2013 ICC Business Wrap-up

2013 ICC Business Wrap-up

Day 1: More Than Just the Bottom Line

Cookbook Bootcamp
Matt and Ted Lee of The Lee Bros – Charleston, SC

The Lee Bros. leading a cookbook workshop
The Lee Bros. leading a cookbook workshop

Matt and Ted Lee kicked off ICC’s first series of morning workshops with their outstanding Cookbook Bootcamp. Usually a two day workshop for chefs who want to be writers held in Charleston, South Carolina, the Lee brothers brought their suaveness and years of publishing experience in a special condensed format to ICC. The most important thing, they advised, is the most obvious—the idea for your book. How you differentiate yourself from other cooks and cookbook writers, and then how you sell that idea to a publisher in a five-minute meeting are also key factors they stressed for success.

In their highly attended workshop, the brothers also shared stories from their early days in the industry and how they learned from their mistakes—as when they neglected to hire a professional food tester, and later found that when they finally did hire one, it was the best $15,000 they ever spent. They taught a rapt audience how to articulate an idea in three words, how to write a 300-word book, and how to market it to 300,000 people. The Lee brothers showed participants how to take their professional chef-speak and use it to spread (and sell) their food knowledge with the Aunt Gladyses and Joe Schmoes anywhere in America.

Style-Compose-Capture: Food Photography for Chefs
Todd Coleman of Todd Coleman Photography – New York, NY
Chris Kulis of Capische? – Maui, HI

Todd Coleman leads a food photography workshop
Todd Coleman leads a food photography workshop
Photo Courtesy of Hugo Juarez for Steelite International

Todd Coleman opened Day 1 of ICC like any great photographer should: with a bit of elbow grease, a keen eye, and a can-do attitude. When overhead lighting dimmed beyond a shadow due to a malfunction, he grabbed the nearest flashlight and carried on. Coleman's calm adaptability is a testament to his professionalism and in depth knowledge of photography.

His secret fundamentals? Take control of your scene: organize, inspect, and analyze anything and everything in your shooting area. He also recommended limiting shooting perspectives to three angles: directly overhead, at a 45 degree angle, and table height. And, last but not least, avoid natural light: it's unpredictable and doesn't provide the control needed to make great photographs consistently. With the help of Chef Chris Kulis of Capsiche?, who came all the way from Hawaii, and composed a variety of dishes on stunning Steelite plates, Coleman moved effortlessly between two speed lights, a reflector, and a ladder to snap pictures of Octopus, Black Meyer Lemon Emulsion, Oven-Dried Tomatoes, and Bottarga with depth and stunning contrast.

Your Vision to the Masses: Chef Driven QSRs
Franklin Becker of The Little Beet – New York, NY
Will Blunt of StarChefs.com – New York, NY
Thomas John of Piperi Mediterranean Grill – Washington, D.C.
Spike Mendelsohn of Good Stuff Eater – Washington, D.C.

Will Blunt, Franklin Becker, Thomas John, and Spike Mendelsohn
Will Blunt, Franklin Becker, Thomas John, and Spike Mendelsohn

One of the greatest attributes of ICC is its ability to bring people of different backgrounds and experiences together, and this year’s Your Vision to the Masses: Chef Driven QSR is a prime example. Spike Mendelsohn of Good Stuff Eatery, Thomas John of Piperi Mediterranean Grill, and Franklin Becker of The Little Beet, brought their collective years of experience to one stage and shined light on what it takes to run a successful fast-casual restaurant.

The panel agreed on one important and unifying piece of advice-“It’s all about culture,” as Becker put it. “It’s about creating an environment that people want to come back to.” Whether for the employees or the customers, everyone should to be treated well and feel welcomed back. The presenters also shared stories about how they started. Becker, who currently manages every Five Guys in Manhattan and Brooklyn, received substantial financial backing. Thomas John, however, depended heavily on friends and family to raise nearly $1 million to get his concept going in early 2013. And Mendelsohn, with momentum from “Top Chef” took to family traditions to open a casual restaurant that could feed the masses, instead of fine-dining to feed the fortunate. In the end, aspirant QSR owners walked away with tricks of the trade and encouragement from the fast-casual experts.

Day 2: So, You Wanna Be a Star?

Chef Reality TV
Marisa Amador – New York, NY
Jeremiah Bullfrog of Gastropod – Miami, FL
Leah Cohen of Pig and Khao – New York, NY
Kevin Sbraga of Sbraga – Philadelphia, PA
Beth Schiff of You Choose Creative – New York, NY

Kevin Sbraga, Beth Schiff, Jeremiah Bullfrog, Leah Cohen, and Marissa Amador
Kevin Sbraga, Beth Schiff, Jeremiah Bullfrog, Leah Cohen, and Marissa Amador

You want to be friends with Jeremiah Bullfrog. And Kevin Sbraga. And Leah Cohen. And if you really want to snag a starring role on a chef-related reality TV show, definitely get Beth Schiff on speed dial. On Day 2 of ICC, this group—moderated by PR maven Marisa Amador—laid bare the "mind fuck" that is chef reality TV. But the consensus among the group of chefs was that, in spite of it all, they would do it again.

The panelists not only dished out the low-down on what it takes to be cast on shows like "Chopped" or "Top Chef" (multiple auditions along with tons of charisma, patience, and just the right je ne sais quoi), but they also divulged juicy behind-the-scenes details. Sbraga pointed out how being on reality TV was a “double edged sword.” It gives you great publicity, helps you to get noticed, and brings people to your restaurant when you “get back to the real world”, but “while you are on air, living with a camera in your face, racing against the clock to make the best food that you can day after day, you are just tired all the time.” As he explained, “This is something no one can ever prepare you for.” Bullfrog of "Chopped" fame chipped in with great advice for anyone looking for their 15 minutes of fame—“treat it as if you are competing against yourself, and just do the best that you can do.” Cohen, who was very open about her “not-so amazing” TV tryst, went on to add that being on “Top Chef” was the hardest thing she had ever done. As she put it, it was the “weirdest situation” of her life, so much so that she had to “move to Asia for a year to get over it.”

From the "camera-in-your-face-get-away-from-me" moments, as Bullfrog summed it up, to the right way to make an audition tape, the Guts and Glory of Chef Reality TV revealed how a reality television show can transform your career, your cooking philosophy, and your self.

Tipsy Tweeting
Talia Baiocchi of PUNCH – New York, NY
Joe Campanale of L'Apicio – New York, NY
Jeff Harding of Waverly Inn – New York, NY
Mike Madrigale of Boulud Sud – New York, NY

Joe Campanale, Talia Baiochi, Michael Madrigale, and Jeff Harding
Joe Campanale, Talia Baiochi, Michael Madrigale, and Jeff Harding

Taking the conversation offline to real life-real time, ICC gathered some of social media's somm darlings for Tipsy Tweeting: Somms and Social Media, moderated by StarChefs.com Wine Writer and Waverly Inn Beverage Director Jeff Harding (Klout score = 57 and climbing). Opening the discussion, Joe Campanale admitted, “I’m a Twitter voyeur,” further explaining that he carefully selects who he follows but finds Twitter a great way to keep learning about wine, food, and the restaurant scene. Talia Baiocchi, who's in the process of launching online publication, PUNCH, emphasized that “sommeliers aren’t pretentious weird aliens,” but they use social media as a connecting medium and a way to continue the conversation in ways not previously possible. And Mike Madrigale, in addition to taking dinner reservations or announcing wines in his Big Bottle Program, uses social media to share his favorite juice and announce his nightly specials.

All in all, social media is what you make of it, our panelists agreed. It can continue the conversation, or START a conversation, but if you have a voice and are authentic, you can’t really go wrong. The various channels of social media allow people to connect, comment, learn, and participate in the conversation even if you weren’t at the table that night. But always think twice, so you don’t come across as a douchebag.

Get Crowdfunded
Jenny McCoy of Institute of Culinary Education – New York
Sarah and Evan Rich of Rich Table – San Francisco
Katie and Justin Meddis of Rose’s Meats Market & Sweet Shop – Durham, NC

Chef Evan Rich and Antoinette Bruno
Chef Evan Rich and Antoinette Bruno

On Day 2 of ICC, Jenny McCoy, Sarah and Evan Rich, and Katie and Justin Meddis came together in conversation with StarChefs.com CEO and Editor-in-Chief, Antoinette Bruno, to discuss just how good an idea crowdfunding your culinary dream really is. The veterans of crowdfunding all agreed that running such a campaign was probably one of the most “demanding experiences” they’ve ever had.

The panellists talked about the ways in which they had “tested their ideas” before starting their Kickstarter campaigns. Sarah and Evan Rich hosted pop-up restaurants all around San Francisco, while Katie and Justin Meddis gave demos in farmer’s markets. All of them highly recommended not skipping this step as it will help you to gauge how well your idea will be received by the people who will eventually become your backers.

Other hot topics were: developing an appropriate reward system; hidden costs; how to decide the time frame of the campaign; what the panellists would do differently and what they would do all over again. The Meddises who spent more time and resources than they anticipated getting the rewards to their backers, spoke about how they wished they had been better prepared for that outcome, while the Riches, who during their own campaign had 9 backers each of who donated 1000 dollars, shared their tips for getting backers to donate larger sums of money. McCoy, who helped launch Cissé Trading Co through Kickstarter provided details on how to use social media effectively. She pointed out the importance of checking your page everyday and using websites like Twitter and Facebook to your advantage. While there were many aspects of running a crowdfunding campaign that the panellists learned only once they started, they all felt overall, it had been a rewarding experience.

Between the questions Bruno posed, and the final questions the participants got a chance to ask, everyone walked with a pocketful of tips, all set to kick off their very own Kickstarter campaign. Power to the (crowd of) people!

Day 3: The Hard Work of Social Justice

The Living Wage Line Cook
Evan Hanczor and George Weld of Parish Hall – Brooklyn, NY

Evan Hanczor and George Weld discuss sustainable hiring and staffing practices
Evan Hanczor and George Weld discuss sustainable hiring and staffing practices

On Day 3 of ICC, Evan Hanczor and George Weld brought their eye-opening approach to running a socially just business in an industry commonly known for low wages and negative, overly critical work environments. The takeaway? You can still treat employees like humans and have a successful business. At Egg and Parish Hall, Hanczor and Weld have built a culture that grooms their employees to constantly improve. That may come in the form of giving a line cook the forum to ask how to break down a whole lamb even though a lamb dish might not be on the menu or providing an employee that’s interested in growing vegetables the chance to work at the company farm. The possibilities are endless when the energy is focused on encouragement and a genuine interest in the betterment of your staff.

Hanczor and Weld also strive to pioneer a 40 hour work week with wages that still allow a young line cook to live in New York City. The idea is that the extra energy lets their cooks not only produce a better product at work, but it also gives them more free time to contemplate how to improve themselves and the restaurant.

The most interesting concept the duo brings to the table is understanding when to let someone go. Whether firing an employee who has only been there for four to five weeks and simply doesn’t belong on the team, or an employee that’s been on staff for years and deserves a chance to continue growing and learning with a renewed vigor in a new environment. They've also created a novel approach to employee evaluations, which occur at six weeks, six months, and 12 months. Six weeks gives the employee a chance to walk away with no hard feelings if the feel isn’t right. Six months is meant to focus on the positive attributes and, more specifically, areas that need to be improved, and 12 months is an off-site review where Hanczor and Weld get a chance to truly understand where their employees are headed, what’s important to them, and how they can fit that into the overall growth of the business.

Do It Your Own Damn Self, Without Do$$ar Bills Y'all
Justin Bazdarich of Speedy Romeo – Brooklyn, NY Joe Isidori of Arthur on Smith – Brooklyn, NY Sean Kenniff of StarChefs.com – Brooklyn, NY Josh Lawler of Farm and Fisherman – Philadelphia, PA

Justin Bazdarich, Josh Lawler, and Joe Isidori

The business panel "Do It Your Own Damn Self" moderated by StarChefs.com Features Writer Sean Kenniff kicked off Day 3 of ICC with panelists including the charismatic and successful restaurant owners Josh Lawler of Farm and Fisherman, Joe Isidori of Arthur on Smith, and Justin Bazdarich of Speedy Romeo.

The first tip offered up by these chefs-cum-businessmen cannot be over emphasized: READ. Read everything you can get your hands on that is small business related, from paperbacks in the "For Dummies" series to tax law text books. Information, for the most part, is free. It can also be your best weapon as you navigate the treacherous terrain of opening your own restaurant.

It's also important to have a clear and concise idea that will be the foundation of your business. For Bazdarich it was pizza; for Isidori it was the food that his father—also a chef—loved to cook; and, for Lawler, his concept was inspired by his previous experience as chef de cuisine of Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

Consider the space. All the chefs recommended buying a space that is more than just bare bones. An ideal space to get started with, explained Lawler, is one that was previously a restaurant, so much of the wiring, plumbing, and equipment may already be in place. Additionally, Bazdarich recommended taking an in-depth look at the tax and zoning laws for the neighborhood, to ensure you won't find yourself in an "exploding mortgage" situation. He warned that, "the first day of the month comes fast," and Bazdarich further recommended inclusion of a "10-day provision," giving the mortgage owner extra time every month to come up with the payment.

For "getting butts in seats," Isidori emphasized the importance of social media, even reading Yelp reviews to quickly address problems you may not have otherwise realized are issues. Though intangible, social media is free, and Isidori became an expert in sussing out tangible free resources as well. During one of his many trips to Home Depot, he saw wooden palettes piled up. The Depot considered them trash, so Isidori was able to get them for free and utilize the wood for building material.

The chefs also highlighted menu size as an essential cost control, all agreeing that keeping it short is best. In terms of staffing, they also were in agreement, saying it was a huge help to bring on board people they had worked with before and trusted.

All in all, the advice the chefs doled out seemed to line-up under one major theme: be prepared to take on any and every role, from accountant to carpenter. In the end, they all said it was worth it.

Contributing Writers: Dan Catinella, Meha Desai, Sean Kenniff

Photos by: Anna Beeke, Clay Williams, Ellen Wolff, Ester Soligue, John Keon, Ken Goodman, Laura Thompson, Mark Kohlman, and Shannon Sturgis