Six years ago, Will Guidara and Anthony Rudolf introduced the Welcome Conference, a one-day forum held in New York City for ideas and exchange about hospitality. Since its beginning, restaurateurs and operators have traveled from all over the country for the event, which features both industry legends (think Drew Nieporent and Richard Melman) to expert voices outside the restaurant world who have something to say about taking care of people.
Donnie Madia and Kevin Boehm have occupied the audience and the stage at the Welcome Conference. Based in Chicago, they boast two of the most acclaimed restaurant groups not just in the Windy City, but nationwide: Donnie at One Off Hospitality (Blackbird, Avec, The Publican), and Kevin at Boka Restaurant Group (Boka, Girl and the Goat, Momotaro). Together, they were determined to bring the magic of the conference to Chicago – even if that meant putting aside their competitive spirits.
September 23rd marks the first-ever Welcome Conference outside of New York City, hosted by Donnie and Kevin in Chicago. As proud sponsors, we spoke to them all about the event – keep reading to learn why vulnerability matters, the power of friendship in the industry, and what makes Chicago hospitality unique.
You’ve both spoken at the Welcome Conference in previous years. Tell me about that experience.
Kevin: It’s a pretty magical experience, and I think that Will and Anthony and Brian had great intention on making the speaker experience be as compelling as the audience experience. They throw an incredible dinner the night before, they’re very thoughtful about the speaker guests that they get for everybody, and they create an environment where the people that are there in the audience are the best crowd ever. They’re dying to be entertained. Even on a big stage, at Lincoln Center, it feels like a great big hug on that stage.
Donnie: From the first conference that I went to, I noticed a shift in the middle and after. There was finally a venue for the front of the house to air their grievances or speak about business – what we’re going through, how we got through it, and a direction or path. We can do something different. We can make a difference by communicating with one another. This is a venue of communication. That’s the way I perceived it early on, and every year it’s gotten better and better and better. If we leave with something inspirational to bring back to our teams, that’s the overall goal.
We live in a chef-obsessed world. Here’s an opportunity for us to get together and make a difference for front-of-the-house people.
What were some of the most inspiring lessons or insights you took away from the NYC events?
Kevin: They curate a group of speakers that’s not just from the restaurant business. It’s pretty brilliant. One of the themes was conflict and change, and they brought in the head FBI negotiator to talk to us about how to resolve a situation that is elevated to a hysteric level. So beginning it with active listening, and then some sort of action to resolve it – all the things we encounter on a daily basis, but looking at it from a different viewpoint. In that same conference, they had a neuroscientist talk about the way we process words, and how we really need to think about the choices we make when we say words, because they affect people’s emotions.
Donnie: What I gathered in the last six years was the opportunity of allowing speakers to be vulnerable in an audience between 500 and 900 people. I remember Will’s father, Frank Guidara, gave this emotional speech about going through cancer and how he came out of it, as well as losing his wife to cancer. He talked about how he brought that to his army regiment training and how that was able to pull him through, by the lessons he learned and shared with his men.
I read that you approached Will and Anthony after the 2018 NYC conference. What made you want to take Welcome Conference to Chicago?
Kevin: Basically Donnie and I strong-armed them. [Laughs] Donnie and I had met for a cup of coffee, and we both talked about the fact that we loved going to Welcome Conference but really both wanted something like that to exist in our own city. What we didn’t want to do was step on their toes or look like followers. We wanted to go to those guys first out of respect. To our surprise and great happiness, they said that they would do it with us.
Donnie: When I was sitting there in year one, when I watched Will’s energy and Anthony’s energy on stage, and the emotion and how vulnerable they were to put their grievances and disdain behind them… We both felt the same way. Like, why do I dislike this man? Because he has more restaurants and staff members than I do? Is that really a reality for me and him, to exist in the same city that we both love and work in and raise our families in? It didn’t make sense.
Also what I felt was, man, they did it again. New York beat us to the punch. Silently, I believe there was a seed growing in both of our stomachs, going, we need to do this. Luckily enough, the four of us came together, and Kevin and I felt the same way that Will and Anthony felt. We put our grievances aside, and the rest is history.
Kevin: It’s tough when you’re competing for the same employees, maybe the same real estate deals, the same awards. It’s not exactly a fertile ground for friendship. Donnie and I, our corporate offices are basically right next to each other. We were two guys who had, in a lot of ways, the same life. We understood each other better than anybody did. And we were not friends.
It’s been great to become friends through this process of doing this together. It makes our hospitality that we give out on a nightly basis more legitimate if that hospitality goes through all the rest of our lives.There’s more we can do as friends than as fierce competitors. [Read more…]