Opening a restaurant is a daunting task for any chef. To open a new restaurant in a new hotel in a city still finding its culinary footing is baptism by fire. For Angeline’s executive chef Robert Hoffman, the lessons learned and relationships forged along this journey are part inspiration and part cautionary tale. Along with lead bartender Henry Schmulling and director of food and beverage Andy Carlson, they have managed to create an atmosphere where none existed before in the still-shiny Kimpton Tryon Park Hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Hoffman got the call to become Angeline’s executive chef eight weeks before the staff began training. He was at a resort in Arizona, also a Kimpton property.
“I didn’t know where Charlotte was – I had a vague idea and, two days later, I was doing a tasting for our management and checking out the area to see if I wanted to move,” said Hoffman, who had previously relocated to Arizona from Chicago. “What I found is Charlotte is a great middle ground.”
That Angeline’s is located in the region’s only Kimpton property helps. That and the fact that Charlotte is a city of hangouts in which its just under 1 million residents are always on the lookout for the next place to go. A week into opening, Angeline’s and the rooftop bar Merchant & Trade were packed, with security guards at the ready to keep onlookers from harassing local celebs like basketball legend Michael Jordan and the billionaires who come to do business in the banking boomtown. The hotel’s floor-to-ceiling windows boast big skyline views, but, in contrast, Angeline’s feels cozy and heady, evoking visions of craft cocktails, wine, and Italian cuisine to come. The nearly 3,000-square-foot restaurant includes a hideaway dining room, full-height wine wall, and communal table. The polished copper and whiskey-colored ombre glass chandeliers and beer taps overhead give it a sultry, laid-back vibe.
Hoffman describes the move, opening Angeline’s and being part of a new hotel as a whirlwind. To a certain extent Monday to Saturday, every table is full and there is a line to get into the rooftop bar nearly every night. “I’ve done some rather large openings before and there were big holes in the boat we had to get filled, but it comes down to staffing,” he said. A hotel restaurant is a different animal. No matter how new or tasty the menu, it is only as good as its staff. Because a hotel guest experience revolves around a length of time rather than just a couple of hours as in a single meal, the service element is critical.
“The main way I measure success is by empowering people and being able to train and develop them through the ranks so they want to come to work every day and be interested and engaged,” Hoffman said. “It’s hard to recruit and retain people so you have to make the investment in the individuals because they might leave you as a line cook and come back as a sous chef. You have to forge those relationships and start those building blocks.”
Hoffman advises in a new hotel dining venture to start identifying superstars early. Not knowing a single soul in Charlotte, Hoffman fell back on a philosophy that serves him well –attitude and work ethic aren’t teachable, but wine and food knowledge are. He says he keeps a stack of cards in his wallet with complimentary sentiments, which he gives to servers. When he sees something in a staff member that shines beyond what’s required, he tells them he sees a future working with them.
It goes beyond inspiring confidence. With a wine program at 278 bottles – the highest being $4,000 – Kimpton properties are famous for catering to a luxe business crowd. Thus, the dining choices have to match that. Hoffman recalls one recent evening when every single table had a vice president or above from major banking institutions.
Angeline’s hit more than 200 covers when they opened for dinner service in the first two weeks. Hoffman advises to let changes happen, even right away. He and his team made minor tweaks down to adjusting the lighting and music. The menu was another story. The current vast selection increased from Hoffman’s initial plans. Early feedback from diners in the opening process revealed they wanted more variety so they added dishes. “We had to focus on executing and doing these new dishes very quickly, and, in some place like Chicago, the menu would be half this size,” said Hoffman, who emphasizes the importance of making local producers part of the settling in process.
Lastly, what can go wrong, usually will. Hoffman says get to know your regional producers and listen to your new regulars. Hoffman met with all of his vendors and farmers only to find the day they opened Angeline’s was the end of the growing season, so he and his team had to change the menu.
“In that kind of time crunch, we needed a menu to launch and we were lucky that the guests who live in the condos come in several times a week,” said Hoffman, who placed value in the feedback of locals to make fast changes. “Not only does it pique their interest; when they leave they extend invitations to their business partners and friends about us.”