Sometime in the mid-2000s, chefs became more than just the people behind our favorite restaurants. They were bonafide celebrities — TV stars, cookbook authors, and brand ambassadors. This shift prompted a rush toward turning all chefs into personalities, and then building eateries around them — it’s a rush that is still happening today. But is this actually a sound business model for a restaurant?
The answer, in the vast majority of cases, is no. If you look at the restaurants that have stuck around for the longest, that have turned the biggest profit, those places are driven by concepts, not personalities. “A chef might have great ideas and have been super successful in the past, and it could work out really well,” says Emil Stefkov, owner of a number of successful restaurant concepts in New York including Boucherie and Olio e Piú. “But that success is the exception, not the rule.”
No one understands this point better than people like John McDonald. He runs the Mercer Street Hospitality Group, including New York hotspots like Lure and Burger & Barrel — with not a celebrity chef in sight. He thinks of his restaurants like this: “Do you have a concept that fits into the decision making of how people dine? You can’t be too broad or too vague — you have to fit into a clear space.” When a group is making plans to dine, for example, individuals might be craving tacos or a steak. “If you can’t plug yourself into those conversations between friends,” McDonald says, “you aren’t going to do well.”
Adds Doug Roth, the CEO of the Chicago-based restaurant consulting firm, Playground Hospitality, with concept-driven spots, “It is a clearer sell. It gives guests an immediate impression of what you are trying to convey. You don’t have to rely on just one individual making or breaking that restaurant.”
It’s also important to remember that, for the vast majority of the public, a great restaurant concept matters so much more than a name-brand chef. When Roth opened his restaurant Bistro 110, he poached a then-unknown chef, Dominique Tougne, from Joel Robuchon’s restaurant empire, to run the kitchen. “I knew what type of cooking I wanted, and all I needed was someone who had the tools to deliver that food. I didn’t care about the name,” he says. The place was a huge success, as it delivered on its promise to provide high-quality French bistro food. “Even if I had a name-brand chef,” he asserts, “ninety percent of my diners wouldn’t have known who that was.”
By going concept-driven, you are also avoiding a lot of the risks inherent in relying on a chef personality to get people in the door. “If you are a first-time entrepreneur and you hire a chef who is well known, all you have is one shot,” McDonald says. “If it doesn’t work out then you’d better hope that you have the entrepreneurial skills in terms of making a pivot that are really strong, otherwise you’re done.”
Also, chefs often don’t come to the table with a creative vision that is strategic or business-savvy. The menu may not feel cohesive, the ingredients may be too inaccessible, and the vibes may not fit in with the neighborhood’s main demographic. These are all elements that you can control to your advantage when your place is concept-driven. “I have known so many chefs who think just because they are a well-known entity they can put anything on the menu, but then the guest comes in and is just really confused,” Roth recalls. Restaurateurs often think that they can bank on chefs with large followings on social media and that this alone will translate to getting diners in seats. But according to McDonald, “if the product does not stick, a customer will not come back, no matter what.”
Stefkov experienced this firsthand with his former omakase restaurant Akashi. He centered his concept on a renowned sushi chef, even naming the place after him. “But he was unbearable to work with,” he says. “In our company, every member has to be a cultural fit, and it just wasn’t working, as much as he was an amazing chef who put out really incredible food.” He recently reopened Akashi as a more straightforward omakase concept called Omakase Room. “We built [Omakase Room’s] identity and brand on our own terms,” he says.
When Alta Group, overseen by noted chef Daniel Patterson, took on the project of reopening Alfred’s, the iconic San Francisco steakhouse, the team decided that it was in its strategic interests to focus the publicity less on Patterson’s celebrity, and more on the history of the place. “The restaurant has this incredible back story, reputation, and rich history,” Patterson says. “When we took ownership, we wanted to get our narrative from Alfred’s own personality. That’s what would create a compelling experience for our guests.”
The main drawback to going concept-driven versus chef-driven, Stefkov notes, is that it may take your restaurant a bit more time to develop a following. While chef-driven spots typically get the most media coverage up front, the non-personality-rooted places may not be immediately buzzy. For his spot, Olio e Piú, he says it took about four years for the place to take hold in the neighborhood — but seven years later, and it’s a West Village mainstay. Going the route that he did, he says, is a much smarter long-term play. Chefs wax and wane in popularity, but a smart concept has the potential to live on for decades.
But just because you decide to go concept-driven doesn’t mean your spot will be an immediate success. Here are some tips from these top restaurateurs on giving your concept staying power:
Pick a lane and stick to it.
“My first restaurant was an upscale version of an American cafeteria, and it just didn’t have a strong enough conceptual DNA to stick,” McDonald says. “To truly stand the test of time, you have to have a clear concept. It’s like when you are making a movie: you have to be able to classify it as a comedy, or an action movie. You are making life very difficult for yourself if you don’t make this choice.”
Research your concept through and through.
It’s not enough to say, I want to create an Italian restaurant, Roth says. “Ask yourself, ‘What region of Italy? Which dishes from that region? What makes those dishes authentic? Who can make great versions of those dishes? What is the lifestyle of the people from that area?’ And then you have to convey that in the food, the service, the music, the drinks, and the décor. If even one of these things is out of sync, the place doesn’t always work. This is a business of details and consistency.”
But be flexible.
Stefkov says he owes a lot of his success on his ability to pivot — to swap out a chef or a dish when it’s just not resonating and to not feel overly married to any one aspect of the restaurant. “If I see that kale is trending, I know that isn’t something that I see in Italy, but I will prepare it in an Italian way,” he says. “You just have to be able to give the people what they want.”
Lean into what makes your place special.
There are plenty of elements that make a restaurant stand out that have nothing to do with the chef. It can be the regionality of the food, or the history of the building, like with Alfred’s. “It made sense to keep the focus on the restaurant itself because the tradition and legacy are what people associate with the Alfred’s name,” Patterson says. “What we are offering is a distinct taste of San Francisco history.” And that can often be the most persuasive selling point for a restaurant.
Photo credits: Jai Nima Idowu (Boucherie and Omakase Room).