With Barry Corwin, Restaurant Consultant, Founder of Carmine’s Italian Restaurant in New York
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A good investment professional gets to the bottom of how businesses work in various industries. With that in mind, Steve speaks with Barry Corwin to understand what it takes to succeed in the restaurant business. Barry is a successful restaurateur who has been starting and running restaurants for about 38 years.
Barry Corwin got into the restaurant business in the 70s and 80s. Picture a time when “restaurants were just bubbling up, especially in New York City” and people were becoming more aware of food and wine. He got his inspiration to start a restaurant on a visit to California. Here he experienced grilled fresh fish at a place called Mustard’s Grill. He went back to New York and opened his first restaurant, Docks Oyster Bar and Seafood Grill. Here began the first introduction of grilled fish to New York.
Shortly thereafter, he opened a second Docks with his partners. After that he created and founded Carmine’s New York City, which now has two locations. Sensing the lack of decent sandwich places in New York’s upper west side, he followed up by opening EJ’s Luncheonette. Even today it is often recognized as NYC’s best lunch spot.
Restaurant Startup Challenges
While restaurants are quite popular as small businesses, running a restaurant isn’t for everyone. Barry believes you need to be inspired to do it on a daily basis. Merely having a few fantastic recipes is far from your ticket to restaurant success. To succeed, you have to cover all your bases.
From Barry’s vast experience, he sees restaurants as many businesses combined into one. An investment is where you buy a few shares, sit back, and hope your strategy works out. This is unlike restaurants, which depend on cooks and wait staff every day, involves a lot of hard work and emotion, and requires an enormous amount of consistent attention to detail.
The Gentleman Restaurateur
Steve wonders if the business still has owner and managers who sit at the bar, welcome guests, and offer a personal touch that keeps them coming back. Barry says they do exist, especially where deep-pocketed investors are involved. However, they are not as important to a restaurant’s success in today’s world. Nowadays, patrons place more emphasis on the chef who runs the restaurant—well-known chefs such as Bobby Flay rule the roost in the restaurant business.
Think You Can Open A Restaurant?
If you have an idea or an inspiration for a restaurant, Barry highly recommends finding partners who share your vision and surrounding oneself with the most talented restaurant staff possible. If you have capital, money is not a problem. On the other hand, if you’re like most aspiring chefs, you should use your contacts and resume in the restaurant business to line-up investors who have faith in you and your concept.
Barry Corwin cites his own example where he lacked the capital to open up his first restaurant. Instead, he leveraged his experience in the restaurant business and convinced an established restaurateur to back him up. As a result, this led to the opening of Barry’s first fish restaurant, Docks Oyster Bar, in New York City.
Consistency Delivers Repeat Business
A restaurant’s success really depends on a steady stream of new and repeat customers. To get there, Barry believes first impressions and a quality dining experience are vital. Everything starts with patrons walking in the door and taking in the ambiance. Beyond that, it’s important that restaurant staff be trained on cleanliness, the food, what to wear, how to cook, and how to serve. Moreover, this includes other situations such as being mindful of not interrupting conversations, recognizing the main person in the party, explaining the food, knowing the wine list, and delivering a pleasant and consistent experience that has folks coming back for more.
In closing, Barry Corwin likens every day in the restaurant business to when the curtain opens each night at a Broadway show. All of the characters must know their parts well, be in perfect synchronization, and bring it all together, day after day.
Disclosure: The opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and not necessarily United Capital. Interviewee is not a representative of United Capital. Investing involves risk and investors should carefully consider their own investment objectives and never rely on any single chart, graph or marketing piece to make decisions. Content provided is intended for informational purposes only, is not a recommendation to buy or sell any securities, and should not be considered tax, legal, investment advice. Please contact your tax, legal, financial professional with questions about your specific needs and circumstances. The information contained herein was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however their accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. All data are driven from publicly available information and has not been independently verified by United Capital.
Steve Pomeranz: I’m going to categorize this in the “how things work” department. I’m always incredibly curious about how businesses work and how they start. Recently I interviewed Lisa Schiff, an art advisor to Leonardo DiCaprio, and I was wondering how she developed an art advising business, and I’ve also interviewed quite a few along the way to find that out as well.
Today I want to talk about the restaurant industry. How one gets started, what it takes, how do you make it successful, especially with all the competition vying for your customer? And we know that restaurants are always popping up and they’re always disappearing. So today, I’ve invited a successful restaurateur to talk about it. He’s been starting and running restaurants for, I guess, about 38 years so let’s meet him. His name is Barry Corwin. Hey, Barry, welcome to the show.
Barry Corwin: Thanks, Steve, nice to be here.
Steve Pomeranz: So tell us a little bit about what restaurants you’ve been involved with and what they’ve achieved.
Barry Corwin: You know, I came out of an era in the 70s and 80s where restaurants were just bubbling up, especially in New York City. And those were the eras that people were really becoming more aware of food and wine. And I had a recent trip after I got married in the early 80s and went to California and went to a place called Mustard’s Grill.
There I experienced fresh fish on a grill and that’s where my restaurants started, with my first restaurant being Docks Oyster Bar and Seafood Grill—it’s on 89th and Broadway, that started in 1985, and brought grilled fish to New York. And with that came a second Docks and my partners and I decided to sprout out. We also created and founded Carmine’s New York City, which now has two locations. And then from there, my partners and I decided that there wasn’t any place on the upper west side to have just a sandwich without going into an old-fashioned diner. And we opened up EJ’s Luncheonette. And from there we got three locations, one of which is active still on 73rd and 3rd in Manhattan.
Steve Pomeranz: That’s wonderful. Okay, well, I think we’ve got a good sense of your experience. You know, Barry, this is not scientific, but it seems that the most amount of small businesses seem to be the restaurant business. It seems anyone that believes they’re a decent cook feels that they can run a successful restaurant. What’s your take on that?
Barry Corwin: Well, you have to have the drive to do that. You have to be inspired by something in your life to do it as a vocation and to do it on a daily basis. I think there are lots of people out there that are listening that know a fantastic recipe that they would love to give to their favorite restaurant to try because they know it would be a success. But to make it on that is just not enough. You have to cover all bases in the restaurant business.
Steve Pomeranz: I think also … Please go ahead. I’m sorry.
Barry Corwin: It’s so many businesses into one, and it runs, basically, on emotion sometimes. An investment, if you’re dealing for a return on your dollar and you’re investing in the market, you make that investment and you let it sit and you follow the trends every day. Here, in the restaurant business, it’s run on people mostly and on a daily basis. Wait staff that represents you and your goal. And to create that every day on a constant and a consistent level is very difficult.
Steve Pomeranz: Very difficult. It takes a lot of hours, too, I’ve noticed, right?
Barry Corwin: Absolutely. You’re working while everyone else is playing.
Steve Pomeranz: So that brings up this idea of, let’s say, the gentleman restaurateur, someone who’s been successful in business, man or woman and they have this idea, I’ll sit at the bar and I’ll welcome my friends and I’ll be kind of a big deal. Have you seen that in your travels?
Barry Corwin: Without a doubt. People that have capital to invest like to sometimes go on the more glamorous side of things. And it still takes, even with money, it takes more than just that to make a restaurant successful. People with unlimited budgets can build restaurants, but to actually make them work and be successful is another story.
Steve Pomeranz: How much of restaurant-making is having some kind of special twist? Like you said, you were the first fish restaurant in New York City, something that you can build a franchise on or some special twist. Is that important?
Barry Corwin: Yes, absolutely. What’s happened in the business, traditionally over the years, is that the manager/owner of the restaurant would be the figurehead and walk the room and interact with the guests on a nightly basis.
Now, it’s the personality of the chef that runs a restaurant. Especially personality chefs with Mario Batali or Bobby Flay, those names that are sold out by real estate people and other entrepreneurs that would like to open up restaurants with their names on it. And those are the personalities now in the restaurant business more than just the owners were years ago.
Steve Pomeranz: Right. Let’s take it from the beginning. You said before that you start with an idea or an inspiration. Take us through the process. Let’s say that I do have this idea and it’s for XYZ type of food. What’s the beginning of this process? I want to go through step by step.
Barry Corwin: Well, if you have the idea and then you have the inspiration to go into the restaurant business, I highly recommend that you, perhaps, find somebody that has that inspiration as well. An example, being a partner. My success grew out of surrounding myself with the most talented people I could find at the time. Whether it was wait staff people or people behind the line in the back of the kitchen, chefs and cooks. I think if you have a bench full of people around you coming into your idea and success, and you can surround yourself with those people, it gives you a better chance of success.
Steve Pomeranz: So let’s say you’ve done that. You’ve got this great idea, you now have to find a partner, surround yourself with talented people, people who know how to train the wait staff, who’ve run restaurants before. What about getting the real estate, getting the capital itself? I mean that seems to me, in some ways it can be very difficult because some of these restaurants cost a lot to set up?
Barry Corwin: If you come from nowhere in the restaurant business and you’re just looking to open up a restaurant and you’re seeking capital, maybe you’re in money already and there are people available to you. But suppose you’re a person that’s been in the restaurant business for many years and you have a resume of titles that you can offer somebody to invest in you who has a vehicle for success.
I came to somebody early on in my career that believed in me. I had the desire to go into the restaurant business; I certainly didn’t have enough capital to open up our first restaurant. But this person, who was a businessman, his name was Arthur Cutler, and he owned Murray’s Sturgeon Shop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He believed in me, I had been in the restaurant business for years, and I had an idea and we both enjoyed that idea very much.
Steve Pomeranz: You said Sturgeon, so he was in the fish business.
Barry Corwin: Yes, smoked fish and appetizing.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.
Barry Corwin: [crosstalk 00:08:05] shop on the Upper West Side.
Steve Pomeranz: You were opening up your fish restaurant at the time.
Barry Corwin: Yes, we opened up our first fish restaurant called Docks Oyster Bar and that was 89th and Broadway on the west side of the street, right next to Murray’s Sturgeon Shop.
Steve Pomeranz: Oh, it’s right next to it. So he understood the business to a large degree. It wasn’t as if he was coming in cold. Let’s talk about opening the door. What does it take? You know, you go to a restaurant and the training of the wait staff is all over the map.
Barry Corwin: Right.
Steve Pomeranz: And I, actually, I guess I eat out a lot so I notice these things. You notice the patterns of patter with the wait staff, how they tell you about what’s on the menu and so on and so forth, how long they leave you to yourself. And there’s always this period of time where it’s just enough but then it’s too long. How do you train a wait staff properly? What does it really take?
Barry Corwin: Well, you train them to take into consideration all types of circumstances. Whether it’s a table that’s engrossed in conversation and they don’t want to be overbearing, if there’s somebody in the party that wants to be recognized as the main person in the party that will be ordering the wine, perhaps. But opening up the doors, getting back to the door, my first impression of a restaurant is the cleanliness of the restaurant.
Steve Pomeranz: Okay.
Barry Corwin: And to talk about opening up the door, I always look at the door itself to see if it’s been cleaned. If there’s a dirty door, there may be other dirty things in the restaurant, so putting together a restaurant, opening it up, sanitation number one.
Then you have everything else that goes with that. Your staff, the training of your staff, training them on food, training them on wine, training them on cleanliness, training them on what to wear perhaps when they’re going into their uniforms at work. I never like long earrings on women. I didn’t like pierced items on anyone’s face or earrings on men as well. We kept it simple; we kept everything clean. We had our same cadence of servers giving specials at the tables the same way every time.
Steve Pomeranz: Consistency.
Barry Corwin: And people come back for that familiarity.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, it’s consistency, I think is what you’re saying.
Barry Corwin: Exactly. Consistency is really, really the most important thing.
Steve Pomeranz: Interesting. Okay. Well we’re really running out of time here, unfortunately. So what makes people come back the most? Is it the food? Is it the environment? Is it the wait staff? Is it all in one? What is that?
Barry Corwin: It’s a chemical reaction when you walk into a restaurant and we eat with our eyes. When a plate comes to you, and the waiter puts it down in front of you, you say to yourself, even subconsciously, “Oh, my, I like this plate.” Or, “Oh, this isn’t what I thought it was going to look like.” Or perhaps, “Wow, I’m really, really impressed with the way this looks and I can’t wait to eat it.”
And that’s an impression you want to give people every single time they come into your restaurant. The curtain opens every night like a Broadway show. It’s consistent every night, so should your wait staff and your product should be that as well.
Steve Pomeranz: Well, there’s an awful lot to talk about here, but we are out of time. My guest is Barry Corwin, successful restaurateur and I think you so much for joining us, Barry. I appreciate it.
Barry Corwin: Steve, thanks so much.
Steve Pomeranz: And don’t forget to hear this discussion again, to read about it, to weigh in with your opinion, we love your opinions, and also to share it with your friends, and you know we love that too, don’t forget to join the conversation at stevepomeranz.com.