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In their own words

Jeffrey Chodorow, Laren Gartner, Edna Bayliff, George Katakaldis, Rick Doody, John Metz, JR. Six very different entrepreneurs on the lessons, the labors and the passions of the restaurant life.

JEFFREY CHODOROW

Owner: China Grill Management, manager of 25 restaurants from London to Mexico City, New York to Miami, including five China Grill locations and four Asia de Cuba restaurants.
Back story: An accountant and attorney who has honed a formula for high-end hot spots since the opening of China Grill in 1987. Had a nasty—and public—spat with chef/partner Rocco DiSpirito on the NBC reality show "The Restaurant."
I live by the rule that there are no rules.

When I did my first restaurant, I thought it was just about food and service. I didn't realize how much environment and vibe and all those other things really played. And I also thought that busy restaurants were successful restaurants, which turned out not to necessarily be true.

I was walking through Asia de Cuba. I can't walk through the restaurant without everybody coming over to say hello. This is a genuine thing. And I got back and my corporate chef called me and said the staff really enjoyed it when I was back in the kitchen helping out. It's not like I work in the kitchen all the time, but the staff really enjoyed it. Those are the things I enjoy the most.

It's very easy to stop paying attention to the details.

No matter how right you think what you're doing is, it doesn't always work.

When everybody told me in the beginning that I was absolutely out of my mind opening China Grill, and people gave me no chance of success, and within two weeks, China Grill was one of the hottest restaurants in New York City, it was a pretty good day. October 13, 1987. One of my favorite sayings is, "Fix the problem, don't fix the blame."

Never do a TV show about your restaurant unless you are completely in control of it.

I don't think competitively at all. Don't get me wrong, I think competition is a good thing. But the only person I feel I'm in competition with is myself. Over the course of time I've found that the more good restaurants there are in a place, the better everybody does.

If I weren't in the restaurant business, I guess I would be in real estate.

What makes a great restaurant is that the customers share the vision of what you've created.

I always try and do something that's not really mainstream. Asia de Cuba is a completely made-up cuisine. When I was a kid, growing up in Miami, my father died the year I was born and my mother was a manicurist. She couldn't afford a babysitter. So I went on dates with her, when she was dating. She had a favorite Italian restaurant, and they made great linguini in white clam sauce. I grew up on it. I always tell my staff, "It's not just about the food, but it's always about the food."

I think my favorite restaurants are those that I can sit here today and think about the dishes, and I can taste what they taste like, and I know I can go get them. I don't think you can know your customers in advance.

They come back again and again and again for the crispy spinach.

Upscale, family-style service, I think it breaks down barriers.

My favorite beverage is diet orange Sunkist soda.

I don't believe in advertising, but I do believe in PR. In the end, what's going to make a restaurant successful is great word-of-mouth.

You can never forget it's a restaurant, which happens a lot.

Every problem is a work in progress. This is not a science. This is a business of a lot of incomplete victories. We move in gradations.

In a way, I always look at things as, what would make me happy.

Opening too hot can be a bad thing. The rule in dealing with suppliers is,

"You treat us fairly and correctly, we'll treat you correctly. If you're loyal to us, we'll be loyal to you."

All bad days come to an end.

The most common mistakes restaurants make are, number one, they undercapitalize starting out, and two, they see that certain things aren't working and they don't fix them. It doesn't cost that much more to go out and get a good chef. Something goes wrong every minute.

Don't do it unless you love it; many bad things will happen, and you can't let it get to you; and every day is a new day.

Mr. Chow's in New York. I've been going there forever. It's always had great environment. I eat the same meal every time I go. The gambei, diced squab with lettuce, the chicken sate, the Mr. Chow's noodles, Peking duck, either the lobster with ginger or sometimes I have the fake lobster, which is shrimp masquerading as lobster, the bok choy and the fried rice.

GEORGE KATAKALIDIS

I'd rather eat out less and enjoy it more.

One of the big ah-ha's in my career came when a young lady came up to me when I was operating in a food court and said, "I really like your cuisine." She called it cuisine. The light bulb went off in my head right there. We were serving very good quality food but not in the right environment.

My best days are when I don't have to go into the restaurant to work. It is a lot of hard work, and I take my hat off to all the people who go in day in and day out. The day that I didn't have to do that anymore was great. I'm an efficiency freak. I worked myself out of a couple of jobs while I was working. Made myself obsolete. What I realized is I'm good at that. And I also realized that there are a lot of inefficiencies out there.

Don't trust verbal communications. Get everything in writing.

Competition to me is the food dollar. It is everywhere today. It is coming from grocery stores, to mom-and-pops, to the chains. Fast food is moving up to fast casual, full-service is moving down to fast casual. There's competition every day from everybody.

I did not know that you needed to delegate as much as you do in this business.

Most of my restaurant education was work experience, I mean, literally being in the gut of this restaurant industry for 10 years straight. The other part was that I traveled quite a bit in my life, lived in Canada and on the West Coast, played professional soccer. I had great opportunities to know and understand different people and environments. It helped me understand what people are all about.

To manage, you have to have measurements. You really get the pulse of a company through metrics.

At the end of the day, a restaurant has to be a great experience.

The hardest part of the job is making sure everybody's expectations are met, from the bankers to the president to the directors, the employees to the customers.

The most difficult problems I face are the hard decisions I've had to make when it comes to people. As we have grown, there have been some great people who I've gotten to know and love, whose skill sets were not necessary anymore, or were not as impactful, as they needed to be.

I prepared a Greek salad for someone once, and he asked me for ranch dressing. I asked him, "Why do you want ranch dressing?" "I don't enjoy vegetables." "Then why do you want salad?" I think I've had a few good ideas, but the best was to get into business for myself.

The thing I enjoy the most is carbonated, flavored water. I also have been enjoying the California Red Zinfandels lately.

We are in the hospitality industry.

Ignorance is a problem, and I don't mean that in a facetious way. We are in a very specific ethnic regional cuisine. What ends up happening, you'll get a customer who says, "This is not spanakopita." But it is. You have to explain that there are 40 or 50 different ways to make spanakopita. If a supplier is good, he should be able to educate you and keep you in business for a very long time.

People assume the restaurant business is very easy, and that it is all about the food. They do not realize it is probably one of the most complex businesses there is. You are producing a fresh product on a minute-by-minute basis and you are getting immediate feedback. All of my bad days seem to be pretty long.

If someone were going to succeed me, I would ask three questions: What's your blood pressure? What's your tolerance for pain? How thick is your skin?

Among the chains, I really admire P.F. Chang's and The Cheesecake Factory. Every time I go in, I never have a bad experience.

I enjoyed playing soccer, and I still do. I'd rather be in the restaurant business. I can control my destiny.

If you make a mistake, quickly correct it—learn to fail fast.

The rules mandated by Big Brother, government, are a big problem. None of them have worked in the restaurant business. They really don't know what they're doing. They are imposing laws that they think are beneficial, and they're actually hurting not only the restaurant industry, but the people they are supposed to help. An example would be the 40-hour workweek. If a guy wants to work 50 hours, let him work 50 hours.

I've had a lot of challenging days, but because of my outlook of trying to learn every day, it sort of minimized the worst parts. Tomorrow is going to be different.

RICK DOODY

Owner: Bravo Development, Inc., with brother, Chris, overseeing 51 full-service restaurants including Bravo! Cucina Italiana restaurants, Brio Tuscan Grille, Lindey's Café and Bon Vie.
Back story: Rick and Chris were reared in the restaurant business. Twenty-five years ago, they helped their mother, Sue, open Lindey's in German Village, Ohio, outside Columbus. Rick later went off to Cornell to learn more about the business, and Chris went to Tulane to learn how to cook. In the early 1990s, the brothers opened their first Bravo! Cucina Italiana, a casual Italian eatery. Rick is chairman and CEO of Bravo Development, Inc.

In 1995, there was a Macaroni Grill opening near us both in Dayton and Columbus, Ohio. We were very intimidated by Macaroni Grill's momentum, the money they had behind them at Brinker and just their overall success at that time. We stepped it up. We changed the menu and really reemphasized the quality of the food. We worked harder. We did some minor remodeling, basically concentrated within our four walls. Those restaurants [the Macaroni Grills] are no longer operating. The underdog can win.

Never feel like you've made it. You have to constantly strive to move forward.

Focus is very important. The most important lesson I've learned is to stay focused.

Getting bigger does not mean losing quality. Early on, I thought the opposite was true.

Play by the rules, or don't play. My best day was the day in 1999 that we opened Brio in Easton Town Center in Columbus. It was our first Brio, and it opened in excess of $200,000 a week.

The most difficult time was when we had one restaurant open in Columbus, we bought a building, an old closed restaurant in Indianapolis in 1994. Everybody told us, after we bought the building, that it was a terrible location and that it wasn't going to work. I worked extremely hard to keep the costs low. I'd just gotten married, just bought a house, and my goal was not to lose my house or my wife. It took a while, but it took off. It's about the food and what's inside your four walls.

In the early '80s, when we were at my mother's restaurant, Lindey's, our chef left to open his own restaurant. And he took most of our cooks with him. We floundered for a while, it took some time to get back on track. I learned from that. Make them partners, shareholders. That's what we've done. We currently have two restaurants closed in New Orleans. One was looted and the other had a lot of damage. We have people all over the country we're taking care of in hotels and with jobs at our other restaurants. I love to serve. If I weren't doing this, I would be working in some capacity where I could serve people. The hotel business, perhaps, or be a butler. Growing up, I wanted to be an architect. I never got to fulfill that dream, but designing and building beautiful restaurants and great retail projects is how I vicariously fulfilled that dream.

My mother cared more about people than anyone I've ever met. I learned that this is a people business, and you'd better have a love of people.

We have a great CFO, and he helps me look good. We're kind of return freaks. We're very committed to a specific return on investment that each restaurant has to hit.

A great restaurant has a certain buzz. It hums on all cylinders. Great food, great service, great ambiance. My wife always says that you can tell a Brio or Bravo guest by the smile on their faces. That's pretty powerful.

Great food makes a great menu, mostly. It should be a broad menu.

I'll never forget a guest from Indianapolis. It was the day after Thanksgiving in the second restaurant we opened. We were near a mall, so we expected the day after Thanksgiving to be huge business. At 1 o'clock, there were two tables occupied. This guest said we were going to be closed in six months. He said the place looked like a cafeteria. And you don't have lasagna on the menu. I thought he was right, that's what bothered me the most. So we did a lot of things. We changed the menu. We couponed to get people in the door because we wanted some feeling of life in the restaurant. And, sure enough, within a few months, it really started to take off.

We operate in the upscale casual segment, along with P.F. Changs, Cheesecake Factory, Houstons. We think that our guests transfer from one of those restaurants to us, depending on the day. We are comment card freaks. We are close to our guests. We try to listen. If the reaction isn't good, we change it.

I like simple comfort food. I was reading an article yesterday about somebody serving foie gras milkshakes and mustard ice cream. If I never set foot in the restaurant that serves that, I'll be fine. What trait do all chefs share? I think it's the desire to be creative. Unfortunately for some, it's overly creative.

What makes a restaurant stand out? Having a strong, solid concept. And not overcomplicating the food.

Success starts with the concept, but you need good people. You need both.

Knowing what you can do, and, just as important, knowing what you can't, are essential to marketing. Advertising is just a supplement for a good restaurant.

All bad days are probably overcommitted and involve too much stress.

The job is in the restaurants, it is not in an office.

JOHN METZ, JR.

Owner: Atlanta-based Marlow's Tavern, Hi Life Kitchen, Aqua Blue and Doc Chey's Asian Kitchen. Co-owner of Caffe Antico, Sterling Spoon Catering and Greazy Spoon Consulting, whose clients include Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, Italianni's, Longhorn/RARE and Village Tavern Restaurants.
Back story: Son of industry luminary John C. Metz, CEO of Dallas-based Metz Enterprises. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and Penn State, he made his bones at several of the best-known restaurants in New York, among them The 21 Club, Tribeca Grill and Park Avenue Café. He also served as executive chef and director of research and development for Carlson Restaurants, the franchisor for T.G.I. Friday's.

A long time ago, I was going to become a dentist.

I've been raised in this business by a lot of good folks, including my father, and the number-one rule is just take care of people. Make sure that they're set up to be successful.

Make sure that while you're taking care of your folks that they are taking care of the people who are paying the bills.

Salt and pepper. I can't be any more clear than that. The thing that I would continue working on in my life is to really understand and learn more about the whole idea of making a dollar last, making a dollar work better for us, understanding the relationship between your returns and the cash invested. It's important to nurture competition.

The returns in the restaurant business are definitely tighter than most people believe.

Working and living in Manhattan for four years really kind of rounded it all out. The old tag line is true. You can really learn a lot about business, about people, about how to manage there. I'm okay with numbers. It's always a challenge to relate them back to the day-to-day.

I honestly believe that far and away, it's the hospitality side of it that makes the business.

I'm an Italian food fan, and I think I cook it pretty well.

It's really about location.

Make sure that the concept that you have fits into the neighborhood that you're going to.

You have to be consistent. That goes to your staffing, to your food, to your beverage, to your timing, to the value you create for your guest.

As much as we try, on any given shift, you cannot please everybody.

Unfortunately, I can't get to cook everyday.

There are three guests in our building: the guest that comes in to have dinner or drinks; the guest, meaning our employees, who are with us every day; and the guests who are our vendors. Bad days? They start out too early.

The worst thing is when you can't satisfy guests after trying so hard. Don't give out your cell phone number.

My all-time favorite restaurant outside my own? Number one would be Nobu.

My refrigerator at home has beer, wine, soda and juice [in it] and that's about it.

EDNA BAYLIFF and LAREN GARTNER

Owners: Cheeseburger Restaurants Inc, with four locations, three in Hawaii (including their first in Lahaina) and one in Nevada. Others on the way in tourist destinations including South Beach, Key West, Ft. Lauderdale and perhaps Times Square.

Back story: The idea sprang from Gartner's futile search for a quality cheeseburger in their favorite vacation spot. Fittingly, they called the place Cheeseburger in Paradise, which later landed them in a legal tussle with parrothead Jimmy Buffet. Their first two stores in Lahaina and Wai Ki Ki still carry the name; their others are Cheeseburger in Reno, for instance. They made money from the first day, and now have sales of $27 million a year.

G: My very best day on the job was our first day. We didn't know what we were doing. It was the best and worst day in one.
B: It was October 25, 1989. We got through it.

G: To this day, we don't do menus like other restaurants. We found that common sense prevails. We thought that since the restaurant started with cheeseburger, the menu should too.
B: I thought that if I treated everyone fairly, employees would stay forever.

G: I bought a business plan. I thought Cheeseburger in Paradise, Lahaina, would do $1.5 million per year. I thought we'd sell some cheeseburgers, French fries and some Coke, and that I would build 10 of them and we would sell them to W.R. Grace. What I learned was that I wasn't thinking or planning big enough. Little did I know that Cheese-burger in Lahaina would do $8 million a year.
G: Our biggest problem is training and management. I'm not sure we have solved it.
B: You have to basically kill a server in Lahaina to get their jobs. But, for the managers, we burn them up, chew them up and spit them out.

G: We had a situation with a manger in Lahaina who wasn't ordering the buns for the cheeseburgers properly. He had fewer deliveries made during the week. So they were over-ordering their buns. A chair at Cheeseburger Lahaina is worth about $45,000 a year. They had taken all these buns and set them on a dining table, near a bus station. And that table wasn't being seated. I got on the phone and asked, "What in heaven's name could you be thinking? I don't care if you throw the buns in the street. What server was willing to let you not serve that table?"
B: Manage empathetically, don't dictate.

G: I consider this a game of pick-up sticks that you have to get ready for every day.
B: In a tourist area like we're in, we find that there really is camaraderie among the restaurants. When we have a power outage, or when there's an accident on the only highway that leads into Lahaina and nobody's buns are getting delivered that day, we all pretty much ban together. It's really more of a brotherhood of restaurants, or a sisterhood of restaurants.

G: We have an inordinately high amount of return guests. We had an analysis done by MasterCard and Visa, and the people who did the analysis said there must be something wrong here. These return numbers show way too often.
B: It's not so much what I should know about my customers, it's what I've learned from them, and that is that they're fans. Fanatics.

G: When our guests sit down, we ask them where they are from. You make a friend the minute you ask them.
B: My line to rude customers is, "Just because you're on vacation doesn't mean you leave your manners home."

G: [Customers] have their ashes scattered in front of the restaurant. And I'm talking dozens of times, not one or two. We even have a little vial of a gentleman named Bob up on the wall. We said after Bob we weren't going to do anymore.
G: If I weren't in this business, I'd be a rock and roll singer. Because I'm good.
B: I would be a college teacher. History of art and architecture.

G: I would not want my daughter to be involved in this business. It takes too much of your life from you.
G: A great restaurant? It's a cliché, but for me, it's: Did it meet my expectations? Was I happy when I left? Am I anxious to get back and give them my money a second time?
G: I spend most of my time at work in my head. I'm the concept girl. I don't have an office of my own anymore. I do my work by wandering around into everybody else's office. We're growing now. We're in our teenage years. Lots of acne. No doubt about it.
G: I try to remember that suppliers are trying to make a living too.
G: Cheeseburgers can hold up an entire concept.
G: What worked in Lahaina at 1,500 customers a day didn't work in Orange County in a fine dining restaurant.
B: Play fair.

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