Salad days behind him, a restaurant innovator has a new outlook on food and life

John Scardapane (right) with chef Tim Courtney (center) and sous chef Seth Arnold at EatNic in Paoli.

In the mid-1980s, John Scardapane, a chef and restaurant manager at Tavistock Country Club, observed that male golfers — 90 percent of the trade in the exclusive club's dining room — were ordering entrée salads. He believed that if these men wanted them, so would the rest of America.

Thus he launched Food Works  later renamed Saladworks, which grew from a stand in Cherry Hill Mall's food court to more than 100 locations, mostly franchised. Five years ago, during a bitter feud with a major investor, Scardapane saw his health begin to decline. The diagnosis: pancreatic cancer.

Scardapane had major surgery in January 2015, a month before the company filed for bankruptcy protection that allowed him and the investor, Vernon W. Hill, to extricate themselves. Saladworks rebranded under new ownership.

Scardapane then set out trying to recover — not only physically but entrepreneurially. 

The creative outlet is a sit-down restaurant called EatNic, which opened in late November in Paoli. It's an American BYOB offering scratch cooking in a shabby-chic/Pottery Barn-like setting that bears no resemblance to its former life as a Saladworks location.

Scardapane's wife, Gail, who oversaw marketing and public relations for Saladworks, helps run EatNic with son Anthony, 24, one of their four children. Daughter Isabella hosts. Even the kitchen has family elements. Executive sous chef Seth Arnold's wife, Karly, is pastry chef.

Scardapane, 53, is back in the game  working at a breakneck pace, as the restaurant covers all three meals in its 9 a.m.-to-9 p.m. schedule.

Saladworks and EatNic are quite different. Where did the idea come from?

I did all the real estate for Saladworks, which meant I had to travel a lot.  We worked 12- to 16-hour days and then we wanted to eat.  You got the hotel or you're going to a chain. And after years of doing that, you realize that there's no place out there where you can eat healthy if you don't want to go fine-dining. So there's a niche out there and that's what we're fulfilling. We are supplying good, wholesome food that's priced at a casual price point that you can come to two or three times a week. 

What have you learned in the last three months?

This has been much stronger than I thought. It has done three times what I had budgeted.  We were struggling in the beginning because I understaffed. Now we're well-staffed.  

What is your top-selling dish?

Shrimp and grits.  All of our seafood is wild-caught; we don't use any farm-raised seafood. That has no flavor. And our grits are stone-ground locally, so they have a lot of flavor, as well. So when you put two ingredients, that even before you start cooking them, have a lot of flavor, and then you get a head chef [Tim Courtney, most recently executive chef at the Silverspoon in Wayne] who knows how to cook it.  You can't cook something that's frozen that's comparable to that. 

Where did the name come from?

For trademarks, I was looking for something different.  Something about this also reminds me of Eataly, my favorite restaurant in New York. And I chose "picnic," because this is like a picnic. You never know what you're going to get. So combine them, and you get EatNic.

You've been upfront about your health issues. What happened to you?

In 2013, they sat my wife and I down and said, 'Get your house in order' because they didn't know what was the matter and they didn't think they could save me. They were doing other procedures that weren't working. Ultimately it was a Whipple procedure [in which several organs, including part of the pancreas, gallbladder, and spleen, were removed] that saved me. 

When did you start feeling better?

I haven't yet. Because of the operation, I have permanent nerve damage. I have permanent pain, all the time.  ... I could never go back to being a CEO. That career was gone, just because of the medication and the stuff that I'm on. My family just thought it would be a good idea that I get involved somehow, helping them. I got involved helping my son, basically, doing this. My doctor is trying to figure out alternatives to how I can live my life. And right now, they haven't given me anything yet. I have four other doctors now that I'm working with for alternative ways that I can try to live. But they haven't come up with them yet. So that's what's holding me back. Hopefully they'll figure it out one day. But right now, there's nothing. 

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