Soul Seekers: Marc Murphy And Jonathan Waxman On Running Restaurants

Marc Murphy knows a little something about running a restaurant; he’s established several renowned restaurants like Landmarc in New York and Grey Salt in Tampa, as well as being a judge on cooking competitions like Chopped. On this episode of Food 360, he talks with the legendary Jonathan Waxman, one of the first celebrity chefs who opened the wildly popular Michael’s restaurant in New York in 1979 (regular listeners will remember that Marc’s previous guest, pizza chef Nancy Silverton, got her start at Michael’s training under Jonathan), and now operates several restaurants in New York, Atlanta, and San Francisco. They get down to the business of it, discussing layout, location, table times, and staff.

 

Jonathan points out that when he opened his first restaurant, it was a bit of a different time, with a lot less oversight; now, however, restaurants have to go through several layers of bureaucracy to get the right permits before they open, laying down a lot of money in advance. When the upfront costs were lower, Marc agrees, “you could just wait to build the business. A restaurant has to have a soul, and…it doesn’t have one right away. The employees make the restaurant. Now...if you’re not busy from day one, you’re going to last six months.” 

“There’s no place to learn how to do it,” Jonathan adds. “I mean, you could go to school to become an architect. You could go to school to become a designer. You could go to school to become a chef, but you need to have all those hats. You need to wear a designer hat, an architect's hat, an engineer's hat, a chef's hat.” 

Why so many hats? Because a restaurant is more than its menu. A restaurateur needs to be concerned with their location, chiefly, and whether or not that location even calls for their dream concept. “What does the neighborhood need?” Marc asks. “Because you’re also a convenience to the neighborhood. If there’s already five bistros...don’t go open a sixth...A restaurant has to have a need to be there to start with.” It’s also essential to know how many seats can fit into the space, which determines how many plates you can serve, and therefore how much money you can make. Is that space viable? “I think that from the public’s point of view, they have to realize how small our margins really are,” Jonathan says. “Our margins are so tiny that if you get the formula incorrect, you’re screwed.” But even if you’re careful, there’s risk: “You think you got it right...and a year and a half later you’re still struggling...because the formula is amorphous,” he says. “It is this organic creature that you can’t really control.” 

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Layout is important too: it’s not about cramming as many tables as possible into the space, because there are more people moving around than customers; you have to think about where the food runners need to be, the servers, where the line for the bathroom will form, where guests will wait at the host stand, and on and on. Marc talks about working hard to avoid a “mash pileup every night,” but Jonathan says, “I want that mosh pit. I want everything to come together because it creates energy….I want things on the edge of chaos.” 

Most importantly, however, is the soul of the restaurant. “I think restaurants are a little bit...like eating in someone’s house...now, you’re my family,” Jonathan says. “That’s the other connection...I felt that was kind of missing. Like, most restaurants that you walk in, and you’re just Joe Schmo, right? You should walk into a restaurant and it’s like, ‘Welcome to my house.’”  

Join Marc and Jonathan to learn more about running a successful restaurant, why it’s important for servers to bring their personalities to the table, and how social media has changed our dining habits, in this episode of Food 360

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