Ken Friedman turned 40, woke up, and decided he didn’t want to be in the music business anymore. “Changing careers—that was the best thing I ever did,” Ken says.
These days Ken is one of most important restaurateurs in New York City. His restaurants—The Spotted Pig, The Rusty Knot, and Locanda Verde and most recently, The Breslin—are buzzing scenes that serve food that’s won Michelin stars and foodie worship.
Ken’s innovation was to make the coolest bar and the best restaurant the same place. “I started out as a musician, but I sucked.” What Ken was good at was putting on a show, creating a scene. He also loved food. He was the friend everyone would call for advice on where to go for dinner.
In 2004, when he opened The Spotted Pig, there was nothing like it. The concept: “A place with personality that people want to go to many nights a week. A cool bar with great food.” Having never opened a restaurant before, Ken was faced with a million unfamiliar questions. Will there be bread? In a basket? Formal bread service?
He thought, “What do I, the customer, want when I go out? What bugs me? What makes me want to go back?—” and went about designing his restaurant accordingly. There would be fun, loud music and funky stuff on the walls. They would take no reservations and inflict no dress code. And the food would be wonderful.
This is where his partner, chef, and co-owner April Bloomfield comes in. Ken’s friend Mario Batali introduced Ken to April. “I wanted a chef that was different from the other chefs in New York—guys cooking Italian and French food.” April was a talented Brittish chef who had come to the U.S. to cook at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. “She brought a real professionalism and knowledge that I didn’t have.” Ken knew she was the right choice before even tasting her food. Her arms were a collage of scars, proof she was fearless.
Ken expected The Spotted Pig to become a successful neighborhood joint. “I didn’t expect it to be an international destination. That had everything to do with April.” Trendy bars are everywhere in New York, but quality food would keep people coming back. “It was her idea to make [The Spotted Pig] a place that when you walk in, feels like all the best parts of a pub. But the experience, once you sat down, would be a restaurant experience.” The service would live up to April’s food.
In his former music life, Ken worked in A&R—Artists and Repertoire. Ken explained, “My job was to help the artist be an artist.” Now, “I help the artist be an artist, and April is the artist.”
“Restaurants are like albums,” says Ken. Ken and April make a tremendous band. Their first album, The Spotted Pig, went platinum. The Rusty Knot, a nautically themed dive bar a few blocks away “was a side project.”
The John Dory, April and Ken’s fancy seafood restaurant on a lonely strip of 10th Avenue, closed in August 2009 after a nine-month run. “We didn’t want to make a second album that was like the first…we did something new, took reservations, had a sommelier and formal bread service. The servers wore ties. I can’t even tie a tie!”
It didn’t work. The location was out of the way—no one popped in for a drink, and people assumed they’d never get in because they didn’t have reservations. “We learned a lot of valuable lessons: do what you know how to do. It’s ok to make albums that are similar.”
The Breslin, the band’s latest venture in The Ace Hotel, sounds a little like the first album. It’s a pub at heart. The bar scene is hopping; “we sell as much booze as food.”
Will he change careers again? Ken is happy opening and owning restaurants. “It’s making something. It’s a work of art. It satisfies me creatively.”
Ken’s advice for businesspeople is the same advice he gave to his artists: “Do what pleases you. Make music for yourself, make music that you think sounds cool and makes you happy.” It will always be better than the music you make because “you think people out there are going to like it.”
It worked for Ken. Ken builds the restaurants he wants to go to, and in mind-boggling droves, people come.