Into The Fire

Veteran restaurateurs Gregg Korney and Steve Schimoler know a thing or two about keeping their cool, even when the kitchen gets hot.

What foodie hasn’t visited a bustling bistro without thinking what fun it must be to run a little place of their own? The gleeful customers, the celebrity status, the piles of cash. Of course, what we don’t see as guests are the grease fires, employee no-shows and punishing 16-hour days.

Gregg Korney, 36, has been in the local restaurant business since the age of 13. Following cooking stints at mom-and-pop shops, country clubs, sushi bars and five-star dining rooms, he finally took the plunge into ownership with Velocity American Bistro. Steve Schimoler, 48, opened his first New York restaurant by the age of 23. He soon added to his portfolio a bakery, catering company and prepared-foods business. A position as director of innovation and development for Nestlé ultimately landed Schimoler in Cleveland, where he recently opened Crop Bistro.

We pried them off the line just long enough to find out what really goes into opening “a little place of one’s own.”

When did you realize that you wanted to work for yourself?
GK: I knew early on that one day I’d open my own place because I never saw eye-to-eye with bosses. Running your own place brings creative freedom — the opportunity to try new things without someone telling you “no.”
SS: To me it’s about putting your money where your mouth is. Everybody in this business has an opinion about how things should be, but only a few are willing to take the leap. This business is about passion and taking risks, and you rarely get that when you are working for someone else.

Can any first-time restaurateur be truly prepared for the bumpy ride ahead?
SS: Many people buy into the romantic façade of running a restaurant. They see a busy place and assume it’s making millions of dollars. Or they’re good home cooks and their friends convince them to open a place of their own.
GK: Yeah, but try doing that for a dining room full of people night after night.
SS: I know a lot of very talented chefs who would not make good operators. In the grand scheme of running a restaurant, the food is the easy part of the equation. You’re not just a chef, but also the accountant, dishwasher, electrician, psychologist, marketing guru …
GK: And you have to be able to roll with punches. You expect things to go wrong every day: Employees don’t show, tomatoes don’t arrive, food gets sent back.

How important to success are concept, timing, location and luck?
GK: We spent a lot of time coming up with this concept. After cooking in fine-dining kitchens for so long I really got turned off of expensive meals. I knew I wanted to give people good food at a reasonable price and serve it in a hip, relaxed setting.
SS: The germ of any restaurant concept typically forms at 2 a.m., after several cocktails. But believe it or not, lots of chefs don’t do the required market research to see if the concept even makes good financial sense.
GK: I think luck and timing come into play, but location is really important too. We looked at a lot of different neighborhoods before finding one that we thought best fit our concept.
SS: That’s the catch-22 of this business. Location, location, location usually means pricey, pricey, pricey. The flip-side of having that no-brainer location at the busiest corner in town is that it is going to be the most expensive to lease.

What have been your darkest days in this biz?
GK: We had only been open for two months when I got a call from our alarm company. This was my baby so I got dressed in the car on the way. When I got to the restaurant, firefighters had smashed out the windows and there was black smoke pouring out. It took 10 months before we were up and running again.
SS: You know Murphy’s Law? Well, Murphy lives in restaurants. I ran a restaurant in a 200-year-old grist mill in Vermont. The day before New Year’s Eve a defective boiler caused a fire.

Is it difficult to find good, honest help?
SS: The restaurant business is filled with deviants, transients and sketchy people who can’t find work elsewhere. Knowing that — and being one of them myself — I prefer to train raw talent than hire people with long résumés.
GK: I’ve hired people straight out of culinary school who think they should be running my kitchen. It is easier to hire people with little or no experience because you can show them the way you want things done.

Consistency is one of the most important elements of success. How do you achieve it?
SS: Consistency comes from training the people you rely on in the precise way things are done. I don’t pay my cooks to interpret how much salt goes into a dish.
GK: I am the first one in and one of the last to leave. I have my hands in everything all day, every day. Even when I have other guys cooking in the kitchen, everything passes through my inspection.
SS: We are in the entertainment business. The food is the show.

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