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.
Do you think that’s representative of a larger change in the industry – being vulnerable, and breaking down those barriers of competition?
Donnie: The Delta Airlines CEO came out and spoke about taking care of his staff members so they would take care of their customers. (We use the word “guests.”) They’re no longer worried about the capitalism of the shareholder; what they’re worried about is taking care of the customer, more now than ever. This is something we’ve been doing for years.
Whatever business you’re in, there’s emotion as well as mental health issues, and those issues have to be talked about. This is what we’re hoping will come out of some of these speeches: We live in this world that we have to talk about. In a restaurant, the one goal is to make people happy. But nobody realizes behind the scenes that there are all of these nuances we’re battling. We want to expose that so we can possibly have some answers.
Kevin: The theme a couple of years ago was Restoration. The common thread of those speeches was that the word “restaurant” comes from the word “to restore others.” But within all those restaurants, the people that are desperately trying to restore other people are killing themselves to get there. There’s a systemic problem within the restaurant business. We need to take better care of ourselves so we can take better care of our people. It’s a really difficult job, mentally and physically. I think we’re getting into an era when it’s OK to talk about it. The restaurant business that Donnie and I entered into 30 years ago was more of, leave your baggage at the door. It was an environment that was not that conducive to happiness. I think it’s softening, and I think that’s a good thing.
How will this audience be different from what you see in NYC?
Kevin: Well, it sold out in 20 minutes, or something like that. We were capturing people not just from Chicago but from St. Louis, Detroit, Kansas City, Madison. I think there was a really heightened excitement level about what we were doing. We’ve got to give a lot of credit to what Will and Anthony and Brian have built, because its reputation preceded it. We might have to go to a bigger venue next year so we can get a bigger cross-section. It was the people who were on their computer exactly when the clock struck noon that got tickets. So, there was a lot more demand than there was supply.
Donnie: I think we were able to spear our city but also our midwestern friends. I got an email about five minutes after tickets went on sale from a friend of my wife’s in Ohio, who owns a small Italian restaurant, and she said, “Oh my god, I missed the opportunity!” So we’re going to get her a ticket, and she’s super excited. She’s going to drive down from Ohio for the conference.
Tell me about the theme for the event, “Hospitality.” What kinds of topics/angles are you hoping to cover?
Kevin: We want to keep the first one broad, because that was the theme of the first one in New York, which allows for people to take this in a lot of different directions. The themes range from mental health to the language we use in our restaurants.
Donnie: There’s some word exchanges, how important words are. There’s also an opportunity for speaking straight-up hospitality: who’s the most hospitable, and why this person was so important to our industry but was always behind the scenes, and nobody really knew who he was. There’s a teacher who’s going to be vulnerable about his exchange of information and how he can grow a culture in a school, which extends to hospitality and what it means to children growing up in difficult neighborhoods.
Kevin: There’s a duo talking about – are they enough? How a partnership came together and through their own vulnerability, they became great partners.
How did you land on your speakers for the first event?
Kevin: We sat at a table and started brainstorming. Donnie and I both do a lot of “perfect world” brainstorming in the restaurant business. Honestly, the first person we both said was, well, it would be great if it started with Danny Meyer. Of the people that we got, they were all were mentioned in that first conversation. We brought up about 16 names, and we were able to get 10 of those 16, which is amazing.
Donnie: We came with a wishlist on both sides, and there were names on both sides that one another thought about in the whole.
You mentioned in another interview that you would have liked to have the Welcome Conference when you were starting out in your careers. What are some of the ways you’ve seen the industry evolved? What does it mean to have this kind of support within the hospitality industry?
Kevin: I had an odd beginning – I opened up a little six-table restaurant after only working in a couple of restaurants. Emotionally, I was pretty good at an early age at being able to make guests happy, but my first couple of restaurants were my bachelor’s and master’s degree in being a restaurateur. When I look back, if I’d had something like this, that could have accelerated education a little bit, it would have been amazing.
My first couple of restaurants were in the Florida Panhandle, too. There weren’t a giant pool of serious hospitality people down there, like there is in bigger cities. I hadn’t really found my group of people yet. It would have been nice to have room full of people that felt the same way I did, that were as passionate about restaurants as I was.
Donnie: I served at the board of trade, and I was working my way up to be an independent trader. Fortunately for me, I was a mediocre trader, but I’d worked in the restaurant – bar back, bartender, host, manager – and worked my way up through the ranks.
I also took account of things that I didn’t really like other people doing, and what I would do different. When my business partners and I opened Blackbird, we had a miniature encyclopedia about what our goals were.
Also, learning some of those steps of business – if something comes in a way of negative energy to me, I’m going to call Kevin and say, check this out, are you covered in this certain area? I’m hoping he’s going to take that energy and share with his business partner, Rob, and then maybe someone in another state or city that he cares deeply about. On goes this connection of good faith and leadership, to share information and help other restaurateurs.
There’s been so much more attention on the Chicago restaurant scene, because of its excellence and the James Beard Awards. Now, with Welcome Conference, too – what is that like from the inside?
Donnie: It’s about time, don’t you think? [Laughs]
Kevin: I think that Chicago has a very specific brand of hospitality. I think feels different here.
Donnie: I used to joke about this dichotomy of neighboring cities: Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Madison, Ohio, Pennsylvania. When you look at New York, Boston, D.C., all of that east coast energy – the best, most competitive, richest. We don’t play up to that, we play down to that. We’re more midwest. Even though we’re in a big city, the second largest city in America, we have midwestern roots, we’re hardworking, and that showcases who we are. Not that we’re better, we’re just different.
Kevin: I used to say that the weather in Chicago is like the door person at a hot nightclub – it keeps all the riff-raff out. There’s something about midwesterners’ work ethic that makes them different, and I think that in order to be good at hospitality, you have to actually want to take care of people, and I think that people in the midwest like to take care of people.
There’s a lot of glamour that goes along with our business, but at the end of the day what we do is a very humbling thing. We serve people. People in the midwest think that’s important.
A job working in a great restaurant has always been in the midwest a job that people admire. People spend some of the most important moments of their lives in restaurants. The first time that you meet your in-laws, the first date you have with the girl you end up marrying, bucket list dinners, celebrating on Christmas Eve with your family – all of that energy is done within the four walls of restaurants. I think that people in Chicago have always understood how important that is. You really feel the love inside restaurants in Chicago because people really care about it. That’s why having the Welcome Conference in Chicago is really important – because we have a really unique brand of hospitality.
Donnie: As far as James Beard Awards, I think our first nomination was 1999, just for graphic design, which is overlooked now and they discounted that award about five years ago. New York is supposedly the Mecca, but the midwest is a little more centrally located for everyone to join us from all parts of America. This is a happy city that cares about everyone. Richard J. Daley coined the phrase, “we’re glad that you’re here.” We’re really glad that you’re here.
Kevin: One of the reasons I got into this business is because I like entertaining. I like entertaining as a professional and I like entertaining in my own home. The James Beard Awards being here allows us to open up our doors to everyone around the country. I get really amped for that week because we get to throw a lot of parties and show the rest of the country who we are as a city, and what we’re doing inside of our restaurants. That’s fun. We embrace it.
The Welcome Conference is the same way: we get to throw an event that day. One of the things that makes me happy is having things sitting out on the horizon that I can look forward to. One of those things every year is the James Beard Awards, and another is now Welcome Chicago. I know our room will be filled with love and a bunch of people who have set their intention to come in and be inspired, or laugh, or cry. Like Jimmy Valvano said, if you can laugh, and you can cry, and you can take a moment to be alone in your own thoughts, that’s a heck of a day. That’s what Welcome Chicago is all about.