This spring, Chef Kim Alter will open two new restaurants under the Daniel Patterson Group after years of cooking in restaurants within the group, including Plum and Haven. Soft and organic, Nightbird will showcase her cuisine and give her room to evolve as a cook; the connecting Linden Room will be a seven-seat bar with craft cocktails, vintage finds, and art deco decor.
Kim secured the leases to the spaces in January 2015 and has spent the past year juggling ongoing construction challenges; building a team; fundraising; and generally facing unexpected curveballs at every step of the process. Because her story is so relevant to the themes in our How to Open a Restaurant guide, we asked Kim to share key lessons and takeaways from her experience. Here are four tips new restaurateurs can learn from her story.
Look for a restaurant-ready space.
When Kim landed the spaces that house Nightbird and the Linden Room, they had been cleared out and torn down — no floors, no walls. Together with the building’s landlords, she’s had to build the restaurants from the ground up, working with both the landlords’ contractors and architects and her own. With so much work to do and so many people’s opinions in play, long delays are inevitable and the work is expensive.
Her #1 tip? “Never go into a restaurant that’s not complete. I wouldn’t think about another space unless it was a box I could build out and make it mine.”
Couple that with trying to make the tenants upstairs happy, dealing with break-ins by the neighborhood’s homeless population, and worrying that the liquor license she secured last September could be revoked, and Kim is anxious to open the doors as soon as possible.
Get fundraising out of the way early.
“Get all the raising money and loans out of the way before you get into everything else,” Kim advises. That’s because for her, business deals require using a different part of her brain; she’s used to being creative and working with her hands. While raising money she had to sell herself and really put herself out there.
With the opening delays, Kim’s budget had to change, too. She’s at the tail end of the fundraising process now, but meetings and loan applications still take up a significant chunk of her day. “It’s not my cup of tea,” she admits, but she credits her time working in the front of house at Acquerello for helping her get comfortable speaking to people in various industries, such as law, tech, health, and finance.
“My group of women I know, we’re strong and forward, and we say what we think,” she says. “But we’re humble. It’s uncomfortable to talk about how great we are, and that’s kind of what raising money is. I know I’m going to be successful, but there’s always that risk — I’m more careful.”
Consider guest interaction.
At Nightbird, Kim will have a fogged window in between the kitchen and dining room, so guests can feel the activity going on behind but the cooks can still enjoy some privacy. She cooked in an open kitchen at Plum, where guests would expect to have long discussions about her background, her food, and the farms she works with. When she needed to get back to work, some guests thought she was being rude.
“I love those conversations, but not 20 times a night!” she says. “My priority is the food, and to get it to customers for them to enjoy. Cooks need to be learning, tasting and understanding. I wanted to be focused in this environment.”
To continue to have face-to-face interactions with guests, she plans to personally run at least one course to every table at Nightbird. That way she’ll still be present in the dining room, but the food can be her primary concern.
Lean on your mentors.
Kim’s been fortunate to have had mentors at every step of her career who provided her guidance and support, and who have continued to counsel her throughout the opening process.
Her first job in culinary school was working with Suzette Gresham at Acquerello, whom Kim calls her “culinary mom.” Her first role as a manager was with Ron Boyd at Aqua, where she learned how to teach cooks and manage others in the kitchen. She worked with David Kinch at Manresa and Jeremy Fox at Ubuntu, and both chefs changed the way she looked at food creatively. When she has a question about how to make a dish, she calls Jeremy.
“If I have a question, I don’t Google something, I call someone and have a conversation about it,” she says. “We help each other out — it’s a community.”