A veteran restaurant owner/operator and consultant, Brendan Spiro has helped countless independent, chef-driven and even limited-service restaurants set up shop and go on to achieve success throughout New York, the East Coast and beyond.
FE&S: Describe how you got your start in the foodservice industry?
BS: I started in a Timothy’s World Coffee, which was a French Canadian company that opened in New York across the street from one of the first Starbucks in the city. I grew up in Rockland County but my father had a place in the city on the Upper East Side, so I was exposed to all the different, multicultural restaurants in the area at an early age. There was something about the mechanics of service and the glossy factor of cafés and restaurants in New York that I gravitated toward even while working at the coffee company after school. I worked up to store manager but got into the restaurant world as a manager of Galaxy Global Eatery, which was a progressive hemp restaurant near Union Square in the mid to late nineties. The market was just starting up there and Danny Meyer’s Union Square Café was helping to rejuvenate the area. The restaurant had a great young chef at the time doing things like hemp nut-crusted catfish and brining in bamboo green rice from China. Dennis Cicero was the owner — he had helped open the original Hard Rock Café and other legendary restaurants. He was a fantastic mentor. I spent five or six years there learning the ropes in restaurant operations and management.
FE&S: How did your career transition to consulting after having worked on the operations side?
BS: I ran a huge nightclub and got that out of my system before I realized maybe it was time to offer some expertise to those who could use the help. In New York, you don’t have a need for another tradesman like a kitchen or restaurant consultant as part of a team — the barrier to entry is so low and the ego factor can be pretty high. There seemed to be a need for restaurant owners just starting out who might be well funded but might not understand the bureaucracy of the city or how to put the pieces together with architects and great chefs. After working with a few restaurants I founded Quality Restaurant Corp. in 2007.
FE&S: Who were some of your first clients as a consultant?
BS: I opened up SoHo Park, a burger shack at Prince and Lafayette in 2005 and they have been very successful since then. I also consulted on a restaurant called Sorella, which was Chef Emma Hurst’s first foray in the restaurant business. I opened Tailor, a super innovative restaurant with the previous pastry chef from Wylie Dufrense’s wd-50, and Ed’s Lobster Bar, which is still around.
FE&S: Describe your consulting and design philosophy.
BS: I like to focus on the independent restaurant sector — the 65- to 70-seaters with a convivial atmosphere and midcentury modern design ethos and not corporate at all. The space is very functional — everything is clean and minimal when it needs to be — but peppered with interesting details and tasty but creative food and stepped up drink programs that take more than just a cue card from the cocktail trend. We’re a boutique firm offering startup services but really became construction project managers in the course of the project, working with architects, interior designers, contractors and city planners. I work with architects on the design process, but I have learned CAD and connected with FCSI so I can be a bigger part of that. Most recently, I partnered with a local photographer and creative branding professional and moved our offices to a design studio in Williamsburg with a test kitchen where we now offer clients and chefs a special place to work and create. We also work with equipment manufacturers and even liquor companies to host different types of events.
FE&S: What happens after the restaurants open?
BS: Even after build-out we often sign operations management contracts to help our restaurant clients get their feet off the ground and keep their business running smoothly. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to learn and experience all facets of the consulting business.
FE&S: You were also a restaurateur at one point yourself, correct?
BS: I opened my own restaurant,
Vandaag, inspired by Danish and Northern European cuisine, in the East Village in 2010. Unfortunately I later closed it. We had great press and some great followers but that doesn’t always translate into frequency of visits over the long run. I decided to focus my
energy more on helping others learn from my mistakes and growing operational knowledge because of them.
FE&S: That’s a good point: how do you help restaurants in New York compete in that fierce dining environment?
BS: It’s definitely a challenge but I see a lot more restaurant operators coming back to what it means to be in the hospitality industry and that is helping them become really successful. For a short period of time during the economic crisis, I saw a lot of highly educated people with a strong background in the culinary world, but there was a lack of loyalty in the local market — on their part and on the part of diners. We’re now getting back to a level where restaurant owners are really committed and connected to the local community and are trying to be more of a neighborhood restaurant offering food that’s approachable but with a sense of taste and service and a higher level of presentation.
FE&S: What are you working on now?
BS: I’m super excited about Llama Inn, which recently opened in Williamsburg. There are tons of Peruvian restaurants in New York, but Chef Eric Ramirez, who has a molecular fine-dining background and worked at Eleven Madison Park, is focused not just on making the classic iteration of those dishes. He might be true to some of those recipes, but he’s more sensitive to the ingredients and using refined cooking styles to make his dishes as authentic as possible but much more elevated. We’re also doing some work in the Finger Lakes region where a developer is trying to recreate what it means to be “mainstreet” again in an area known for its wine and many microbreweries.
FE&S: Do you find that Llama Inn represents what’s trending in New York and especially Brooklyn?
BS: There is a strong movement toward global pantries and chefs experimenting with different cuisines but trying to understand and use what’s available to them in their own backyard. It’s less about brining in canned papaya juice from wherever and more about trying to recreate those cultural memories in a more local way. In terms of equipment, we’re seeing a lot more chef-driven custom suites and wood-fired cooking.
FE&S: Specifically speaking, what kind of help are your clients looking to get from you these days?
BS: They want to get the concept and the business plan really perfect — there’s always a need for that. During that very critical phase you need people who understand not only the trends and numbers but you need to have a very thought-out concept. So, concept planning is something we focus on and we try to drill down to the details. When it comes to long-term management, the most common mistake restaurants seem to make is not sticking to their plan or the original concept and starting to move toward what they feel the market trend of the moment is, when in fact the market might need that concept. It’s important to give the concept time to get traction but also run smoothly so that’s why we focus heavily on ongoing management guidance.