Interview with Chef Colin Devlin of Dressler, DuMont, and DuMont Burger - New York City

September, 2009

Will Blunt: When did you begin your culinary career?
Colin Devlin: When I was 14 I worked for a caterer in Philadelphia. My brother’s friend had a catering business, primarily for weddings at historic mansions. It was interesting—similar to putting on a show.

WB: What did you study in school?
CD: I went to school at Temple University to become a teacher. I combined electives to become a teacher, meanwhile working in restaurant industry. The common attitude was that the restaurant industry was something to fall back on, something I was doing before I got a real job. The industry in the late 80s and early 90s from a media standpoint wasn’t where it is today. It’s gained cache in recent years, but back then only at the highest level did you get any acclaim.

WB: Who are your mentors? What have you learned from them?
CD: The first guy I worked for in Philadelphia, Jack Conroy, and then of course Keith McNally. Keith had a large company even then so I just observed him, whereas growing up I was watching Jack Conroy grow and transition and we had a great relationship with very hands-on mentoring. Keith showed me how to do it when I was ready to do it. He showed me the animal I wanted to own. He showed me the vehicle. Even his old world New York style had an influence. I learned by example, by watching the way he worked and the decisions that he made. I observed him very closely. Without personally mentoring, he showed me a lot. Not that I copycatted him.

I haven’t worked at Balthazar in a good nine years, but there are at least a dozen people that I worked with that are still there, from runners to bussers. There’s a synergy where he actually has a very low turnover. There is a fundamental base in every department, people who have been there from the beginning. So he gets a longer stay from his people because it’s a good job.

People don’t give Keith credit for making people money so they don’t leave. I wish I could say something romantic, like he’s such an amazing human being that people don’t want to leave, but he’s human, and a good guy considering the volume he does. There are lots of places that are unpleasant to work at. For my part, we have a lot of company picnics, events, parties. We'll have a late night party where people will meet from all three restaurants. I try to have a sensitive company.

WB: When did you open your first restaurant? How did you know you were ready?
CD: I moved to New York to work on my masters in early childhood education. Again, I was thinking of that career even though I was still working in a restaurant and catering in Philadelphia. I moved to Brooklyn in 1996 and I worked in Manhattan for Keith McNally at Balthazar. I worked for him bartending for three years. I never finished my masters. I decided I was going to start a restaurant at that point.

DuMont opened in 2001. The second was November 2005 with DuMont Burger, a spin-off that I thought would offset the demand for the burger. Before that DuMont had a dual identity. It had seasonal specials and then mainstays like macaroni and cheese and the burger. The burger became so popular that I opened DuMont Burger to help the demand at DuMont. Six months later Dressler opened in 2006.

WB: What was the deal? How did you raise the money? Do you have partners?
CD: I have a partner in Ohio, a good friend of mine. To this day he is the majority silent partner. Initially he was in the coalition of my friends who gave some money when they could. I opened DuMont with $85,000 which seemed like the largest amount of money in the world. I was at Balthazar and I had invested in the stock market in late 2000. The stock market was crashing steadily and because I had the lease at DuMont I had no money, so I was forced to liquidate my portfolio, but in the end I would have lost it all anyway. That was serendipitous because it gave me money to live on. And then there was the generosity of about 20 friends giving $2000 to $3000 with a partner covering the difference. It started out modest. Now my restaurants average 200 to 300 covers a night. Otherwise I am the general partner of Devlin Foods, which is the parent company. They're all pretty separate.

WB: Tell me about each of your concepts.
CD: DuMont was the first concept. DuMont Burger addressed one aspect of DuMont, the burgers, mac ‘n cheese, and the signature dishes. Dressler represents the specials board we did at DuMont. All the cuisine we did seasonally because it was at the market, something we could bring to the customer by way of the specials board. Dressler evolved as a more occasion-oriented version of DuMont and DuMont Burger turned into a more accessible way to get a burger and a beer. You could access it more easily. They’re all related and akin, but definitely I feel DuMont is everything for everybody, Dressler is more occasion-oriented and more what Williamsburg was, and DuMont Burger is more accessible, our most accessible place.

WB: What is your customer service philosophy?
CD: You’ve heard it all already. I think that we try to exceed expectations relative to each business model, relative to each place and their identity. At DuMont Burger the table itself is low-maintenance and you don’t have unnecessary silverware. We are just trying to address each restaurant with a goal of exceeding expectations. Dressler has accolades so it’s like “wow that place is really special” and “they're really trying,” so there’s energy there. Some nights are better than others but if people feel that we’re giving it the old college try then they'll come back. These days it’s become more difficult. There are days when I'm like “why are we so busy”, and other nights it can be the other way around. I don’t think you can take anything in too short of a time frame.

WB: What is the size of your restaurant group? What’s your target margin for each of your restaurant concepts?
CD: We have a $5 to 10 million target margin. At different times the margin has been different; let’s say it’s about 13 to18%. Our margin has always been low and it’s because we're trying to build a brand with constant reinvestment. So it’s been hard to obtain my true margin because we opened with $85,000, which is undercapitalized when you’re growing to keep up. You start to realize the bathrooms need to be better, upgrades are necessary, etc.

Sometimes it seems like we’re making money but then it goes right back into the company. For me it’s a lifestyle so I’ve never wanted or needed to take a lot from it. We’ve had high times and low times. I just know [the restaurants] are always going to be here in a sense; they’re constantly evolving. Beyond the bottom line, if the restaurants weren’t here in the morning I wouldn’t have a life. It sounds hokey but I believe it.

WB: What are your three tips for running successful restaurants?
CD: I think there are great partnerships out there but there has to be one vision. I surround myself with people who are better than me, but I’m the decision maker every day. It simplifies things. It’s so busy and there are so many transactions to make the show go on every night that there’s not time for a great amount of discussion of issues that might not be that vital. When there’s a duality of leadership it’s hard to move quickly. So make sure you're the boss. To be honest I'm very laid back. My presence is marginal but at the same time that’s really because I don’t have to project anything. I just have to make decisions and it’s a very fluid process. You'll see someone who’s overtly and obviously a leader and I think about that. Keith is someone I observed who was the boss; he would do what he wanted to do regardless of popular opinion, the general manager, whatever. His will was what happened at the end of the day. It’s a fundamentally good strategy.

Also, try not to pay so much rent that you’re partnered with the landlord. That’s why I'm in Brooklyn. Finally, conserving your energy is very important. When I opened DuMont I was more emotional. Everything was more dramatic, but as you grow older things roll off your shoulders more easily. Nothing bothers me because you deal with it and the next day you’re open and you deal with it. There's always a solution. I found the key was if I didn’t invest so much emotion then I would have come to a solution much quicker. Being calm is much better. Conserve your energy and be calm, otherwise you become so reactionary that it becomes it’s a waste. My goal is to get these places where I want them week to week while constantly evolving, doing more covers, serving better food, running more efficiently, and making more money. That's all you can do.

WB: Tell me about your relationship with your executive chef, Polo Dobkin.
CD: I would like to work with [Chef] Polo [Dobkin] for the rest of my time in the industry. We just see things very similarly and he’s a very classy guy. I've known a lot of people in the industry who are troubled people, and he's one of the healthier people I've met. He's a very good dude. You can't find any employees who have anything negative to say. At times I think he extends courtesy to people beyond what they even deserve. He's speaks a lot of different languages and he's a great teacher in all languages. We can take the most green young people and it’s nice to have an environment where they come in safely.

Culinary schools are taking more and more enrollees and when they get out they're taken advantage of by big companies. They work for free for six months and bust their butts and then they get to put it on their resume. But Polo shows the externs so much one on one attention. Let’s say you work in those celebrity chef restaurants, you're never going to be working next to Mario Batali and learn how he chiffonades vegetables. You have to go up the ladder. I like that we actually have an organization that provides a nice way to live. I know what I don’t want to be and what I don’t want this company to be. Recently I've made Polo stay [at Dressler] mostly and not move around so much. But when he’s here, he's putting together something like a baseball farm team with the group he has now and I can see they're all going to be chefs. Young people who come out of culinary school know how to speak ‘cooking,’ but at first they just talk. He has three people right now who I think have what it takes. The industry will always be the crucible and will always weed out those who won't make it.

WB: What’s your five-year plan? Do you want to conquer the city or maintain your empire?
CD: I would love to do a hotel. Before I proceed with any more restaurants, my goal is to get the three of these to run independently well, but also to run together efficiently. This economy has helped sort of bring that to the forefront. For the first five years that I was growing I didn’t worry about the cost; it seemed like I could just keep growing. But you need to control costs so you're healthy. Dressler is the most scrutinized because it has the formal accolades. We’ve been really lucky to get accolades that we can live up to. It brings good and bad.

Being in Brooklyn hasn’t brought the onslaught because you still have to get over the bridge.
We have three places and we still have a presence in all three of them so it doesn’t leave a lot of time to promote them or give them the public relations they need. We're not as crazy as we'd like to be. I have a pregnant wife and an eight-month old. She's basically out all the time with us.

My fourth project is getting the first three to run well. Eventually I would love to do a hotel to continue on the hospitality kick. My friends used to work for Sean MacPherson. When he was in LA there was that transition where he had Swingers, El Carmen, Jones, all hot little operations. He is a successful guy, a scenester, and I followed his career a lot. I think he really made a dynamic transition. They did The Park with a massive budget but it was quite ambitious to come to New York, which is not L.A., and they learned quickly about the food in New York. No matter how much of a scene there is, legitimacy lies in the quality of your food. He has gone to heights. I don’t know if I would do it in that way, but it’s an impressive growth. Everyone has their own terms. He paved the way for me mentally. Knowing his background, I thought if he could do it I could do it.