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The Summary:
While mega-restaurants offer the opportunity for cooks to work alongside celebrity chefs and earn top dollar compensation, they put an enormous strain on the industry by draining the talent pool. Smaller restaurants try to remain competitive by offering intangible perks like a variety of experience and the chance to prepare more complex cuisine.
 
The Tale of the Tape:

Spice Market
   
  • 315 seats
  • 1,000 covers on busiest day
  • Kitchen staff of almost 60
  •  

    Hearth

       
  • 85 seats
  • Average of 180 covers on weekend nights
  • Kitchen staff of 7 including pastry
  •    

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Mega-restaurants—Does size matter?
    By James Feustel

    This winter, prolific restaurateur, Stephen Starr, and celebrity chef, Mario Batali, are adding to a new big trend in the restaurant industry: they are each opening a restaurant with a colossal number of seats to accommodate hundreds of guests simultaneously. Chelsea Market in New York City will be the home for these new behemoths. Starr is opening a New York location of his highly successful concept, Buddakan, with 300 seats. Batali is partnering with Lidia and Joseph Bastianich to serve their trademark Italian cuisine at the 400-seat Il Posto next year. These restaurants are designed to do several hundred covers every day, outpacing much of their competition. As more and more big-name chefs and restaurateurs open these mega-restaurants, only time will tell if these are benign behemoths or gargantuan grinders.


    Staircase at Spice Market On StarChefs Spice Market, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s mega-restaurant, has 315 seats and on its busiest day served nearly 1,000 covers. For Stanley Wong, chef de cuisine at Spice Market, there has only been a positive side to the mega-restaurant trend. Chef Wong has no trouble keeping the dining rooms full and his kitchen staffed. Customers are attracted to the alluring environment, the moderate prices and the marquis chef name attached to the restaurant. “The sexy atmosphere and warm colors create an energy of their own,” says Wong, and people will dine in a larger restaurant for the ambiance and the energy in a bigger place. And even though the prices are kept reasonable, you still need the star power of a chef to entice people into the restaurant. “Having Jean-Georges as the head chef draws a lot of customers.” Not only does a celebrity chef put people in the seats, but it helps to draw talent to the kitchen as well. One would think that with a staff of 60 just in the kitchen (and 200 overall), there would always be vacancies opening up at Spice Market, But Chef Wong hasn’t faced any sort of labor crisis. “There are always people wanting to work here,” says Stanley, and Spice Market offers a very competitive wage for starting line cooks.


    Dining Room at Hearth On StarChefsThe mega-restaurant trend has not been a boon for everybody. Chef Marco Canora doesn’t see himself operating a 250-seat behemoth; he had his fill of the mega-restaurant trend when he was at Grammercy Tavern and Craft. As the chef/owner of Hearth in downtown Manhattan (with 85 seats and doing about 180 covers on a Saturday night) he has the concerns of smaller restaurateurs in the city. While Chef Wong can delight in having the pick of the litter when it comes to finding cooks, Chef Canora says he is “lucky” to have avoided a difficult time filling a vacancy. According to Chef Canora, mega-restaurants have put a severe drain on the talent pool, and this is why it has been tough to replace cooks when he needs to. “I’ve used word-of-mouth and friends in the business to fill openings,” says Canora, and while he tries to offer a competitive starting salary, lately he has had to offer health benefits to employees to make working there more attractive. The decision to provide benefits to remain competitive will help foster the family working environment he desires, but it will also be fiscally challenging for such a small operation.


    Street View of Hearth On StarChefsBut not everything is so bleak in the restaurant business for the small operation. With only four cooks in his kitchen, Chef Canora can differentiate himself from the bigger restaurants, and this is where he sees the advantages of being in a smaller place. Canora draws the comparison of working in mega-restaurants as opposed to restaurants like Hearth as “working for corporate America versus working for the small independent guy.” The cooks at Hearth work in a “small, intimate kitchen where they get to see process all the way through,” as opposed to the bigger kitchens where everyone is “so specialized, and so focused and the atmosphere can be impersonal.” Just recently, Chef Canora hired a cook who was responsible solely for frying garnishes at her last job in a mega-restaurant.


    Assorted Appetizers from Spice Market On StarChefsThis assembly-line mentality in mega-restaurants, where the division of labor is very specific, prevents them from offering highly nuanced cuisine. Intricate preparations do not lend themselves to high volume production, and simplicity is the key to preparing consistently high quality fare on a large scale. Chef Wong notes that Asian, Italian, and Spanish food would work, but it would be highly unlikely to see a French restaurant join the ranks of mega-restaurants. Chef Canora, meanwhile, has the luxury of focusing on more elaborate food and not having to worry about micro-managing a large staff. While the magnitude of the restaurant may provide an ambiance that customers enjoy, there will certainly be a limited choice of cuisines in mega-restaurants.

    There is no telling if mega-restaurants will be able to maintain the large steady stream of customers to keep their dining rooms full.While they are here, they offer advantages over many smaller restaurants. Large kitchens run by celebrity chefs and restaurateurs are alluring to cooks because of the name recognition attached to the position and the competitive salaries and benefits that are offered. With more positions available in the kitchen, mega-restaurants make celebrity chefs accessible to cooks, providing them the opportunity to work closely with some of the most talented chefs in the industry. In addition, cooks in mega-restaurants receive some of the best compensation in the industry salary- and benefit-wise. However, this creates a tough situation for smaller restaurants looking for help because it’s difficult to remain competitive. Smaller restaurants have to rely on intangible perks to draw new staff members. With two new mega-restaurants opening this winter in New York City, the strain on smaller restaurants is going to be even greater.

     

     

     

     


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  • ...Published: January 2005

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