A Cal State Fullerton business undergraduate and MBA alumnus, Michael Oates shares his success as an entrepreneur and author of the historical novel Wade in the Water. He gives practical advice on how to succeed as a startup in the Southern California restaurant industry and shares the inspiration for his novel, which discusses one of the worst natural disasters in American history.
Michael Oates, owner of Café Hidalgo in downtown Fullerton and author of the historical novel Wade in the Water, is a 1992 graduate of CSUF Mihaylo’s MBA program. During the past 20 years, he has used the knowledge gained from his degrees to become both a successful entrepreneur in the restaurant industry and an author. Oates credits much of his success to his Mihaylo education.
“Receiving my MBA from CSUF has given me confidence and credibility in both the restaurant industry and the business community at large,” he says. “Yes, there were a lot of classes to take, exams to study for, papers to write and a wealth of knowledge to absorb, but the benefits went far beyond that.”
He believes that the practical skills he learned in his classes has helped him perform basic accounting, marketing and management for his business, yet he believes that it is the reputation and commitment attached to a top-notch college education that opens doors. “Higher education, especially a program such as Mihaylo’s, where heavy class loads and high expectations are the norm, builds a strong, resilient character that others see, colleagues are drawn to and bosses cannot help but notice,” he says.
Restaurant Entrepreneurship in Fullerton’s Historic Heart
Café Hidalgo, Oates’ restaurant, was once part of the Villa del Sol Hotel, a landmark in downtown Fullerton. Built in 1922, the building was acquired by Dunlap Real Estate Investments. Today, it has several boutiques and restaurants, including Oates’ iconic establishment.
Oates tells students that success in the restaurant industry does not come easy. “There is a lot of competition in the restaurant business,” he says. “It is not a business to enter into lightly.” Oates worked in the restaurant industry for 12 years before embarking on his own startup. “If you want to own a restaurant, I won’t discourage you, but I will say, ‘do your homework.’ And that means working in a restaurant for a long time.” He says budding restaurateurs need to be able to handle stress, multitask and be creative. Speaking Spanish is also important, since many restaurant employees in Southern California speak Spanish as their primary language.
A Forgotten Natural Disaster Sparks Oates’ Interest as an Author
When not working at his restaurant, Oates enjoys writing novels. His most recent is Wade in the Water, a historical novel about the 1889 Johnstown flood in Pennsylvania. That disaster occurred when an earthen dam gave way over the community of 30,000, killing 2,209 people. It currently ranks as the fourth-deadliest disaster in American history. A smaller but still deadly flood hit the same community in 1977.
Oates recalls the inspiration for writing his novel: “On a Saturday afternoon, 28 years ago, I was turning the dial on our family TV, flipping through the nine channels our flimsy rabbit ears could receive when I stumbled upon a curious PBS documentary,” he recalls. “I sat silently for two hours, watching in amazement as the narrator described one of the most horrific natural disasters in American history.”
Yet an even greater surprise was the lack of public awareness about the disaster. “What was most surprising to me was that almost everyone I talked to about the flood had never heard of it,” he recalls. “In my entire educational experience, not once had the catastrophe at Johnstown been included in any of my American history books. The enormity of the Johnstown story had gripped me, and I wanted everyone else to know about the terrible events of that fateful day.”
That documentary included animations of how the failure of the dam sent a 75-foot wall of water crashing down a mountainside at a speed of 40 miles per hour, quickly overwhelming the largely industrial community.
Oates was impressed by the capricious nature of the tragedy. “How unfortunate and terribly ironic, I thought, that the flood did not happen in a farming town of tobacco fields, orange groves or cotton crops, but in a steel producing mecca stockpiled with rail cars and razor-wire. Damage to person and property in Johnstown and its neighboring towns was immense,” he says.
Oates was the featured speaker at the Fullerton Public Library annual Author Lunch on Aug. 23, 2014, at at the Alta Vista Country Club in Placentia.
In addition to his novel, Oates recommends anyone interested in a serious study of the 1889 Johnstown disaster read David McCullough’s book The Johnstown Flood, which provides a thorough historical discussion of the event. If you happen to visit Pennsylvania, you might want to stop by the Johnstown Flood National Memorial, operated by the National Park Service. The memorial, located about 90 minutes away from Pittsburgh, features a visitor center with extensive exhibits about the disaster.
Advice for Students
Oates counsels students to work hard and be independent to become successes. “What you learn and what you take away from your education is up to you. Quite simply, you get out of it what you put in. Think beyond the material presented to you by textbooks and professors. Think. Ask questions. Strive for independence. Learn how to learn. Do not underestimate the value of hard work, especially with a college degree in your hand,” he says.
Oates’ philosophy is perhaps summed up in one of his favorite quotes. It is from John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach: “Talent is God-given, be humble. Fame is man-given, be grateful. Conceit is self-given, be careful.”