Few people know the ins and outs of building restaurant brands like Elizabeth Blau. James Beard nominee and founder / CEO of restaurant development company Blau + Associates, Blau was one of the key people to transform Las Vegas into a world-class culinary destination. A graduate of Cornell School of Hotel Management, Blau began her career with famed restaurateur Sirio Maccioni. After helping Maccioni expand the Le Cirque brand to Las Vegas, Blau became the vice president of restaurant development for Mirage Resorts, where she revolutionized the food and beverage operations at the Bellagio and persuaded award-winning chefs to join the company.
In partnership with TV’s Cake Boss Buddy Valastro, Blau + Associates landed on the Las Vegas Strip in 2013 with Buddy V’s Ristorante. Blau has appeared as a judge on Food Network’s Iron Chef America, is an annual judge for Hotel Magazine’s best restaurants, and has been featured on the Travel Channel and the Martha Stewart Show. She is one of three investors on CNBC’s Restaurant Startup alongside Tim Love and Joe Bastianich.
In addition, she has recently ventured into Canada, spearheading the food and beverage concepts for the Parq Vancouver and self-published her first book, Honey Salt: A Culinary Scrapbook.
We sat down with Blau to learn more about how she built her empire of successful restaurant businesses.
What initially attracted you to the restaurant business?
Elizabeth Blau (EB): My parents are passionate foodies, they love food and wine and the arts so my sister and I were exposed to food and art at a young age. My sister became an artist and I went into the restaurant industry. Before there was even the term “celebrity chef,” I was fascinated with the talent emerging in NYC.
What were the key things you learned about hospitality at Le Cirque?
EB: I had a masters from the Hotel School at Cornell but working with Sirio Maccioni was the most amazing post graduate work. It was considered one of the best restaurants in the world. Armed with my masters degree, I was working at the front door. The person who works the door makes the first impression and is also the last person you see. It took me some time to reflect on the value of being a hostess with a masters degree, but I learned how to seat a dining room to take reservations, when there was no OpenTable. It was old school. I learned the art of being a restaurateur and diplomacy.
How did Las Vegas become a celebrity culinary destination? And how does it stay an important destination for celebrity chefs?
EB: I negotiated the deals for Le Cirque at Mirage and somewhere in the middle of the process Mr. and Mrs. Wynn stole me away to work for them. At the time Jean Louis Palladin, Emeril and Wolfgang Puck were in Las Vegas but it was a lot of $1.99 buffets and “Continental dining.” Bellagio was an extraordinary catalyst for change. You had Nancy Silverton, Julian Serrano, the Petrossian caviar bar, then the Venetian, Mandalay Bay, every restaurant was converting to a destination rather than a gambling amenity. The buffets reinvented themselves too. It was no longer just feeding the masses. But it’s off the strip where the next generation who have worked for the celebrity chefs are opening high quality places—downtown, in Summerlin, Green Valley, and that’s what makes a true culinary destination.
Remember for a lot of these guys it was before the explosion, [Michael] Mina was still working for Charles Condy at Aqua and there wasn’t a Mina company. The branding developed. The brand of Bellagio and the brand power of the chefs made them feel like independent restaurants under one roof. They were branded into destinations at the hotel.
In 2012, you and your husband opened your first solo independent venture, Honey Salt. What inspired the concept?
EB: When my husband and I decided to open it it had been one of our favorite Italian restaurants, the space was empty for some time and when we took it over we had a unique experience—like dining in our home. I’m the hostess at home, my husband is the chef at home, I did the interior design, very much the menu is a personal collection of family recipes or things we’ve created in the restaurant is personal. We didn’t want to name it after ourselves but we wanted the brand to reflect our values—to be approachable, cozy and casual. I liked the idea of food in the name. Our branding agency, 1650, based in La Jolla, suggested it and we loved the idea because we joke that one of us is the honey and the other the salt.
How have you extended the Honey Salt brand?
EB: We opened last year in Vancouver at the JW Marriott and this summer this culinary scrapbook—a unique genre of cookbooks with a personal story instead of just recipe / photo / recipe / photo, it tells a story and it shows the journey in a scrapbook format. We were in the biggest chain of bookstores in Canada—we are one of “Heather’s Picks.” We were honored to make that list. The book tied back to the branding—it’s a cohesive experience—it’s meant to be personal and from our lives.
How do cookbooks fit with your vision? Do you recommend self-publishing?
EB: I think every chef and restaurateur dreams of having a cookbook. It’s an enormous amount of work and it depends If you want to do something unconventional. I didn’t want to sell it to an editor or publisher. We didn’t go into it to make money, but as a branding and marketing extension to get [the book] around the world and into people’s homes. The cookbook tells it all—and it was a great experience.
What are the key factors in taking a brand into a non-US market such as Canada?
EB: The first thing was falling in love with Vancouver. You want to make sure it will work in a new environment. For us with a farm to table concept—the wines in the Okanagan, having access to seafood, Salt Spring island—it was always the dream, procurement and product-driven and having a partner like Marriott—a flagship brand like JW Marriott. In a beautiful new build. Pick your partners wisely. Understand your market. It has to make sense.
What insight do you have for restaurateurs who are considering TV?
EB: When we partnered with Buddy Valastro and his wife Lisa, we saw the power of TV. The location we have is tough and that power of his brand and TV and social media is incredible. TV is a lot harder than it looks. 16 hour days at the restaurant isn’t as tough as working on Restaurant Start Up. You want to make sure you’re protecting the integrity of what you’re trying to accomplish with your brand.
Have you seen the benefits of being on television?
EB: Without a doubt! When my PR submits a recipe to a magazine, there’s a pedigree behind it. It brings more credibility as well as national exposure.
What are some of the keys to successfully creating restaurant brands today?
EB: To me everything starts with authenticity—whether Shake Shack or fine dining. Successful branding comes from a place of passion—a clear vision, the uniforms, the design, the menu—so that everything flows through a solid place. A failure is often a jumble of ideas. Democracy works great in government but not in restaurant business, when everyone brings something different to the table. A singular vision gives you a shot at success.