Runway model-turned-caterer-turned-TV star Carla Hall has become a household name, thanks to a stint on season five of Top Chef and her work on The Chew, the Emmy Award-winning culinary variety show on ABC she hosts alongside Mario Batali, Michael Symon, and Clinton Kelly.
But as Hall found out the hard way, fame doesn’t necessarily lead to success in the restaurant business. “Everyone assumed that my first restaurant's success was a foregone conclusion,” Hall said recently on stage at Nation’s Restaurant’s News MUFSO conference.
But that wasn’t the case: In May 2016, she opened the fast-casual Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen in Brooklyn to great fanfare — and the restaurant closed for good last August. “It took us two and a half years until we opened our doors, and then we were only open for a year,” she said with a tinge of sadness in her voice. Despite her fame and fortune, despite the 20,000 cookbooks she’s sold, despite the 12 million people that watch The Chew each week, Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen was a failure.
During her keynote address at MUFSO, Hall gave a post-mortem on her restaurant, examining the reasons why it shuttered — and the lessons she’s learned along the way. She also promised that she’ll be back with another restaurant concept before long.
1. Fame doesn’t guarantee success: “In fact, my previous success made it harder in some cases,” Hall told the audience at MUFSO. Though she’s a daytime TV host who’s broadcast into millions of homes across the country five days a week on The Chew, that didn’t translate into free publicity for Carla’s Southern Kitchen. As she explains, “There are limitations to being on The Chew in self-promoting.” Hall couldn’t plug her restaurant every time she was on TV, nor could she constantly promote it on social media under the terms of her ABC contract.
Hall’s fame also meant the restaurant was able to raise more than $250,000 from fans via Kickstarter, but she later came to regret taking the crowdfunding route, saying, “How we funded the restaurant is really what ultimately led to our downfall.” Some fans were outraged by the idea of a celebrity soliciting donations from fans to open a restaurant. “It's an understatement to tell you that I got beat up by the social media community for using Kickstarter,” Hall said.
She also acknowledges that they launched the fundraising campaign much too early — nearly two years before the restaurant actually opened — which left backers wondering what was being done with their money: “So, we had all these people basically asking us, ‘What's up? Are you stealing our money?’ ... The people don't know that it takes time [to open a restaurant]. They don't know how much things cost.” Then there was also the issue of fulfilling all the Kickstarter rewards: People who donated as little as $10 were promised a boatload of swag, from cookie mix to free meals once the restaurant opened.
2. Location, location, location: After experiencing major sticker shock in Manhattan, Hall and her team were lured to Brooklyn by cheaper rent. “Our rent was less than $3,000,” she says. “We were like, ‘Oh my god this is going to be amazing! We're going to make all kinds of money!’ But it was by the water and a 15 minute walk from the subway, which was maybe fine on a really nice day. But not so much in the middle of winter when that wind is whipping off the water.”
Thanks to her fame plus good public relations and social media management, Hall had 150,000 Facebook followers by the time her restaurant opened — but that didn’t translate into diners flocking to the restaurant. “My followers were from all over the country, so I was not able to capitalize on those numbers in our location in Brooklyn,” she explains. “If I was in an area [like Manhattan] where all the tourists go, if I was in a really busy space like Rockefeller Center or Times Square, I would have been able to capitalize on those followers.”
“We got it wrong,” she continued. “We weren't big enough or established enough to be a destination restaurant. It just wasn't gonna happen.”
3. There’s no such thing as enough time: Between filming The Chew and other commitments including book signings, cooking demos, and nonprofit events, and commuting back and forth between NYC and her home in D.C., Hall admits she didn’t spend as much time in the restaurant as she would have liked.
“What I’ve learned is that being famous does help, [but you] still need to physically carve out the hours on the ground to execute your vision, and a vision doesn't build itself,” she said. “Even though I'm doing all of those [other] things, I had a restaurant and I still needed to be there.”
4. Branding isn’t everything: “Because of my notoriety there was a tremendous amount of focus put on the restaurant's branding from day one,” Hall said. The restaurant team spent too much time and money worrying about branding the restaurant for future expansion into a chain, rather than focusing on making the first restaurant a success.
“Every little detail was obsessed over, from what material the bar was gonna be to the custom wallpaper to the types of stools at the counter to even how our chicken's hair was gonna be on the logo,” Hall said. “We were creating a brand that would become a future chain, and every decision had to be right from the start...so, we weren't even working on the present. We were working in the future.”
In addition to taking up time, a lot of capital was spent on branding efforts that could have been used elsewhere. “Those resources put into soft costs might have been better spent if they were put directly into the restaurant itself with a focus on talent, people, and training,” Hall said.
5. Staffing is incredibly important: Labor represents one of a restaurant’s biggest expenses, and “we started out with way too much of it,” Hall said. “We had too many people on the floor in a very tiny restaurant. The thought was probably that we were gonna be so busy, and in the beginning we really were busy — we had lines down the block.”
Hall’s inability to be at the restaurant constantly meant it was particularly important to have the right team in place: “When the attrition started happening we were just happy to get rid of folks,” Hall said. “The payroll was shrinking, and we were happy about that. But we didn't pay attention to the attrition and having the right folks until it was too late. By the time we closed we only had 12 employees, and some of them were really disgruntled. I needed to have folks who could model the right behavior and to be role models.”
6. Experience counts: Hall is a talented chef who proved she had serious cooking chops on Top Chef and ran a successful catering business — but culinary know-how doesn’t mean she knew how to operate a restaurant.
“We raised capital [from] like-minded investors, and this was difficult because this was our first restaurant, and it was also difficult because maybe the concept looked good on paper, but the numbers didn't add up,” Hall admitted. “And if somebody told us that, we just went to the next person. So, all my partners and I each found one large investor. They were all silent partners. [But] we needed somebody who understood the restaurant world. We needed an operating partner, which we didn't have...none of us had opened a restaurant before. We had worked in restaurants, but we hadn't opened one. And it's a totally different animal.”
“We made delicious hot chicken,” Hall said. “But we got other things, really important things wrong, and in the end the quality of the product didn't matter.”
Despite taking some hard knocks with her first restaurant venture, it sounds like Hall isn’t ruling out another restaurant down the road: “Don't count me out just yet,” she said. “I've learned some lessons, and you better believe I won't make the same mistakes twice. And I will be back harder, better, faster, tastier, stronger.”