As the restaurateur behind New York spots The Red Cat, The Harrison, and The Mermaid Inn, Bradleycertainly knows a thing or two about getting a restaurant off the ground. A Rhode Island native, Bradley held stints at various eateries across the country in order to gain experience with every concept and business model. By the age of 31 he had opened The Red Cat, and other successful ventures were soon to follow. Diners and colleagues alike continue to appreciate his comforting and straightforward cooking and lack of concern for glamour or trendiness. Here, he shares his story with Antoinette Bruno.
Antoinette Bruno: When did you begin your culinary career?
Jimmy Bradley: I started out in the early eighties. The first job I ever had was in a restaurant. I waited tables in college to pay for my tuition. After that I started cooking and haven’t stopped since.
AB: Did you go to culinary school?
JB: I was accepted to the CIA and given a scholarship, but I decided not to go because it had gotten quite bureaucratic. I quit my job that sponsored the scholarship and became a chef a year after that. However, I still believe that culinary school is a cool and rewarding experience — just not necessarily right after high school. Aspiring chefs should get practical experience first and then attend culinary school. I still think education is an absolute silver bullet.
AB: When did you open your first restaurant?
JB: In 1996 I opened It’s a Wrap. Our idea there was to incorporate the four hottest food trends into one little spot — we had soups, salads with wraps, a juice bar and a coffee bar. I was able to open two of those before Starbucks and Jamba Juice really took over.
AB: How did you know you were ready to own and not just work for someone else?
JB: I’ve always known I wanted my own restaurant so I guess I’ve always been ready. When I started cooking it felt very natural. I made up my mind that I wanted to do this. My goal wasn’t specifically to work in one restaurant and develop a relationship with a mentor chef — it was to work everywhere I could in the business. I lived in 9 different states and resorts and worked at practically every type of restaurant, large and small. I wanted to experience as much as possible to figure out what kind of restaurant I wanted to open.
AB: What was the business deal?
JB: I met a guy who became my business partner when I moved to New York. We wrote a business plan and solicited investment. We brought in twenty people to be the original investors of Red Cat. I wanted it to be a low monetary output for the investors — $5-10 thousand each. I thought ‘What’s going to be cooler? Four rich dentists from Paramus or twenty investors from a diverse range of backgrounds?’ I had to raise a quarter of a million dollars, but I didn’t want people to lose a lot of money, so I wanted to grow the atmosphere through a larger stratification of partners.
AB: Who are some of your mentors and what have you learned from them?
JB: Jonathan Waxman was one of my favorite chefs to work for. We have a similar approach to food: something simple done perfectly is always good. Young chefs take an idea and keep adding to it — it’s an ego thing. I would much rather take five amazing ingredients and make one uncomplicated, great thing with them. I like to edit myself as much as possible, and Jonathan definitely appreciated that.
AB: Who are your contemporaries? What restaurant concepts/restaurateurs do you respect in your city?
JB: The Bromberg Brothers of Blue Ribbon, Kurt Gutenbrunner at Wallse, Tom Colicchio at Craft and Marco Canora at Hearth.
AB: What is your ownership structure?
JB: Red Cat was sort of a phenomenon in that it was bought and paid for in only 9 months! All of the investors got their money back, and I bought them out. Then I met a group of guys who helped me fund the next projects: Harisson in 2001, Mermaid Inn in 2003 and Pace in 2005. They provided the funding and I ran the rest of it and put up the equity. I retain 51% ownership, and I put up no more than 10% equity of any deal, but it ends up being more like 5%. Each place I’ve opened has been structured a little differently. We talk about what structure would work best for everybody and then decide.
AB: Would you call your concepts chef-driven?
JB: All of my restaurants are chef-driven. Everything starts from the kitchen. My places aren’t about what’s fabulous, exclusive, and snooty. Customer service is a top priority, too. I concentrate on anticipating guest needs and recovering when we fail — we need to know what you need before you need it, and when we do make a mistake, we should be able to make up for it easily. Now more than ever we have educated consumers, so it makes sense to strive to do better.
AB: How do you inspire and retain your employees?
JB: I want the people who work with me to feel empowered. I want them to realize that they’re all on the same team regardless of what part of the building they work in. It’s so important that they understand every decision that is made because we’re all working towards the same goal. Ultimately, I want them to be inspired to do bigger things when they finally leave my restaurants, like open their own place.
AB: Which of your protégés have gone on to open their own restaurants? How do you help?
JB: I try to help them get their business off the ground when they leave, but I don’t ask for anything in return. Seeing them succeed is enough. I negotiate deals for them, I mentor them, and we help staff each others’ places. Joey Campanaro at Little Owl is a good example.
AB: What is your customer service philosophy?
JB: Return patronage is the best compliment. If a guest cares enough to tell you you’ve made a mistake, it’s the best gift they can give you. If they take time out to point out your faults it means they care enough about the place to see you through until the issues are fixed.
AB: What’s your target margin for each of your restaurant concepts?
JB: 5 -10 million.
AB: What are your top 3 tips for running successful restaurants?
JB: 1. You must like what you’re doing — you have to have a real passion for your projects and want to be better everyday. Don’t do it because you need to, do it because you want to.
2. Exercise accountability — make sure that everyone has all the tools they need and knows how to use them.
3. Be really interested and enthusiastic about change — we change our menu 8 times per year, twice per season. We get so excited about the new, seasonal ingredients coming in to the kitchen, and that excitement trickles down to the staff and guests. The environment can’t get stale!
AB: What’s your 5 year plan?
JB: I’m working on a couple of book ideas with Andrew Friedman who helped Tom Valenti and Alfred Portale with their cookbooks. I’m interested in opening more restaurants but I just broke up with my business partner so I want to spend some time reflecting. I built 4 restaurants in 6 years, so I haven’t had much time to take it all in. I have no desire to be in Vegas or Atlantic City. If I found the right people or people in my group showed interest, I wouldn’t mind opening a wine bar and store. I want to get an importers license and start importing stuff directly for myself.
AB: What is your business philosophy?
JB: I don’t need to use just my ideas — that’s way too narrow-minded. I like to collaborate and share ideas. My process is very democratic, but I’m the guy who’ll call the play at the end. It’s a tough business but I’m really dedicated to what I’m doing and I’m successful because I stick with it through thick and thin and I have a lot of dependable people in my corner.