It's a quandary that every successful restaurateur faces: Do you stay fiercely loyal to your original location, a la chef Gabrielle Hamilton and Prune, the much-loved NYC restaurant she's been running since 1999? Or do you go the way of the Flays and the Batalis of the restaurant world, expanding your empire to include Vegas outposts, cookware, and a line of designer Crocs? While most owners in that situation fall somewhere in the middle, going from one restaurant to more than one is among the toughest decisions a person in the restaurant business will ever make.
"I really struggled with it for a few years," says Danny Abrams, owner of NYC's Mermaid Inn and Mermaid Oyster Bar. "Maintaining consistency and quality is one of the biggest challenges we face. Having different chefs in each of the restaurants was the wrong way to go—each had a different take on what the menu should be, despite our best efforts to impart our philosophy."
Adds Bobby Werhane, formerly of NYC's L'Artusi and Dell'anima and owner of the recently opened Spasso: "I basically opened a restaurant a year for the past five years and I can honestly say I regret it. I don't regret the restaurant or the process, I regret not stopping to smell the roses. The amount of stress a new unit puts on your infrastructure is immense. If you do not have the proper systems in place to handle the additional workload, it doesn't matter how successful the brand is."
So how can you make sure expansion is the right thing to do? Here are some important things to remember:
• Be patient. "Looking for the right location and being able to wait for the right location is really important," says Tony Gemignani of Tony's Coal-Fired Pizza and Slice House and Tony's Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco. "You need to research it and understand the demographics, what people want, what they might have in the area and how you're going to execute your plan."
• Prepare to relinquish some control. "We've had to change the way we personally operate," says Arturo Kassel, owner of Wisknladle and Prepkitchen in San Diego. We've gone from being front-line, hands-on doers to more of a hands-off management style, developing our people to manage our properties the way we would." Adds Michael Psilakis, chef/owner of New York City's Fishtag and Kefi: "First you have to believe in concept, in yourself, and in the ability of others. Learning not to micromanage is important."
• Replicate with a twist. "Our approach to food and service has never changed, even though the venues do," says Eric Bromberg, chef/owner of the Blue Ribbon Restaurant Group, along with brother Bruce. "Our first restaurant, Blue Ribbon, was essentially American, but French-inspired and eclectic. Blue Ribbon Sushi was obviously very different. We do what seems fun and what we are passionate about."
• Stay hyperfocused on staff. "We have a great team that has been with us from the very beginning, growing with us as we grow," says Bromberg. "We all spend all our walking hours at each place we open, and are in contact all the time with our team. We have a superb staff, and are proud of them. Happy staff makes for happy customers."