Interview with Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Star Restaurateurs Ben and Max Goldberg of Strategic Hospitality – Nashville, TN

by Caroline Hatchett
February 2014

Caroline Hatchett: How did you begin your restaurant career?
Benjamin Goldberg: A buddy of mine and I opened Bar 23 in the Gulch. When we opened 10 years ago, there was nothing down there. It was an undefined warehouse district, an underutilized part of downtown, but people actually showed up. We were just two, 23-year-old kids.

Max Goldberg: My background is in finance and consulting, and I didn’t want to leave. I wouldn't have. But my older brother and best friend calls and wants to put a company together.

CH: How did you get financing for your first venture?
BG: We raised money. We set up camp in my kitchen with a dry erase board and wrote down names of people who might give us a shot. We called the first person on the list, and he said yes. That was the easiest part. The next seven or eight said no. We asked the people who said yes to give us the names of other people who might say yes. They didn’t believe in the concept, but they believed in us as people. With Bar 23 we worked hard to create a good track record, so whatever we do next, people want to be a part of it. Every person involved can influence a space, and we go to same group over and over again. There’s not more dry erase board. 

MG: You’re only as good as your last project. We give everything that’s new everything we have.

CH: Who are you mentors?
BG: I find inspiration from anyone with a creative mind—with a business mind behind it. I get to use my creative mind 50 percent of the time. As much fun as it is, there’s a business behind it. I admire people who run a legit shop and can balance those two crazies in one head.  

MG: My grandfather was a quintessential Southern gentleman, and he taught us how to have balance—how to work hard and focus on family. I've also been fortunate to develop relationships with Richard Melman and Danny Meyer. They both make this competitive industry seem easy with such class. They improve their communities and push corporate and social responsibility. I lean on them for inspiration.  

CH: How do you inspire and retain your employees?
BG: Everyone is here to do a job together. When we're all moving in the same direction, the output is better. Ninety-nine percent of the people we work with aren't going to retire with us. We want to help them achieve what they want outside of working with us—if a bar back wants to move to California to be a writer, for example. It comes down to respect and doing the right thing for the business and the individual. 

MG: We genuinely care about the business and the people we work with. We’re very hands-on with everything we do. They recognize that culture and the team effort that goes into it. Our mission is to positively exceed expectations in everything we do. The staff really appreciates that. Our staff turnover is lower than industry average. As an example, we just advertised positions for [our new project] Pinewood Social, and it got shared by 30 former employees who I haven’t talked to in a year or two. 

CH: Who are your contemporaries, what restaurant concepts and restaurateurs do you respect in your city?
The Arnold family. They’re a family unit and one of the most consistent places in town. It’s incredible what they do there.

MG: Also Tandy at City House. The culture of the staff is phenomenal. When I go in, I'm usually the last reservation, and they're rolling out staff meal for everyone. There's more to what we do than food and drink. People appreciate the details of “we're all in it together. Tandy has a good sense of that.

CH: What are your top tips for running successful restaurants?
BG: Love it. Love what you're doing. 

MG: 1. Be involved. 2. Be passionate about what you're doing. 3. You have to be willing to learn, from guest and staff. Nine out of 10 times, the staff knows better than you. We never let numbers dictate the decisions hat we make. 

CH: What are your concepts?
Paradise Park, Merchant's, Patterson House, Catbird Seat, Ariel Private Events, and Pinewood Social. We help out at LP Field, the Greenhouse Bar in Green Hills, and the Nashville Convention Center. It’s been almost a project a year. 

CH: How do you select what projects to open?
BG: We own a beer joint on lower Broadway, and when we opened the space, that’s where we were in our lives. It’s about where we were at that moment. We want project that we would be the first to support. People tell us that we're idiots to do it. The fact that we have Paradise Park with burgers and cold pitchers of beer—the dichotomy of that and Catbird Seat. But the restaurant community goes to both and enjoys both. 

CH: What’s your five-year plan? Do you want to conquer the city or maintain your empire?
MG: We will continue to open projects that we're passionate about. We want to continue to positively impact the community here. We would love to think that we create jobs and do really great things to further the city we live in. We want to do as much as we can here in Nashville.

BG: Our goal with Paradise was to open five locations around the Southeast, every time we’ve has the thought to go elsewhere, we’ve found new projects in Nashville.