Stephen Starr has booked famous comedians and musicians, but for the last 20 years his restaurants have been booked solid and he keeps opening high-performers.
Bored. Maybe even depressed. That’s the last thing you expect one of the most esteemed and successful restaurateurs in America to say on the day before opening a new concept.
But that is precisely how Stephen Starr described his feelings the day before opening the Continental in Miami last month. Starr talked with FSR about his $220 million restaurant empire and the celebrated career path that has taken him from comedy clubs to rock concerts to the highest echelon of the restaurant industry.
His Philadelphia-based Starr Restaurants group stands at 36 restaurants and includes some of the highest-performing independent operations in the country, like Buddakan in New York City, with 2014 sales topping $21 million, and a host of landmark properties in Philly, D.C., and New York City. Starr, who is opening another restaurant in Miami—a French brasserie expected to open this month or next—shared amazingly candid perspectives: what should change in restaurants, what should come back, and the business where he had the most fun (it wasn’t restaurants).
Your first restaurant, the Continental in Philadelphia, is celebrating its 20-year anniversary and still going strong with annual sales of more than $15 million. Will the Miami Continental mirror the first?
The spirit will be very much like the first one; the menu will be very similar, some of the classics. But there’s a more modernized approach to the food.
How do you feel now, as compared with the day before your first restaurant opened?
It’s really weird; the day I open the restaurant is sort of a sad day for me. Except for the first one, it’s always been anticlimactic. The adrenaline is pumping when you are conceptualizing and designing a restaurant, building it, and working on it with the chefs. But at this point, it’s almost like a depression sets in. It’s a very strange phenomenon psychologically, because I want to go to the next thing. And that happens with every project. I’m so enthused and excited, then right before it opens: Boom! I sort of get depressed; I’d rather just stay home, not go to the opening. But of course I go.
And when you go to the opening, does any of that adrenaline return? Or do you keep thinking: It’s time to do another one?
I kind of pretend that the adrenaline is here, but in the back of my mind I’m thinking it’s time to do another one—or I’m thinking about the next one.
So, what are you thinking about next?
Well, I can’t tell you because we haven’t announced it yet … but it will be another one in New York City. Oh, there is the French brasserie opening in Miami, but the one in New York will be a surprise and should open around March.
Where do you get ideas for restaurant concepts?
I always think about what I would want to do. Where would I want to eat? What do I feel like doing? Like right now, I’m kind of getting bored of restaurants.
You can’t take that out of context: I’m getting bored of restaurants to the extent that so many of them that open are just a reaction to what has already been done. And I’m really searching for something that could be a little bit more interesting and fun. But so much has already been done. It’s like music. It’s all in cycles; what was popular 20 years ago, goes away and then comes back again—either literally, or in a different form. Food and music are similar in that way, so I want to do something that is fun.
Also—and this isn’t a profound idea—I really believe healthy food is going to be something that people will want in the future. Restaurants will be selling healthy food—really healthy food, not pretend healthy food—and making it taste good and making the environment look no different than a regular restaurant.
So much of the food in restaurants is not healthy; it’s loaded with butter and salt, and as the Baby Boomers want to grab an extra 10 years and people want to start eating better, I think they will start looking at restaurants that can provide good taste, a night out, good drinks, and healthy food: A sexy restaurant where the food is healthy.
Is that something you discuss with your chefs?
Yes, I talk with my chefs about it and I talk to chefs who don’t work for me but who lean toward [healthy cooking]. I think it’s going to be a big movement; already you see some restaurants doing things that are healthier.
The Clocktower—the New York restaurant you opened in May with London’s Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton—is getting rave reviews that talk about how great it is, and about the indulgence of the menu, that it’s a bit of a throwback to the days of eating hearty, eating lots of red meat, eating large portions as opposed to small plates. Can our desires to be indulgent and be healthy coexist?
For the last decade, being indulgent in terms of eating foods that are rich and flavorful has been the big trend in New York. There is always room to be indulgent—everything in moderation, right? But 10 years ago every restaurant that opened in New York City was doing strange animal parts and hoof-to-snout and all those kinds of things.
Clocktower is a throwback in that we aren’t doing any of those trendy things. It’s real food done by chefs who were classically trained. … Again, what’s old is new again, and sometimes that becomes refreshing. Since around 2001, restaurants have been low-key, with lots of reclaimed wood—a whole [vibe] of “we don’t want to look like we’re having too much fun.” I think, now, restaurants are going to start to be a little sexier, a little more outrageous, because people want that. People want to go out again and feel special.
It’s not like one movement will overtake everything, I just believe that healthy food, or a vegetarian option that truly tastes good and looks good, will be a strong component to the restaurant landscape. But, you’re never going to lose the indulgent stuff.
What are your highest-performing concepts?
Budakkan in New York City is the biggest one [$21 million last year]; and Morimoto in New York City; The Diplomat in Washington, D.C.; and Parc, Budakkan, and the Continental Midtown in Philadelphia are all doing well over $15 million a year.
After you open a restaurant, when do you expect to see those big numbers start to roll in?
[Laughing] That hearkens back to my concert days. When I’d book a big show, tickets would go on sale at 10 a.m., so by 10:06 I knew if it was a hit by the pace of the sales. When I open a restaurant I expect the same thing. When the doors open, I expect the restaurant to be full. … After that, we have to keep [our guests] there and we have to keep them happy. My expectation is that we’re full from the start.
Now, in this case down here [the Continental Miami], I’m a little agitated because of construction delays. We’re opening at the worst possible time of the year in Miami, so we’ll see how it pans out.
What have you done when opening a restaurant that you’d never do again?
I used to arrogantly think I could open a restaurant anywhere—in any location in the city—and people would come. Like it would actually be kind of cooler if it was in a weird, remote location—and that sounds poetic, but in reality, I’ve opened a couple of places in awful locations and got my hat handed to me.
You have to open [in a good location]—it doesn’t have to be the middle of Main Street—but it can’t be so hidden that your customer finds it an effort to go there.
You put a lot of emphasis on the dining experience and creating fun in your restaurants. Do people stay longer in your restaurants than in a typical dining experience?
Yes! It’s a problem actually. We just opened Upland in New York—it’s so pretty and all the seats are booths. People are staying three and four hours. They won’t leave! Managers are going crazy, and it [produces] another dilemma: Someone is sitting at a table for four hours, way past what you would normally allot, and you’ve got people waiting. Do you go up and ask them to go to the bar for a drink? We don’t. We would never do that; so yes, it is an issue. We built some of these restaurants so nicely and so comfortably that people linger longer.
When you walk into one of your restaurants, what is the first thing you look for?
Lights. I look at the lighting first, and then I look at the tables just to see if there are any tables not bussed, or if there is anyone looking longingly around the room for their server.
What do you want to see in the lighting?
Well I know what the lighting is supposed to be. I’ve been intimately involved, and in every restaurant that’s opened, the lighting designer and I go in and set the lights. Sometimes the people who work for me will put the wrong bulbs in, even though we have schematics. I can spot lighting that’s off in seconds. I have this uncanny, sixth sense about it.
The lighting probably impacts the ambiance and dining experience as well as the presentation of the food, true?
It impacts everything. Lighting is the kind of thing that customers won’t even notice. I’ve been in restaurants with such bad lighting that I’ll say, “This restaurant won’t survive. People will stop coming to it, and they won’t know why they stop coming, but it will be so unpleasant for them.” If you’re in a restaurant—other than like a Chinese restaurant in China town—that has harsh fluorescent lights, it creates an unpleasant experience. You’ve got to pay attention to that.
You keep adding concepts, but what are the challenges you’re dealing with in opening restaurants?
Food costs. It’s always a challenge, but it seems things are getting more expensive and you can’t charge proportionately. There’s an egg problem now, with the avian flu, and eggs cost twice what they did. Everything costs too much money. Labor is also a challenge. It’s getting harder and harder to find good kitchen help.
Another challenge, and I’m a Democrat but I’m not going to sound like one for a minute: Too many rules and regulations are making it harder for small businesses. I may not seem like a small business, but in fact I am; I’m not Apple or GM. It’s going to be harder for small businesses, and for restaurants because the margins are so tight.
Everything costs more; you can’t do anything cheaply. And, there are so many labor laws. You have to be very careful in today’s climate to make sure you are following all the little [legal] nuances in each state.
How do you pick the chefs you partner with?
They have to be able to do more than just cook. They have to have personality; some captivating spirit that makes me want to give them a piece of the business.
You talked about adrenaline pumping, and then that letdown on opening day—when does the adrenaline kick back in?
I get excited being around smart people, and more importantly, around creative people. I love being with creative people; that’s what gets my juices flowing. Being in the restaurant last night with my lighting designer, who flew in from London and is one of the most famous lighting designers in the world, and we were doing the final focus of the lights. I get really excited by that, by creating things, and by the look on someone’s face when they walk in the restaurant. That one jaw-dropping moment is what I live for. I want people to love it.
Frankly, being around accountants and regular restaurant people who are doing things fantastically but in a mechanical way—I get bored. I need to be around creative people.
What makes you laugh?
My kids, and I’m a big comedy fan. First thing I did in Philly, when I was only 19, was open a comedy club. I booked a lot of comedians: Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, even Henny Youngman. Comedy, back in those days, was like music was in ’67. The Beattles and the Grateful Dead, there was a music revolution. And in the ’70s and ’80s, there was a comedy revolution where young comedians started doing things a little different. There were great comedians starting out—Robin Williams, Freddie Prinze [Sr.], Jerry Seinfeld. I was fortunate to get caught up in it. And, I was blown away by the subjects they were talking about and how funny they were.
Again, my adrenaline was pumping just from being surrounded by these creative people. To this day, the most favorite thing I’ve ever done was book comedy. I booked big musical acts—U2 and Madonna—but booking a really brilliant comedian, watching him or her perform, and talking to him afterwards—I had more fun doing that than anything. So, that’s something I never told anybody before.