Coming off three successful Louisville restaurant openings in less than three years, longtime chef and restaurateur Fernando Martinez never imagined that he'd shutter his fourth venture — the hotly anticipated fine-dining destination the Place Downstairs — within five months. "Some people were sad, but most people understood that it needed to be done," Martinez says of the closure, which happened despite local food writers initially crowning the restaurant "the place, the eatery that even local restaurant owners are calling the most exciting opening of 2014." But as Martinez says, the Place Downstairs "wasn't as busy as it should have been," and after its closure, the restaurant reopened days later as Cena, a casual Italian eatery.
Eater recently chatted up the spirited (and sleepless, apparently) Cuban-born restaurateur during what would have been the Place Downstairs' one-year anniversary. (Prior to the Place Downstairs, Martinez opened a string of successful restaurants in less than three years — Guaca Mole in 2012, Mussel & Burger Bar in 2013, and El Taco Luchador on New Year's Day 2014.) The Place Downstairs space became Cena in August, and Martinez opened Coconut Beach in September. Here, the empire builder talks about the siren call of fine dining, how to transform a basement from tony to trattoria in less than a week, the best way to avoid being poor, and why restaurant biz success hinges on one thing — people, people, people.
The Place Downstairs was a divergence from your normal restaurant style; where did the idea come from?
Well, like every other chef, you always want to do fine dining. We had the basement under Mussel & Burger Bar, it was empty, so we decided to do something a little more high end. It's really hard to make it in fine dining. The reason we did it in the basement was because we were already paying for the space, so it was a way of minimizing risk.
Being down in the basement, was that a challenging build out?
The only thing we had down here were concrete walls and two bathrooms, so we had to do a full build out. It was little bit harder because the codes in the basement, they‘re different — the hood is more expensive, and we couldn't have a bar down here because then we would need a different liquor license, so we have a lounge but not a full bar. The construction wasn't that hard, but it took a while, we took our time. We did the design ourselves, and we kept it really simple. We wanted the food to be the main focus.
"It was so heartbreaking to make the decision to close the place, because we were doing really, really cool stuff."At what point did you realize that the Place Downstairs concept wasn't working, and wasn't going to?
I think it was three or four months in that we knew. We were putting out some of the best food in town, it was cutting edge and well priced, compared to other fine dining restaurants in town. And that's why it was so heartbreaking to make the decision to close the place, because we were doing really, really cool stuff. But I think we made a few mistakes. With every other restaurant, we didn't have to do any advertising, and we thought it was going to be the same way here. We didn't even have a sign. We thought people knew we were here. So I think it had a lot to do with the location, a lot to do with being in the basement, but it also had a lot to do with us not promoting the restaurant the best we could. And it was a matter of perception. People thought it was too fine dining, and they were viewing the restaurant as a special occasion restaurant.That's not what we wanted.
You'd been on such a roll before the Place Downstairs, how did this setback affect you personally?
I'm still crying. [Laughs] It was really hard. It took a lot of planning to open the Place Downstairs — [GM] Rick Moir and Christina [Martinez, Fernando's wife and partner] doing the drink menu and picking the wines for the wine list, and me and the other chef creating the food. Then you find out that all that work was for nothing. And it hurts a little bit, but at the end of the day it's business. You gotta change, you can only lose money for so long.
Why was Cena your next move?
After we changed chefs at the Place Downstairs, Allan Rosenberg, the new chef, who is still at Cena, he loves Italian, so he said, "Why don't we do an Italian trattoria?" And I liked the idea and the concept. There was a niche in the market, everybody was doing Italian-American, not simpler, authentic Italian. We wanted it as close to authentic Italian food as we could do it... I think it was good for everybody. Me and Allan had been friends for a long time, and we cooked together before, so it wasn't a huge change. And Allan is really talented so it was an easy transition.
How long did it take you to make over the space and reopen as Cena?
Less than two weeks. Christina and Rick changed the wine and drink menu, and me and Allan, we were playing with Italian dishes for months before we decided we were going to do it, so the menu was ready.
What did the switch entail? Any additional build-out?
No, we just changed a few things here and there. We added Italian art and got rid of the flowers. We relaxed the service a little bit, and that was pretty much it. We kept everything else, the staff was the same, everybody was on board for the change. We closed for two or three days, showed the cooks the new dishes, showed the front of the house the new menu, then had one or two nights of pre-openings, and that was it.
How'd opening night go? Any memorable hiccups or surprises?
It went well. When we did the pre-opening, we kept it really slow. Allan and I were playing with the new menu, showing the cooks the new dishes. We did the same with the front of the house. By the time we were ready to do the switch, everybody knew the whole menu, so it was painless. The first night we only had 30 people for the soft opening, the second night we had 60 people, and we kept it really simple so we could train people and make mistakes with people who were not paying.
What were you thinking on opening night?
"I hope they like it. I hope this time they get it and they like it."
How was the initial response to Cena?
A lot of people were really excited about it, and some people were not too excited about it, but then they tried it and they really liked it. Some people took a little more explaining — most people are used to red sauce and cream carbonara, but we do we do authentic carbonara with egg yolk. But I think 95 percent of people were really excited to have a simpler rustic Italian restaurant in town.
Any exciting future plans? How many spots are you going to open this year?
We're opening an authentic Spanish tapas bar, Artisana, in June or July. We'll do simple tapas, using a lot of artisan ingredients — local cheeses and imported ingredients from Spain and Italy. And next year we'll hopefully open the second Mussel and Burger Bar.
"Somebody really successful told me, 'If you want to be poor, do what everybody else is doing.'"Wow, you don't stop. How many restaurants do you think you'll end up with?
I don't have an exact number in mind. We're getting good offers, the landlords that we're dealing with are willing to help us. But sometimes it's easier to find the money than the right people; that's the hard part. We're always hiring talent, because that's what allows us to grow. If we don't have the right people in place, we don't do a project.
I read that you're a fan of Seth Godin's Purple Cow theory.
Yes, you gotta find a niche. One time somebody really successful told me, "If you want to be poor, do what everybody else is doing." You can't do what everybody else is doing. When we opened Mussel and Burger Bar, we did mussels and burgers, so it's a little bit different from just another burger place. It's a way of keeping it interesting.
Having opened so many restaurants, eight including previous ventures Havana Rumba and Mojito, what's your best advice for budding restaurateurs?
It's people, people, people. Hire good people. That's paramount, to have good passionate people. If you don't have passion, talent means nothing. If you don't have the right people, it will not work. It's not an easy business, it's extremely stressful. Even as the owner, sometimes I just want to get away and not come back anymore. I'm extremely demanding so the people who are passionate, they stick around. I don't ask my people to do something that I'm not willing to do, and I'm always pushing. I'm trying to never be content. If we're doing something good, we need to see a way to make it better. Once you're content, somebody else who is better than you, younger than you, and hungrier than you, is going to make a play.
Does it feel like it's been a year since you opened the Place Downstairs?
Longer. It feels like it's been longer.