In the restaurant world, we hear a lot about the lives and accomplishments of chefs. We hear about GMs and sommeliers, bartenders and pastry chefs. But there’s an influential sector of the industry, a sector full of men and women who are vital to the success of a restaurant: The back office. The corporate teams of restaurants not only handle human resources and publicity, but also operations, finance, development, and more. For an April Toklas event, we asked a handful of incredibly successful women who work on the business side of things to talk about their experiences, how they’ve seen the industry change, and offer advice for aspiring businesswomen.
We were joined by Jessica Shupak, Head of Business Development for the Altamarea Group, Lili Lynton, Daniel Boulud’s longtime business partner and the head of Dinex, and Katina Pappas, the Director of Operations for Rotisserie Georgette. Alex Pemoulie, the co-owner of Thirty Acres restaurant and the Director of Finance for Momofuku, moderated.
How they got started
JS: I got a job in management consulting before I worked in finance where I focused on mergers and acquisitions. I always had a bit of a hospitality bug but there was never the right time in my career…There was a real inflection point for me in 2007, 2008 when I was working at a job that I really didn’t like or enjoy and I hated going to work every day and I spent most of my waking hours there. So it made me think about what I actually want to do with my life. And it was always this huge attraction to food and hospitality.
LL: I started this business because I knew Daniel, who was a chef at Le Cirque. It had just gotten four stars the year before that and it was really a good opportunity to leave and start his own business. At that point you could really only open one business. I helped him find a location, set the lease, and raise the money, and we opened in ‘92…I wasn’t intending it to be a full time job but once we started opening our other restaurants I left my money management job.
KP: My family’s in the restaurant business in Texas so for as long as I can remember I was having summer jobs in the laundry room rolling napkins and silverware and working the floor. When I moved to New York after undergrad, I did the typical thing and went into finance, which is what everyone was doing at that time and what my friends were doing. And just realized it really wasn’t for me after two years and went to culinary school and applied for a job in the Dinex marketing office.
What they do all day
LS: When I joined Altamarea, we only had one restaurant. So it’s been a grab bag of different hats, from our DOH compliance to brand identity initiatives to launching special projects like a gift card program or things like that. Since we’ve grown we’ve had to add a lot of muscle tissue to the company and focus people more around specific function areas. So my responsibility is anything having to do with new revenue as opposed to organic revenue. Organic revenue is your existing revenue growing versus opening a new restaurant or doing a licensing deal…On any given day I could be working on the design of a new restaurant, evaluating the lease for a new property, I could be meeting with a contractor onsite to go over progress of construction and troubleshoot issues and try to solve problems that are coming up on a site.
LL: On the business end, we have an HR department and that whole business has changed dramatically as we’ve grown. We recruit people but we also set up training programs so people understand where their career path is going. At times I was involved in the training program. Then we have our operations team, which is four people, and they are very involved with new restaurants and ongoing operations. We obviously have finance. It’s a lot of information flow. Now our chefs get information daily. It’s hard to imagine that when I started chefs had no idea what costs were until six months later. Watching that whole evolution is something I’ve been very involved in. We have our PR department which has transformed with social media…Than we have one person who does purchasing.
KP: With the new restaurant, every day is so different, and as operations director I’m the only one in the office and also on the floor sometimes. Today was a nutty day so I was invoicing and doing our bookkeeping for the first half of the morning and then from there I was looking at our labor and payroll processing. There are certain things that have to happen every day. Then it was our pre-shift meeting for lunch. In the middle of lunch service we had a leak in the ceiling so I had to run onto the roof and see if it was coming from the place that we know leaks at times. I came back down, observed lunch service, checked with the door to see what we’re doing for dinner tonight to prepare the chef for the cover count he had for dinner. Then I went back upstairs and was looking through our invoices and comparing prices. Then we had management meetings to talk about some upcoming dinners we have in our private dining room and talk about those menus. And then I filled out some paperwork for a new cook and then looked at a training program that we have for a sommelier that started two days ago.
AP: We have a finance department, PR, HR, and operations. The way our finance department works is a little unique in that we’re a little bit operational. I’m in the restaurants quite a bit, I meet with all the chefs all the time about their costs, mostly talking about labor costs, food costs. Labor costs is generally our biggest hurdle. We really try to make sure our employees get paid well. And the problem with that is we have to manage that. Today I worked on this Obamacare situation, which we still have no idea what we’re going to do about. Momofuku has always offered free health insurance for all of our managers and all of our line cooks who have been with us for over a year. And that’s a really awesome benefit and it’s a great incentive for line cooks to come work for us. With Obamacare and some other new laws that were put into place, we’re really not allowed to do that anymore. We’re not allowed to discriminate…So we have to figure out what benefits we can pull back on, what we can compromise and still provide our employees with a good livelihood.
Is an MBA actually helpful?
JS: I don’t think it helped me get my job. If anything it was confusing to people, because they didn’t know what to do with me. Business school was awesome…very intellectually stimulating. But I don’t think it helps me in what I do today at all. I think what does help me is what I did professionally.
KP: I would say the jury’s still out for me. I loved the experience but it didn’t help me get the job I’m at now because I’m working for someone who wrote my recommendation to go to business school. …the exposure that you get to different industries is unlike anything you would read yourself. They force you to read about ball bearings. You’re forced to read about El Bulli — that was one of our case studies…Also just the people you’re exposed to. I have a ton of friends who have started companies and being able to call them and talk to them about certain issues is unparalleled. Undergraduate is not the same. Having those people to call is a resource you can’t really replace.
How much growth is enough?
AP: At Momofuku we continue to grow because we feel like we have so many talented individuals and we want them each to do whatever they want to do…But at Thirty Acres, which is my restaurant with my husband, we are also looking to expand. The reason why we are growing there is basically because we cannot make enough money from one restaurant. Just to give you an idea, a restaurant of our size generally does about a million dollars each year in the area that we’re in. That means we’re really taking home at the end of the day $20,000 – 40,000. That is before we have taken any salaries. That is not enough.
JS: With Michael and Ahmass, that was always the plan. Ahmass has a finance background and the plan was always to grow a large, successful business, and Michael said, “Awesome. I want more people to have my food.” We want to create value in this company. So we have a couple of brands that we really think are valuable so we’re at the point where we can really start replicating those brands…We want to grow to other cities so we can broaden our reach and broaden our awareness to introduce new people to our food and how we do hospitality. And we want to introduce new concepts to our clients. Also we have so many talented people and we don’t want them to leave.
LL: Traditionally restaurants were a job and the whole family worked then and it was a living for a family. That’s not a trivial point at all. And we opened our first restaurant and then all of the four star restaurants were expanding and remodeling and we felt we were being left behind. So that’s when we moved Daniel and opened Cafe Boulud. We would have stayed with those two but we had talented people who wanted to move on. Then you reach a critical juncture when you have four when you need a corporate staff. At that point there are synergies and you need to fund that corporate staff. So that was a very difficult decision for us. But we don’t just open any restaurant. We look very long and hard at each specific site. You want to be in enough cities so you can get national press, that’s not a trivial factor. We’re very cautious, I don’t think we’d ever be more than 20 restaurants. But there’s an employee component, a PR component, and leverage component.
If you open too many at a time — if you open six at a time then you just have a team dedicated to opening, it’s like an army. And then if you don’t keep opening what do those people do? But then you’re just opening to open and that excess profit goes to pay that team. We don’t open enough that we have an opening team.
AP: Opening restaurants doesn’t make it easier. Every single restaurant is that much worth’s of work more. So we haven’t gotten to the point yet where it’s paid off. It’s a little bit of a tail wagging the dog.
Advice for aspiring business professionals
JS: If you’re someone who’s looking to get in, I would be very open about the type of opportunity you’re willing to accept. I do a lot of informational interviews and people only want to work for Michelin-starred fine dining blah blah blah and I try to explain to them that there are a lot of fantastic people out there and groups out there and it’s the same subject matter. It’s a restaurant, there’s guests, there’s cooking. The levers and the drivers of the business are the same. Another is really thinking about the practicalities and your lifestyle and what fits in for your life. Do you want an office job or do you want to work in a restaurant? What do you want to do and what can you afford to do? There aren’t a lot of musical chairs with some of these jobs so you really need to be persistent. You need to figure out what is there need and how can you fill it. And you’ve got to love it. It’s a lot of hours and a lot of stress and in a lot of cases it’s not the more lucrative thing you can do — esp with a Harvard MBA.
KP: Really understand what you’re getting into before you get involved. So get to know how everything works from receiving to how the host stand works to how the kitchen operates. Also if you find a company that you like but they don’t have a position for you at that time, stay in touch and be open to other positions within the company. I didn’t necessarily know I wanted to do marketing and PR for Dinex but I knew it was a great company and that’s why I signed on. From there I got to do amazing things. I was a hostess at Daniel for six months. Every opportunity is a learning opportunity.