Kevin Boehm is the co-founder of the Chicago-based Boka Restaurant Group, one of the leading chef-driven restaurant groups in the country. Boehm and his co-founder, Rob Katz, were finalists for the James Beard Outstanding Restaurateur award in 2016. Boka has 13 concepts, including the Michelin-starred Boka, Girl & The Goat, and their latest, GT Prime, set to open later this month.
We chatted with Boehm about his insatiable appetite for success, his history as a young restaurateur (he opened his first restaurant at 23!), and how he defines hospitality: serve good food and be nice to people.
You were successful restaurateur at such a young age. Why did you decide to open your first restaurant?
For some unknown reason I told my parents when I was 10 that I wanted to open up my own restaurant. But it didn’t really seem realistic; I didn’t know anybody else that wanted to be a restaurateur, I didn’t know anybody who was a chef. After high school I went to college, knowing that ultimately I wanted to open up my own restaurant. After my sophomore year, I said, I’m just gonna take off and work at a restaurant for a while. I had lived in the Midwest all my life and I wanted to go somewhere warmer. So I packed my Jeep up and I drove to Florida.
After working and saving for a while, I met a girl that I worked with who also wanted to open a restaurant. So we decided to open up a restaurant together. That was 23 years ago. It was a very modest, six-table restaurant. At the time, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, aside from the fact that Theresa, my partner, could cook and that I could make people happy. We thought that between those two things — serving some good food and being nice to people — maybe we could be successful.
I realized very quickly that it was really hard to support yourself on the revenue from a six-table restaurant. I was a restaurant owner, but I was a very poor restaurant owner.
So I opened up a slightly bigger place down the street, which did really well. I sold that and moved to Springfield, IL, my hometown, and I opened a restaurant in 1997 that is still open today. And then I opened in Nashville, TN in 1999. The goal the entire time for me was to open in more significant markets like San Francisco or New York, but really above all, Chicago.
Luckily I met Rob Katz at that time in my life. He and I had a cup of coffee in December of 2001, and that was the meeting that changed both of our lives. We were supposed to have a 15-minute cup of coffee, but we ended up sitting there for about four hours. And we just said, what’s the worst that could happen? We ended up opening up one restaurant together, which eventually became 14. We thought similarly, and we got along. At the end of every day we would sit across the bar from each other and talk about what our specific sketches of business was.
What do you attribute to your success at such an early age down in Florida, Tennessee, and then Springfield?
No matter what market I was in, I planned to operate at the absolute highest level that I could. It was pretty much my only obsession. I wasn’t interested in making money, I was only interested in making money that allowed me to put that money back into the restaurants at that point.
Every single morning it was about waking up and figuring out how to do things better and how to gain more knowledge. Every single day I was so thirsty; I was always looking to find more knowledge and figure things out. In retrospect, I should have worked for a bunch of really legitimate operators. I never really had that part — I had only worked in a couple of restaurants and was learning by trial and error. The way we’ve always hired is ‘do you like them and do you think they’re smart?’ and if so, all skills are transferrable. Well, I think I was smart enough, and I was certainly hungry enough that all skills were transferable.
The smaller market size allowed me to probably make some mistakes that I couldn’t make in Chicago. I was figuring out that my own personal brand of hospitality resonated with people. It was more emotional service than I was used to at restaurants that I had gone to. Service is something that you’re doing to people, and hospitality is more focused on how you’re making people feel.
There is that famous quote from Maya Angelou that encapsulates the idea of, years after you’ve met someone you won’t remember the exact dialogue you exchanged, but you will remember how that person made you feel. You can tell the difference between a happy restaurant and a restaurant that is driven by fear. You create the energy within the environment as a restaurant manager. I was always big on these very dramatic pre-shifts before restaurants opened to send everybody into the field of battle and being in the right mindset, because it created an energy.
Could you elaborate a little on this dramatic pre-shift?
I would sit down for 30 to 45 minutes every single day and completely write out a pre-shift. It would range from colorful anecdotes to games. I always like to move mine around — outside, inside, in the kitchen. Most of the time it was just these very passionate, motivational speeches.
I tell the same story at every single orientation, for every single restaurant that we have every opened. It’s about a Wendy’s restaurant that I went to in Carlinville, IL in the late 1990s which turned out to be the #1 Wendy’s in the U.S. I couldn’t believe the level that they were executing at within this fast-food restaurant. They were operating at a high level of efficiency without fancy tools like world-class chefs and design firms. If you can’t work and be motivated in an environment that is operating at that baseline that Wendy’s does, then you’re probably in the wrong business.
What does hospitality look like across your different concepts, from formal fine dining like Boka to your more casual concepts like the Little Goat Diner?
I think it’s the same ethos that it’s always been. It just started with being nice to people. The layer that we’ve added over the years, as technology has allowed us to, is that we’ve become little CIA agents and we learn as much as we can about everyone that comes into the restaurant. Then we utilize that information in order for them to have a better experience.
I didn’t have those capabilities when I first started out, so it was always about details and figuring out ways to make them happy. Now, we can get some of that information before they come in.
But it goes back to the same thing that I thought of in 1993, which is that we’re gonna be nicer to people than anyone else. It was pretty easy when it was just me. My first restaurant, I waited on every table, I didn’t have to manage anyone else’s emotions. Now the hard part is with 1,300 employees you need to create environments and systems where the staff is in the right mindset to give great hospitality on a daily basis.
How did you find these great employees? How do you train your staff to communicate hospitality versus training them operationally?
One of the things that we do, especially when we are opening a new restaurant, is mock service. We put a round table together that usually consists of myself, Rob [Katz], the chef partner, the GM, and then we set the room up like theater seating around that table. Then, every single server has to wait on us like we were a table. It starts with the full dialogue and all of the steps of service including clearing plates, setting plates down, etc.
Through that we build the language of that specific restaurant. Through this training, we can say “No, I don’t like the way you phrased that.. Let’s change it to this,” and through that process we really get to see how everybody serves. In the old days when I didn’t do this, we would try to get a good sense of who they were through an interview, but it wasn’t until you actually went into a full service where you found out who people were.
This all goes back to hiring people on an emotional level, more so than a technical level, which is a big part of Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table. We try to find good people who actually want to make people happy. And there are enough of those people that exist.
Boka is a chef-driven group, with chefs who have talent in the kitchen as well as being incredibly PR and social media savvy. How do you build these superstars? Is it training, or just natural-born skill?
We have made all of our chefs chef-partners, which is obviously a big deal.
We’ve probably had a thousand conversations with chefs over the last 15 years, of those thousands, maybe 500 got a second meeting. Of those 500, 150 have cooked for us, and of those 150 we have six chef partners.
We had talked to Stephanie before she started on Top Chef, and then she won the whole show…so that was good timing. Bringing her on board as one of our partners did not require much thinking on our part.
All six are amazingly talented. If you blindfolded me and had me taste their food, I can easily tell the difference between all of them because they have such signature voices. So with all of them, we were blown away by their food. And then it’s knowing that we’re all going to get along, and that we’re on the same page. It’s not just a working relationship. They’re people that we like, which is just as important.
I would love to hear a little bit about your new concept, GT Prime, slated to open this month.
We started talking about opening GT Prime even before our other steakhouse, Swift & Sons. The original conversation was, how do we create something that’s a steakhouse, but a completely different version of what we have seen in the past? Rob and I wanted to create a steakhouse where the steaks were still shareable. All of the steaks are available in different ounce sizes, instead of only ordering one big steak for yourself. It’s a little more health conscious, and a little less expensive.
It’s like a steakhouse for millennials. We like a loose, fun atmosphere, but from an execution standpoint, we use all of the tenants of the service that we use in all of our restaurants, which has become of part of who we are — and we plan to continue that same level of service and hospitality at GT Prime.