China Grill Management
By Amy Tarr
Jeffery Chodorow is the co-owner of
China Grill Management, a company that owns and operates
over two dozen restaurants worldwide. Jeffery is the
king of restaurant concepts – starting with
the widely popular China Grill in New York, which
is in its 18th year, and has expanded to Miami, Las
Vegas, Mexico City and Chicago (and we hear Madrid
is next). Jeffery is well known for the Asia de Cuba
restaurant concept, too, with locations in New York,
LA, London and San Francisco. He is also a partner
in such chef-driven restaurants as Claude Troisgros’
Blue Door in Miami, as well as Alain Ducasse’s
Mix in New York and Las Vegas, and English is Italian,
Jeffery’s latest collaboration with Todd English
in New York. He gained notoriety through his involvement
in the reality TV show “The Restaurant”
with Rocco Di Spirito, and shares his insights on
the experience with us.
Amy Tarr: You’re involved
in two dozen successful restaurants around the globe.
What are the keys to your success?
Jeffery Chodorow: Our restaurants
tend to fall into different categories. I’ve
tried to focus on 3 things: (1) To create
restaurants that are really much more than just about
dining, and where food is central to the equation
but not the sole reason for being. If you
don’t have good food, you won’t last.
As I always tell my staff, it’s not just about
the food but it’s always about the food. (2)
We execute extraordinarily well over long distances.
We’re manic about consistency. Every environment
you go into, you have to adapt to different kinds
of customers. The signature dish at China Grill in
New York was Crispy Spinach. We sent a chef from New
York to Miami and after a week he had to take the
Crispy Spinach off the menu. The chef said he couldn’t
get it crispy enough. I hired a chemist from the University
of Miami to do some analysis, and we figured out a
way to dry the spinach in a certain way and came up
with a methodology to modify all the recipes for humidity
content. We’re able to make the food in Miami
completely consistent with the food in New York, so
people have a similar experience. (3) We like
to do new things. It’s fun to open
a China Grill or Asia de Cuba, but not as fun as a
new concept. We’re risk takers. A lot of passion
and energy goes into these new projects.
AT: Many restaurateurs feel
location is everything. What are your thoughts on
restaurant location and real estate, and what advice
do you have for young restaurateurs regarding the
location of their first restaurant?
JC: I tend to be one of those people
who doesn’t get too hung-up on location, although
some people would say I’ve made some of the
worst location decisions ever! When I opened China
Grill in Miami in 1995, people said it wouldn’t
work because we built it in a spot that was not where
the action was. But, if you build it, they will come.
Look at Peter Luger’s in Brooklyn. People are
very mobile today. In New York, it’s a cab ride
away. To me, I deal with location issues secondarily.
I start with real estate – do I like the real
estate? I’ve never made a decision not to do
a restaurant because of location.
AT: The New York Times review
of Ono earlier this year took issue with the term
“restaurant concept.” This term has taken
on a negative connotation in the industry, suggesting
that the focus is not on food, but rather on design,
drinks, or a gimmick or overarching theme. The review
even went so far as to call Ono an upscale Chi-Chi’s
with more premium ingredients and therefore higher
tabs. How do you respond to this criticism?
JC: Frank Bruni is out of touch with
what the dining population wants. I spent an hour
on the phone with him after a review was written,
before the review came out. He was asking me where
the idea came from for an extensive small plates menu.
You go to a restaurant and do you want to eat your
appetizer, entrée, and dessert or would you
like to see what the chef’s capabilities are?
If you’re spending $50 for a meal, isn’t
it better to eat 10 things than 3 things?
He’s completely wrong because the food is always
first. I have a major issue with reviews because I
think [reviewers] go in with a previous disposition
as to what to expect based on something that’s
written to them. They don’t go in open-minded
about what the idea is. And critics especially seem
to think that if you design a restaurant that is fun,
lively and exciting, that somehow means you don’t
care about the food. We spend 95% of our time working
on the food.
AT: America watched your business
relationship with Rocco Di Spirito fall apart on national
television. What sort of impact did “The Restaurant”
have on your overall business? Did your high profile
in the media ultimately benefit China Grill Management?
JC: You have to know the background.
I agreed to do the show for one simple reason - I
love Italian food. I loved the concept of it. The
concept of a very talented chef, returning to his
roots, cooking with his mother has widespread appeal.
I got caught up in the emotional part of it. Fifty
thousand dollars of free publicity was something I
couldn’t miss. No matter how sure a thing it
is, there are no sure things, because so many things
I wasn’t supposed be on the show. There wasn’t
going to be a second season. Rocco signed up without
asking me. I said, this restaurant is a disaster.
I did the second show to save my standing in the industry
and the end result was that I have had not one negative
comment. I get stopped on the street all the time.
And I’ve gotten not one negative comment about
the way I handled the situation. I received thank
you letters from people who own restaurants. But did
it increase business? I can’t really tell.
AT: In working with Rocco on
“The Restaurant,” what did you learn about
balancing a chef’s ego with the integrity of
JC: As I like to say, if you’re
working with a celebrity chef, you need to make sure
that that chef is a chef first and a celebrity second,
not a celebrity first and a chef second. I work with
a lot of celebrity chefs- Todd English, Claude Troisgros,
Alain Ducasse. The one thing that’s true about
virtually all of them is they all come at it with
a dedication to creating the best product. What I
learned from my Rocco experience is, here’s
a guy who is fundamentally talented. But he got too
caught up in the glitz and the glamour, and not enough
in making sure that what was on the plate was what
it needed to be. For someone like me, there’s
a certain dynamic that takes place. A lot of celebrity
chefs are not fundamentally food people. But I’m
a food person. When you work with me there has to
be a give and take. Alain Ducasse takes advice from
me on his food. I tell him when I don’t like
something, when it can be changed. And he really responds
to me on stuff like that. If you don’t have
that kind of relationship with your chef and you are
a restaurateur, it’s not going to work.
AT: Building the right team
– within each restaurant and across your management
company - is fundamental to your overall success.
How does the notoriously high turnover in the industry
impact your business? What kind of recruiting and
retention strategies have you developed to contend
with the high turnover rate?
JC: First of all, you’ll be
surprised to know that at the top level of our business,
we have a small number of very loyal people. We only
have six people –me, a CFO, our General Counsel,
Corporate Chef, Director of Operations and a Comptroller.
Then we’ve divided ourselves up by region –
Europe, Florida, New York, and the West Coast. We
have regional directors of operations. We don’t
have a lot of layers of people in our company, so
there’s tremendous growth opportunity. My Director
of Operations is from Blue Door Miami. My Corporate
Chef was my hotel chef. We are very, very encouraging
of lateral movements, upward movement, city movement.
There are a lot of personal relationships from me
on down. I travel extensively, and when people see
me show my face in these restaurants, it sends a message
to them that this is not some faceless, corporate
structure. There are people who really care about
this place and drag their ass all over the world to
see how it’s doing. I have a big open-door policy.
I’ll listen to anybody about anything. Sometimes
I get faulted in my own organization because I get
involved in personal issues of employees. I’ve
put employees through alcohol rehab. So we tend to
get this Walmart enthusiasm where people think they
matter and they are part of something; it’s
not just a job.
Every year we bring all the managers together for
a 2-3 day retreat. We talk about ways to improve performance
and productivity, and we share ideas. We do that at
the regional level. At the restaurant level, the key
people at the restaurant take 2 days off, go someplace
and talk about ways to make the restaurant better.
Also because of the way we’re organized, we’ve
done cross-training at other properties. We have a
tremendous support system, so when we open a restaurant,
waiters, busboys, bartenders, and managers –
a team of 15-30 people who have experience in our
culture, come for the first 6 to 8 weeks to share
our culture with the new group. We spend more money
on pre-opening than any other restaurant group.
AT: A hot button in the industry
today is equity compensation for chefs. What are your
thoughts on this?
JC: It depends on the chef. We have
2 kinds of relationships. We have relationships where
they are really more concept-driven and then chef-driven.
China Grill is a concept-driven restaurant. We have
excellent chefs, but they didn’t create the
concept. I wrote the menu for Asia de Cuba. We have
a great chef at Ono, but the menu outline for the
restaurant was done by me. For all of our management
people, not just chefs, but also front of house staff,
we have a profit sharing and a 401K plan, but not
equity. Equity is only the right to receive part of
the profitability of the restaurant. Management people
share the profitability of restaurants based on a
bonus arrangement – performance factors such
as staff retention, restaurant maintenance, and a
whole series of subjective and objective criteria.
In the case of Alain Ducasse, Todd English and Claude
Troisgros, i.e., a chef- driven restaurant, those
deals run the gamut. Some are purely consulting arrangements.
For others there is an equity program. Usually the
chef makes an investment of some kind – it’s
disproportionate, but they step up to the plate and
make an investment with us. And they may have the
right to earn certain equity positions.
I’m partners with Alain Ducasse in one restaurant,
another is purely consulting, another is an overall
shared consulting arrangement – so each one
AT: What about the value of
JC: I believe strongly in PR –
I’m not a big proponent of advertising. We tend
to open restaurants with food publicists. I’ve
opened restaurants in the past with multiple publicists
who have different specialties- social, marketing,
style. When we opened Asia de Cuba, we had seven PR
firms - one for each focus group– and that was
a huge success. You need to sit down and look at all
the target audiences you need to hit and whether you
feel that any particular firm has the reach to hit
all the target markets. I’m coming to the conclusion
that they don’t – you need two that have
different strengths. Especially if you’re a
restaurant concept, it’s important that you
hit the style component. With Ono we did a high-profile
event during fashion week – The Damon Dash,
Patricia Field, and Michael Kors shows - they were
coordinated not by our food publicist but by our style
publicist who organized it on a fashion and social
basis. It’s fodder for the gossip columns. Ono
cost $11 million to build (which was $5 million more
than I wanted to spend). If you’re going to
spend $11 million on a restaurant, don’t chintz
on the PR. Even I, with all the experience I have
in building restaurants, screwed up big time. So it’s
not like I’ve mastered the subject.
My restaurants function at high levels of profitability.
Typically it takes 12-13 months for payback on the
investment. At Asia de Cuba (in New York), my investment
was paid back in 10 months. Because of where I am
now, credibility-wise in the industry, the last 6
restaurants I built, only one required an investment
in construction on my part. I didn’t have to
build them, because people were anxious to have my
AT: What key piece of advice
do you have to share aspiring restaurateurs?
JC: It’s going to take a lot
more passion, energy and commitment to open a successful
restaurant than you can possibly imagine. And it’s
going to cost more than you can possibly imagine.
When you’re there, you have to make sure you’ve
left enough resources and reserves to survive the
opening. The biggest reason for failure – and
there are a lot of good ideas, and talented people
who have failed in restaurants – is because
they are undercapitalized. It never costs “X.”
It’s X + 80% or 5X. You have to understand that
going in, not when you are there at the point of opening.
You have to have enough of a cushion to get over the
hump because it may take a while to get it there.
Great restaurants fail because of lack of money.