At 41, Amanda Cohen is more than just a seasoned business owner. In fact, the head chef of the NYC-based restaurant Dirt Candy can season the hell out of signature dishes like portobello mushroom mousse, truffled crostini, or grilled pears -- which has helped her land a coveted spot on the Michelin Bib Gourmand List five years in a row.
While the seven-year-old restaurant is recognized for it's vegetable-themed menu, don't be so quick to call Cohen a "concept vegetarian."
"I'm a chef, so I like to serve really good food," she says. "But I'm not your doctor, and my restaurant is not your medicine cabinet."
If her words convey a Spartan attitude towards dining, it's intentional -- and well-deserved. Cohen opened Dirt Candy in late 2008, during the depths of the economic recession. It was a time when the nation saw a double digit decrease in fine dining, before slowly gaining ground again in 2011.
Prior to that, Cohen admits that climbing the corporate ladder in the restaurant world involved "a lot of bad jobs," including cheffing at a diner.
In February of this year, Dirt Candy relocated from east ninth street in Manhattan to a larger space in the Lower East Side. Though she wouldn't disclose revenues, Cohen notes that the business hasn't lost any money since opening, and her bills average at about $60 per table.
The restaurant industry isn't easy to be in. In 2013, an average eater check at a fine dining establishment was $28.55, according to data from the NPD Group's CREST foodservice report. That said, it's fair to say that Cohen's business is exceeding industry standards.
While it's true that fine dining has seen a resurgence, experts warn that the growth is slowing. It may be a dangerous sector to enter into, since it captures a shockingly small one percent of U.S. consumers.
"It's the independents, not the chains, that are really struggling," notes Bonnie Riggs, an industry analyst at the NPD Group. "They simply don't have the marketing clout to do the type of initiatives that are required in today's world."
Though Dirt Candy's checks are slightly above the average size, Riggs warns that the business will have to find ways to build loyalty among existing customers in order to generate interest and continue to succeed.
Regardless, Cohen remains optimistic. Here's a look at what she's done with Dirt Candy so far to stay ahead in the competitive, and ever-trendy business of dining:
1. Create something new.
Back in 2008, starting up a restaurant with high price points -- especially one that eschews meat -- was a risky move. At the time, vegetarian restaurants were almost non-existent.
"I had a built-in audience for vegetarians, but we didn't know how the mainstream would accept us," says Cohen. The ethos: "With vegetables, you tend to not get as much of a decadent feel. How do you take the humble vegetable and elevate it so that it doesn't cross your mind that there's no meat crossing the plate?"
In the early stages, Dirt Candy had just 18 seats and four employees -- about as much as Cohen could handle if the business tanked. Her first menu included just eight savory dishes, four desserts, and a snack item.
"Try not to do too much at once," she advises. Starting small has been essential to Dirt Candy's success.
2. Recognize your professional limits.
Any entrepreneur is familiar with the 12, 14, or even 16-hour workday. Chefs are no exception. They have to manage a business and a kitchen simultaneously.
"The hardest thing was balancing the two," Cohen admits. In the early days, she spent most nights cleaning up after hours, only to be right back at the office the next morning.
Cohen learned that outsourcing would be critical, especially as she came to grips with unfamiliar aspects of the business, like accounting and press. "Until I took myself out of the daily operations, I was completely overwhelmed," she says. She brought on additional hires, and forced herself to accept that even the head chef can't always be in the kitchen.
3. Scale up, but slowly.
Dirt Candy's new space, located at the cusp of Manhattan's Little Italy, can seat up to 60 customers, but Cohen can't always accommodate everyone.
Once, she turned away Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio from the restaurant. As Cohen puts it, she felt it was important for her to prioritize her regular patrons.
4. Listen to feedback.
When Dirt Candy first opened, customers complained that the menu was too expensive. At the time, an average check per table hovered at $50, which wasn't sufficient to compensate for the staggering labor costs.
But Cohen made a concerted effort to listen to her clientele, and says that modesty is a key to success. After all, the chef didn't hesitate to admit that Dirt Candy "wasn't a great restaurant" back then.
Ultimately, she lowered her prices by adjusted the menu to include more shared plate options. She also implemented a "no tipping" policy at the new location, in an effort to make pay more equal (a 20 percent administration fee is tacked on to each check.)
Dirt Candy isn't the only restaurant to do so. As recently as last week, restauranteur Danny Meyers announced that tipping would be eradicated at his establishments, which include Shake Shack, Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Avenue, and Union Square Cafe.
5. Source intentionally.
A restaurant is different from a retail site. Cohen notes that the ingredients you choose -- and where you get them -- are factors that can make or break the business.
"It's not like ordering a shipment of sheets. The sheets are most likely going to be pretty similar to the last batch you got, whereas you take a lot of time checking into vegetables," she explains. For one thing, vegetables tend to vary in quality, depending on the weather conditions. For another, the bulk size of an order may need to be different each time.
A smart option would be to source from vendors that are willing to meet the ebb and flow of your customers and the seasons. "We had to work with very specific purveyors delivering by the case, who would be willing to give us just two onions," she adds.
Ultimately, Cohen hopes that Dirt Candy will become more cemented in New York's food scene culture, much like the popular Gramercy Tavern. In the future, she hopes to open up new concepts in other cities.
For now, though, she'll settle for being the creative mastermind behind vegetable pates and other leafy delicacies.