Alumni Profile
By Daniel P. Smith
The Unlikely Restaurateur


yan Dion ’04 may not have envisioned a career in the restaurant industry, but that’s precisely where he’s making his mark.

The co-founder and chief operating officer of 110 Grill, Dion steers one of the nation’s fastest-growing restaurant chains, a six-year-old enterprise with 31 restaurants peppered across three New England states. The Massachusetts Restaurant Association’s reigning Restaurateur of the Year, the 39-year-old Dion sat with UNH Magazine to discuss his unlikely journey into the restaurant world and 110 Grill’s rapid ascent.

As a UNH undergraduate, Dion worked part-time at the TGI Fridays in nearby Newington. Though intrigued by the industry — he even built a business plan for an Italian restaurant as a senior class project — Dion didn’t seriously consider a restaurant career. “I was happy to have work and spending money. Being a restaurant entrepreneur never hit my radar.”

Ryan Dion ’04
Brian Samuels Photography

After earning his business management degree, the Melrose, Massachusetts, native landed an unexpected internship at Top of the Hub in Boston, the iconic fine-dining establishment on the Prudential Tower’s 52nd floor. Dion spent nearly two years learning all aspects of food and beverage and became increasingly drawn to the fast pace and constant interaction with people. “I got hooked to restaurants as my true calling.”

Thereafter, Dion joined the upstart Burtons Grill chain, rising from restaurant manager to general managing partner over the next nine years. While overseeing the Burtons in Westford, Massachusetts, Dion met Robert Walker, a local real estate developer. As Walker dined at the Burtons bar, he and Dion chatted about life and business. Itching for more opportunity, the 33-year-old Dion called Walker about launching a restaurant together and the two met for lunch. “And a month later, we were off and running.”

In September 2014, Dion and Walker turned an existing restaurant space on Route 110 in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, into the first 110 Grill. Dion’s enthusiasm for leading his own restaurant overwhelmed any thoughts of entrepreneurial risk. “I had learned a lot in my previous role and was looking to expand upon that with 110 Grill.”

Before 2014 closed, the partners debuted a second location in Nashua, New Hampshire. With both 110 Grill eateries near their 185-seat capacity nightly, Dion realized 110 Grill, with its scratch-made, allergy-friendly menu and casual vibe, was a winning concept. “We were approachable to everyone from the folks closing deals in the dining room to the guys in sandals at the bar.”

Still, Dion admittedly struggled to grasp 110 Grill’s larger potential. “We had no idea we were capable of growing 110 Grill into what it’s become.”

In 2016, 110 Grill opened four new locations, followed by six new restaurants in both 2017 and 2018. After introducing 11 locations in 2019, 110 Grill entered 2020 with 29 eateries and 2,000 employees. Dion shepherded that growth by overseeing all restaurant operations as well as departments such as marketing, culinary and human resources —in 2019, while also becoming a father. Save an early office arrival, Dion says, “There is no ‘typical’ day.”

When COVID-19 struck this spring, 110 Grill was forced to close its restaurants. Dion didn’t panic, but rather reset 110 Grill. He analyzed the chain’s menu, staffing and store layouts and instituted expanded patio service and takeout. By the end of May, 28 of 110 Grill’s 29 restaurants had partially reopened and some 600 of the company’s employees were back at work. “Amid uneasy times, we were anxious to get back to what we do best: hospitality.”

Though Dion acknowledges the uncertainty hovering over the world, he and 110 Grill are forging ahead. Throughout the summer, the company reopened its restaurants to limited indoor dining while also debuting new restaurants in Maynard, Massachusetts, and Poughkeepsie, New York. Later this year and into 2021, the company will enter Connecticut and Rhode Island and extend its footprint in New Hampshire with locations in Portsmouth, Concord and North Conway. “We’ve recovered and are optimistic about our future and where we’re headed.”