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Chefs Weigh In: The Pros and Cons of Expansion

Welcome to Hot Topics, in which chefs chime in on a significant issue in food.

The scene at Michelle Bernstein's Sra. Martinez [Photo: Sra. Martinez]

For serious, respected chefs, the prospect of expansion has its pluses and pitfalls. On one hand, you have the opportunity to explore different ideas, reach a wider audience, and yes, make more money. On the other hand, to make it happen you have to tone down the urge to micromanage and adopt a more managerial approach, handing off responsibilities that were once an essential part of your daily routine. There is a risk of diminishing quality and getting spread too thin.

With that in mind, we asked five successful chefs with multiple restaurants and personal styles of cooking to reflect on how they made the leap, the nightmares and "Oh, shit!" moments they still encounter as they manage their restaurant groups, and whether or not there's a limit to how many places you can own. Here, now, Suzanne Goin (Los Angeles, CA), Sean Brock (Charleston, SC), Ken Oringer (Boston, MA), Marc Vetri (Philadelphia, PA), and Michelle Bernstein (Miami, FL) take on the questions.


Suzanne Goin

Restaurants: Lucques, AOC, and Tavern, Los Angeles, California

When you have one restaurant, you can be there all the time and really micromanage every little moment. Obviously, when you have two places, you can't do that, and that's the scary part. The big question is, are you going to be able to maintain the first place as well as you want to?

It's funny: without really planning it out this way, we open our new places every four years. It's sort of our magic moment. What happened with Lucques, for instance, was that we had two very strong cooks in the kitchen and two very strong FOH people, and it was just too much talent in one place. So it was a perfect opportunity to open AOC – to give these eager employees opportunities and to keep them with us. Being able to make the leap really boils down to a couple of things: having the right staff in place, having an idea of what you want to do, and finding the perfect space. For AOC, we were in escrow for the space for over a year, and it almost didn't happen. It was a messy deal, but it ended up working out.

The nightmares and unforeseen problems of expansion are actually quite similar to the ones you experience when you open your first place. At Lucques, four days into construction, we took the roof off to build a patio, and the walls of the building started to fall over. There was no foundation. We ended up needing an extra $45,000 dollars that we basically didn't have. And then there are the real estate complications, which I hinted at before. There can be plenty of close calls where it looks like you're going to have to bail on something.

As time goes on and you open several places, it gets easier and it gets harder. It gets easier because you know what you are doing and understand the steps that have to happen more than you did the first time around. It gets harder in the sense that you are spread a little more thin and can't focus on just one place. It would be nice to be able to do that, but you just can't anymore.

I have a pretty slow pace compared to some other chefs, but I can definitely see getting maxed out. We're not there yet, but I do think we're at the point now where I need to make people partners. They can't just be sous chefs. They have to be people that are basically running the restaurants with my oversight, but aren't always dependent on me and my time. I definitely check in everything and spend tons of time at each place during menu changes, but it's impossible to be the hands-on chef at each one all the time.


Sean Brock

Restaurants: Husk and McCrady's, Charleston, SC

I always said that I would have one place and that I would touch every plate. In fact, McCrady's kitchen was designed so that I could do that — dessert to cold food to hot food. When you're young and ambitious, you tend to think that way. The thought of not being able to do that is absolutely terrifying; the idea that you can't be in two places at once is frightening, and it takes a long time to really get over that. It's difficult to deal with that impulse when you're so obsessive.

For me, what propelled the move was the idea that I could reach more people and show them Southern food in a different way. At Husk, my second restaurant, we serve 400 to 500 people a day, seven days a week. That's a lot of people sitting in church. But for that to happen, you need to accept the role of bouncing back and forth and trusting the people that have been by your side for years.

You soon realize that it's a beautiful thing to see people that have been with you for years become chefs. It's great to see Travis Grimes run a kitchen, write menus, and develop a style. Then there's Jeremiah Langhorne at McCrady's, who started as an unpaid stage and is now a respected chef with a team. It's really cool to realize how silly you used to be by thinking that way. You actually end up moving forward much more quickly if you learn to step back in the right way. It's been life-changing. It's actually changed my personality, I'd say/

An example of how all of this makes you a better chef and a better leader and teaches you much about yourself and your limits: even though you can't touch every plate, you can't control everything, and you can't be around for every creative moment, you start having these experiences when you see this dish that the team has been working on, and it's delicious, it's exciting, it's beautiful to look at, and it's something you would not have come up with yourself. It fits the restaurant, and it's proof of the importance of stepping back. You've been teaching all these years, and suddenly you start learning again.

The nightmares with having two restaurants never stop. It's a reality every single day. When you're cooking at one restaurant for a friend or an industry person or family member, and then you get a text saying that someone of the same caliber person has walked in the other restaurant, now what? You panic. Luckily for me, the restaurants are close by. Also, at the beginning, when I would get inspiration for a dish, it would be very difficult to figure out what restaurant it would land at. But once you make the effort to figure that out, it helps you understand each restaurant better. Another challenge is that you also are doubling your staff, so there are twice as many people that you need to motivate and inspire.

The prospect of having a third restaurant is pretty scary, but you never know.


Ken Oringer

Restaurants: Six restaurants across Boston, MA and one in Maine

I wasn't necessarily a young guy when I was thinking of opening the restaurant. Clio had already been open for about five years and I was already into my 30s, and I definitely felt that I had the confidence and the cockiness to do something that would be interested in. I spent a lot of time thinking about a concept, and it sort of came about naturally based on the direction my food was going. Beyond the fact that I had the infrastructure in place, I creatively felt like I needed to have another outlet. It also presented the opportunity to get out of the kitchen and interact with guests. Not to mention it was small enough that it didn't require that huge an investment.

I don't think it ever gets easier. You always have the nightmares that you're going to open up and no one will show up to eat there. That's a totally possible scenario. But expansion is sort of necessary if you have capable people working for you. You have to be able to dangle the carrot a little bit and give people a piece of the action if you want them to stay with you.

The "Oh, shit" moments are many. You always worry that you're going to run out of money, you always worry that the first few months aren't going to be profitable, which is a real problem, and you always have to deal with neighborhood associations. When we opened up Toro, the very people that were clamoring for a restaurant ended up complaining about noise. We had all exposed brick and wood in the restaurant and didn't want to change the vibe of the place, so we basically had to insulate all of these neighbors' apartments on our dime just to keep them happy — we weren't obligated to do that. These are nuanced problems that you can't really appreciate before you experience them and learn how important they are.

Turnover is the biggest nemesis to our business, and as you grow, the chances that that's going to happen are higher, which is scary. So yes, there is a cap on how much you can expand. We're not there yet, but we're close! It's very, very tricky and time-consuming to replace people that leave. You have to maintain stability and make sure that the key people are there for the long haul. That's why I try to open small places. I like to have a lot of control and while I definitely admire the Carmellinis, Batalis, and Vetris, and I don't think I could handle that.


Marc Vetri

Restaurants: Four restaurants across Philadelphia, PA

In terms of expansion, we went the long route and took our time. We had Vetri for about five years before we opened our second restaurant. When I started, I never really thought of having more than one place. The guys I had been raised by in this industry were focused on one place. There wasn't the Food Network, there weren't celebrity chefs, and Wolfgang Puck was the basically the only guy who had multiple places. The main goal for most chefs was just to have their own single place. That was the Mac Daddy, all you cared about doing.

It's also important for me to point out that we don't have any money guys or investors. For better or worse, that's what my dad taught me, which means that you're obviously not going to move at the pace of other expanding chefs.

But as the years went by and the culture around restaurants and food media grew, a bunch of opportunities started to come our way. You realize that you want to do something new, get your name out there, and maintain and grow a team. And it's a really exciting, fresh process. Plus, when you just have one restaurant and don't have the funds, you can't really have another chef that can take the reigns when you want to take some time off. When you're on vacation, the restaurant is closed. And that gets better as you grow a bit and develop a team — which is of course a challenge, too.

Since this trend of expanding is pretty young, one thing is crucial in my view: Barbara Lynch, Paul Kahan, John Besh, and all these guys — we help each other out and rely on one another. We learn together and send staff to each others' restaurants so we can navigate this multi-restaurant world. For instance, I just sent my beverage director and director of operations to Paul's restaurants for a few days, so they could talk to their counterparts there. And Paul's done the same with me. I'll also talk often with José Andrés about everything from the food to what benefits employees should have. We're in the same boat.

But overall, there have been challenges, but there haven't been any nightmares. Yet.


Michelle Bernstein

Restaurants: Michy's and Sra. Martinez, Miami, FL

We have people that have been growing in our company for years, and because of their growth, we find that we have to expand or we will lose them. Initially, that's what gets us going.

And also, it happens because you get limited. Take Michy's: it's sort of an everything goes kind of place, and we were among the first to do the half-portion concept, which now has been done and redone tons of times. While it is in many ways a flexible concept, we can't really go back and change it too much. So we went with Sra. Martinez after I had fallen in love with tapas, and we figured that it would be an approachable and successful concept.

Of course, I wish I could open all the restaurants and concepts that my husband and I come up with. There are so many cuisines that we love and that we want to cook. We get offered opportunities basically every week, but we can't go with something unless we know it's really going to work. It's especially difficult in Miami, where almost every restaurant is a huge guess. It's such a transient clientele and a fickle crowd, so you never know if something will succeed. Price points are a delicate matter, ingredients are difficult to get locally, and you never know if you are going to alienate people.

For example: my dream has always been to open a Mexican restaurant in South Florida. My husband is Mexican, we travel there constantly, and I know a lot of Mexican chefs, but we don't really know Mexican food down here in South Florida. If there is any love for it, I'm not sure it's for true Mexican, because we really don't have it. So, it's scary to make that leap.

Once you have more than one restaurant, there are tons of nightmares: you have to deal with investors, not being seen at a restaurant often enough, being criticized for inconsistency. I am very involved in the creative process for all the restaurants, but I can't taste every dish on the menu or do all the ordering.

It boils down to this: if I have the talent within the organization, I'll keep opening places. But you won't see me hiring someone from the outside, no matter how talented, to run the kitchen at a new venture.

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