Something from Nothing: The Architects of America’s Second Generation Culinary Destinations

By D. J. Costantino


D. J. Costantino
Chef pioneers from Detroit, Wynwood, and Williamsburg offer advice on how to start a restaurant Renaissance.
Chef pioneers from Detroit, Wynwood, and Williamsburg offer advice on how to start a restaurant Renaissance.

Manhattan, Chicago, and San Francisco have been challenged by a crop of vibrant culinary destinations built from scratch since the late 1990s, starting with Williamsburg in Brooklyn. At the 11th Annual StarChefs International Chefs Congress, a panel of chefs and restaurateurs gathered to discuss how they built restaurant scenes in their cities and neighborhoods when there was next to nothing to work with.

In a discussion moderated by StarChefs’ Antoinette Bruno, Detroit’s Marc Djozlija and Dave Kwiatkowski, Brooklyn’s Joe Carroll, and Javier Ramirez of Miami’s Wynwood Arts District, laid bare the nuts and bolts of creating a restaurant scene where there is none. Here’s the best advice from those who have successfully done it themselves.

There are always hidden costs. New neighborhoods may mean cheaper rent, but they also mean fewer existing restaurants and infrastructure. “With new build outs, there are costs and investments that you may not know about. Always do your due diligence. On a 20-page lease, every single line translates to money somehow,” says Ramirez, partner in Alter, Bachour Bakery, and Cake Thai Kitchen in Miami.  Djozlija and Kwiatkowski ventured into their first restaurant, Wright & Co., in downtown Detroit with nearly half a million dollars in capital, only to be told that the cost of build-out would be north of $800,000 thousand dollars. “Nothing ever costs what you think it does,” says Djozlija.

But there are ways to alleviate them. “T.I. are the big two capital letters that you have to look out for,” says Ramirez. T.I., or tenant improvement, are costs covered by landlords during build out to accommodate the needs of the tenant. This may come in the form of free rent, with the number of months varying between cities. In Wynwood, when Ramirez was building out Alter, nine months of rent were covered as part of the lease agreement. In New York City, it’s never more than three months. “Sometimes it’s a dollar figure, sometimes it’s improvements themselves,” Ramirez says. “My two favorite words are tenant allowance,” says Kwiatkowski. When he and Djozlija were opening Wright & Co., the building needed a complete renovation. There was no plumbing, electrical, or even drywall. A good monthly rent is important to negotiate, but it’s just five to eight percent of your costs, while food costs run up from 30 to 32 percent. “I would take a higher monthly with a better tenant allowance up front to free up capital,” says Kwiatkowski. “If it wasn’t for the T.I., we wouldn’t have had a restaurant in that building,” Djozlija says.

Get to know your landlords. “And get to know them well. Visionary landlords are what help the vision of the whole neighborhood. The last thing you need is a landlord that is just interested in rent,” says Ramirez. Carroll, who helped pioneer Williamsburg with his barbecue spot Fette Sau, finds that the ideal landlords exist on both ends of the spectrum. There are the ones who support your vision fully and want to get involved, and those that will let you do whatever you want without interference. “Anyone in the middle is a headache,” he says.

Treat and train your staff well. “We tell them that we want them to work for us for 10 years, not 10 months. I’m not hiring any pains in the ass. There’s gonna be one pain in the ass, and it’s gonna be me,” says Djozlija. He believes that a key to success is keeping a loyal staff and inspiring camaraderie among them. Kwiatkowski stresses that you have to train your staff well, whether they’re going to leave or not, because it raises the standard for the whole neighborhood.

Do as much as you can before opening. Brand new restaurants can’t afford to close down, even if for just a day or two. “Even if it may postpone opening, make all of your improvements, because closing down is a bitch,” says Kwiatkowski. Djozlija added that if you do have to close, holidays can be advantageous. Looping around a holiday like Independence Day can enable you to shut your restaurant down and lose minimal business.

Don’t put yourself up against the other restaurants in the neighborhood. Hope that every business in the neighborhood is doing well. “I can’t be worried about what the guy down the street is doing,” says Carroll. Concentration of restaurants isn’t a bad thing. “We want more places to eat, too” says Djozlija.

How to know when what you’re doing is working. Positive media helps. Wynwood was one of Vougue’s “15 Coolest Neighborhoods in the World” in 2014. “When people were no longer afraid to come downtown to the city, and were interested in seeing what was happening downtown,” is when Djozlija new his work was paying off in Detroit. For Carroll, it’s the mix of languages being spoken by guests waiting on line at Fette Sau. “You’re hard pressed to find English.” Williamsburg has become a worldwide brand, and today tourists pour in from Europe and Asia—to a neighborhood once considered a lost cause—and most of them for the restaurants.

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