been a fixture of the Capital Region restaurant scene for more than four decades. His establishments included The Lexington Grill, Kirker's Steakhouse and, most notably, The Reel Seafood Co.

It is Reel Seafood that 28-year-old Serras now owns. She and a private investor spent more than $1 million to purchase and renovate the fine-dining restaurant on Wolf Road, which opened in late January, with fresh decor, a new menu, a larger bar, an expanded raw bar and a banquet room.

Serras, who lives in Guilderland, knows the community is watching her, and she has felt the pressure.

"Initially I would get some anxiety," she said. "People would say 'You have big shoes to fill,' and I would think 'how am I going to do this?' Then I had a revelation of sorts. I realized that I didn't have to fill his shoes, per se. I could create my own path, my own identity."

Donna Purnomo, co-owner of Yono's, a fine dining restaurant in Albany, has known Serras since she was a little girl. She said that while it is evident that "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree," Serras has her own strong qualities.

"She is such a smart, well-rounded, warm, personable young woman," she said. "She also strikes me as a very practical young woman. I think she will do very well."

Purnomo was impressed with how much Serras and her team, including TMP Construction Services of Clifton Park, accomplished in the three weeks the restaurant was closed.

"That renovation was major in that period of time," she said.

The new Reel Seafood is very much a reflection of its young owner. Serras hates clutter, so designer DeLaCruz Enterprises of Niskayuna created an unencumbered look with clean lines. The blue and white Mediterranean theme was inspired by a photo Serras took on the Greek island of Santorini, which she visited as a child and remembers as "the most beautiful place on earth."

Since her overarching goal was to attract young professionals like herself, Serras thought about what she looks for in an establishment when developing her business plan. She also considered what needed to be done to make Reel Seafood stand out among the 55 restaurants, including some popular seafood chains, that operate on Wolf Road. Many have opened just in the past few years, and have made their mark.

"I'm going to be very candid with you, it's been tough. Especially when Bonefish Grill came in, we took a hit."

The revised menu includes more smaller-plate, lower-priced items, updates some classic Reel Seafood dishes, and highlights the expanded raw seafood bar.

The cocktail bar doubled in size and was made sleeker and more contemporary.

"I think people by nature want to be in an environment that is hip, where there is a lot of energy, where you can people-watch and be seen," she said. "That is the environment we looked to create in the bar area."

Serras also put Reel Seafood in the banquet and meeting business, a market in which it never competed before.

But she has not changed everything. All of the employees, half of whom have been with the restaurant for more than a decade - including five who have worked there for 25 years - stayed through the transition. Serras is committed to maintaining the warm atmosphere that has kept not only the staff, but many customers, coming back.

"The biggest thing I am keeping is the way [my father] treats people," she said.

Like Purnomo, these long-time employees and customers have watched her grow up. She began helping out in the restaurant as a child.

"As young kids we would go in there on Sundays after church," she said. "At first it was scary, being in this big space with all these customers around. My dad would say 'Okay, you go portion pasta' and my brother would peel potatoes. We had a ball with it, though."

Even so, Serras went off to Ithaca College with no intention of coming back and joining Reel Seafood. She studied Spanish with the thought of possibly becoming an interpreter.

But the restaurant business kept calling to her. Even when she did a semester abroad in Spain, she found herself befriending people in the industry.

"I knew I was legitimately being drawn back to it," she said. "Coupled with the fact that this restaurant, in particular, has afforded me the life that I have been privileged to have. And you can't really get away from the familial obligation because that's a big part of it – the opportunity to carry on a legacy and a name."

She is actually the fourth generation of the Serras family to own a restaurant.

But her father never pressured her to keep that legacy going.

"Quite the opposite, really," she said. "He almost tried to talk me out of it. 'Are you sure? Are you sure?' He, more than anyone, knows what a commitment it is."

She closed on her purchase of the restaurant in early December, with financing from her investor and Berkshire Bank.

Prior to that, she spent five years working as a server, a hostess, a bartender, a kitchen helper and weekend manager.

"I said 'Okay, I am going to immerse myself in this business and work in every possible capacity,’" she said. "I wanted to understand the lifestyle, the hours, the level of commitment, and figure out for myself if I was going to be happy and healthy living and working in this way."

As much as she takes after her father, Serras also has much in common with her mother, a reiki massage practioner and sound healer who introduced her daughter to new-age thinking and yoga.

"I don't think I would be able to work the schedule I do if I didn't make a conscious effort to maintain balance in my life and yoga helps me create that balance," she said.

She is an avid reader, a passion developed while living in her first post-college apartment on Madison Avenue in Albany with no television or Internet. One favorite is Mists of Avalon, a fantasy novel that allows her to escape to a world far different from the one in which she lives.

Serras also has acquired her mother's taste for holistic nutrition, which she realizes may seem odd for the owner of a fine-dining establishment.

"I am very much a product of both my parents," she said. "I enjoy eating a really good piece of foie gras and I don't feel bad about that. But I'll also drink my green juice in the morning. I am a walking paradox, but that is okay. You can be this contradiction, this person who loves yoga and reading Mists of Avalon and still achieve success in business."

Purnomo agrees.

"I would hope that every restaurant has someone like Aliki," she said.

For Aliki Serras, success in business may eventually go beyond operating a flourishing seafood restaurant on Wolf Road. She sees possibilities in catering, as well as in other area cities.

"I have always envisioned this kind of spinoff, a smaller bistro version of Reel Seafood Co.," she said. "Even if it is just seasonal, wouldn't it be great to have an oyster bar, a few entrees and some interesting cocktails and have it be in Saratoga Springs or downtown Troy or Schenectady?"

But that is in the future. For the moment, Serras’s focus is on making Reel Seafood a destination for both young professionals and the not-so-young customers who have patronized the restaurant for decades.

"I still have a long way to go, but this is the first step," she said. "And it's a big step in allowing the community to see me as Aliki rather than LeGrande's daughter."

Barbara Pinckney, Capital Region Living Magazine