Running one restaurant is by no means simple, but it does mean that that one endeavor can have your more-or-less undivided attention. But what about expanding your restaurant to a second location—or more?
Stephen Starr runs one of the most successful restaurant empires in the Northeast, with multiple locations of high-end, highly regarded restaurants including Morimoto and Buddakan to his name. We asked chef Dale Talde—former creative director at Buddakan and former Top Chef and Top Chef All-Stars contestant (and chef-owner of upcoming restaurant Talde)—his advice for restaurateurs managing multiple locations of a restaurant concept.
1. Make it clear who's in charge
Every restaurant needs a person at the top, and it should always be clear who's really running the show—in the kitchen, on the floor and in terms of business. "There was never any question that Stephen was at the top," said Talde of Stephen Starr. "Of course the chefs ran their kitchens, but there was no room for ego in the group; they knew that at the end of the day every decision was Stephen's. And you know that going in, you know that from day one."
That degree of a strong hierarchy helps ensure clarity in each employee's role. "There's no room for competition, but that's a good thing. If you want to do your own thing, you don't work at this kind of restaurant."
2. Learn from every restaurant (and team member)
That said, just because there's a clear power structure doesn't mean that other chefs, managers and workers can't contribute substantially. "Menus change and evolve," says Talde, "and while we want consistency across the restaurants, you have multiple teams working on new ideas all the time; it's a collaboration of everybody."
Trying to coordinate multiple kitchens may restrict innovation in some ways, but encourages it in others. A successful idea from one restaurant will get implemented everywhere; "If Stephen [Starr] likes something, that's it—it'll be on all the menus." Or, in some cases, different venues can work on the same project. "He might say 'I want a chicken dish, everybody make a chicken dish.'" The bottom line: menus may not evolve as much as they do at independent restaurants, but good ideas are put into practice across the entire restaurant group.
3. Devote time to coordinating operations
Multiple restaurants of a group—particularly huge operations, spread across cities like the Buddakan restaurants—won't all run seamlessly without careful management. Dale Talde, after time as the New York location's executive sous chef and then chef de cuisine, served as the "creative director" for the Buddakan group; he moved between the restaurant's locations in New York, Philadelphia and Atlantic City, serving as a resource, instructor and collaborator across all the restaurants.
"About a quarter of what I did was quality control, ensuring consistency," says Talde. But a larger part was menu development, brainstorming with the chefs and then helping others to implement ideas generated elsewhere. "It's hard to collaborate with people in different cities," says Talde. "You need someone to be that link."
Not only new concepts need supervision, though; "I'd spend two days a week in New York and two days in Philly," Talde says, "tasting all the food. You find interesting differences—why does this dish taste better at that restaurant? How do these chefs translate the same recipe, and why does this chef's version work better? Having multiple restaurants gives you the opportunity to find the best way to make something work." But it requires an on-the-ground person to be that bridge.
4. Take time to invest in training
Once you've identified how restaurants succeed at some tasks, the next step, of course, is to implement those practices across all the locations. "Sometimes that means you're there all morning, making a particular kind of rice with the cooks over, and over, and over," says Talde. "You've got to watch how a dish is actually executed on the line, and then work with them until it's done the way you need.
"It's a lot of effort, but there's no other way to get it right."
5. Be realistic
When one of your restaurants is a runaway hit, it can be easy to envision every location as a equally successful (or even better!) follow-up. But be realistic about your expectations, and understand the different markets you're working in. "The numbers at each restaurant depend so much on location, and the market you're in, and all of that," says Talde. "You can't have identical restaurants. And that's okay, you just have to make sure your expectations for each one are realistic."
That's true in terms of sales and profit, as well as in the kitchen. "At Buddakan in New York," says Talde, "we serve a dish with a boned-out duck. We have one guy whose entire job is to cut, trim and bone ducks and chickens. We don't have that at the other restaurants."
No matter how close in concept you want your restaurant locations to be, it's important to acknowledge the logistical limitations of each; however, beyond those boundaries, there's still a great deal of room for them to learn from each other and aspire to what the others achieve. "Restaurants can set standards for each other," says Talde. "And the exciting thing is to chase the highest standard."
Image credit: aperte