Mike Fishman grew up a picky eater. “I didn’t even have a salad until I was 18,” he admits. He was selling shoes in an Adidas store after college when he saw a listing for a Sales Associate position at OpenTable and — five interviews later — he landed the job.
What he lacked in restaurant experience Mike made up for in passion. He came to know the local Chicago restaurant scene through his wife, a gluten-free vegetarian. Looking for the perfect restaurants to celebrate special occasions, he discovered a wealth of new foods and experiences. That led him to OpenTable; he worked in various areas of the organization, eventually managing a team and meeting with restaurants all around the Midwest to ensure their success on our system. “I got virtually all of my training from OpenTable,” he says.
Now, Mike is part of the founding team that opened Oriole in the Windy City in March. The 28-seat, fine-dining, tasting menu-only concept just received four stars from the Chicago Tribune — an out-of-the-gate rating that’s only been rewarded to five other restaurants to date: Trio, Alinea, Next, Ria, and Grace.
Here’s how an OpenTabler with no previous hands-on restaurant experience created a talent-packed team, ambitious concept, and thriving business in today’s ultra-competitive landscape.
Choose a team you trust — and let them do their jobs.
Mike and his wife discovered Senza, a completely gluten-free restaurant in Lakeview that offered prix fixe menus and tasting menus, after she found out she had celiac disease. They quickly became regulars and developed a friendship with the chef, Noah Sandoval, and his wife Cara, who ran the front of house. Although Mike had never worked in restaurants before he had invested in a few, and he offered to do the same for Noah when he announced the restaurant was closing and he was thinking about his next project.
“As we went further down that road and discussed what kind of restaurant he would want to build, I would discuss with him the logical elements and how to make the numbers work,” says Mike. “There was never one moment where we said, let’s build a restaurant. It happened organically — us looking at each other and shrugging our shoulders, I guess we’re building a restaurant.”
The four main partners in Oriole are Noah, Cara, Mike, and pastry chef Genie Kwon. Mike describes himself as the “spreadsheet guy,” making sure the business is healthy, but he trusts the expertise of his team in other matters.
“Listen to the people around you,” he says. “If you hire a chef, listen to that chef about what tastes good. If you hire a Beverage Director, same thing. When you hire a lawyer to do your hiring agreement, ask questions and listen to the feedback they provide. You need to have your own opinions so you can make sure your business is run the way you want, but don’t think you know everything.”
Be ambitious, but build in value.
Oriole offers a 16-course tasting menu with beverage and wine pairings, a three-hour commitment for guests. The price is $175 per person, which isn’t cheap — but for the caliber of food and level of execution, the team believes they are doing right by their customers.
“One of the most powerful things I heard Noah say when we were building the restaurant was that he likes to operate on the concept of ‘fair.’ Everything should be as fair as it can be for the staff, the diners, the investors. That’s so commendable.”
To make the numbers work, Mike built the business model in a worst-case scenario format. He used OpenTable data for sales benchmarks, which show the aggregate dining patterns for restaurants in a certain area; capacity reporting, which shows when you can expect to be full; and seasonality reporting, which breaks down patterns by season. These are reports that every OpenTable restaurant can access through their Account Managers.
“We knew how many people we could expect and what we needed to charge to make it work,” he says. “Building out the restaurant from a financial perspective was a data-driven process.”
Learn from the best.
Even without having worked in restaurants, Mike says he got plenty of operational training through OpenTable. “There are people in training and managerial roles at OT who worked in restaurants for years,” he says.
Those leaders took associates, including Mike, through restaurant P&Ls. They explained why restaurants don’t want to seat tables at a certain time because they might not be able to get another turn out of it. And why some restaurateurs keep tables in the back so the restaurant doesn’t seem empty on a Wednesday. “You learn about all these little strategies that people employ and make your own decisions with them.”
Let passion lead you.
It sounds cliche, but Mike insists that the biggest reward of entering the restaurant industry is doing what he loves every day.
“There is no logical reason that someone who has never opened at restaurant and never worked in a restaurant should be as involved as I was in opening this ambitious of a restaurant,” he says. “If you read my bio and knew I was in charge of making sure the operating agreement was sound and investors’ money was in good hands, I might think you were a little crazy. But we have an extremely talented team and am proud that we built a restaurant entirely based on the quality of our product. We’re going to live and die by that.”