You might know Jeremy Wladis for his famous brunch, or chicken wings, or his burritos or burgers. But what he’s best known for is his pizzas and salads, which bring a wealth of ingredients to each savory dish. CEO of The Restaurant Group, Wladis has opened and owned dozens of restaurants all around the country.
How did you get started in this business?
That’s a funny story. I grew up in Syracuse, NY, right on the Syracuse University campus. My father actually was a bartender when I was a little kid at my grandparent’s topless joint. It was called the Palace Lounge, and when I was about 7 or 8 years old, my father opened up a little grocery store on the Syracuse campus, where I helped out.
I was mentored by some really good people, these two guys who ran hotels in Syracuse, and they convinced me to go to Delhi as a junior college for the hotel-restaurant program, which led me to the University of Houston, which was one of the top hotel-restaurant schools, with the Hilton Hotel School.
I worked for the Hilton, the Marriott, then went to Naples, Fla., to be a captain of a restaurant for a few months. After that I went to Syracuse to open up a fish restaurant with my father called Fat Brothers Fish Fry. I did that for six to eight months, and since I always knew I was going to move to New York City, where my father had been bringing me since I was 8 years old, I went there and got a job at the Intercontinental Hotel.
But my big dream was always to work at the most famous restaurant in the world, Tavern on the Green, so I went there first. I was hired basically to be the dishwasher but I turned them down. So I went to work at the InterContinental and then, a year later, I went back to Tavern and convinced them I was the right guy to be a restaurant manager, and became the youngest restaurant manager in Tavern on the Green history.
What happened after that?
The guy who was running it at the time, Bruce Axler, who was the guy that took it from a 13-, 14-million loser to a 30-million world success, the busiest full- service restaurant in the world, became my mentor, friend, and business partner. Sadly, he died recently. But Bruce was instrumental in helping me have the vision to open up the Fuel concept, which was, pizza by the slice, wings, salads, and no waiters. I was tight with Bruce. I would sneak upstairs and sit down with him in the office and learn and pick his brain.
Where does Warner LeRoy come in?
We’d be in the middle of 200 people waiting for reservations, an hour wait that they had made reservations for exactly 30 days prior, standing there, waiting to sit down with their in-laws and for a wedding or party or something and Warner would come in, and we’d have to drop everything to go make sure every light bulb outside in Central Park was turned on, every Christmas light bulb was turned on. Warner was the most detail-oriented human you’ve ever met, and it was all about vision. Everything was about the visual and the effect and the atmosphere, and he felt he had to serve good food, and it had to be reasonable, but boy, it had to be about the atmosphere and the visual.
Where did you go from there?
I went over to the Plaza Hotel, which was great, running the Palm Court, the Oyster Bar, the Oak Bar. It was the experience of a lifetime. Then I managed Carrabars, a really good Mexican restaurant with great frozen margaritas. It was the late ’80’s, and they were somewhat new to the world. I worked there for about a year or so, and then Bruce came to me and we started looking into this chicken wing thing. I went to work for Atomic Wings for only six months, and then Bruce invested in me and we opened a wing place by Columbia University, and then I opened up a place called the Firehouse, and Bruce was helpful in putting that whole thing together with me. I raised money from all the guys at the 92nd Street Y that I played basketball with, $5,000 a man. It’s still standing, the Firehouse, it’s about 24 years old right now, and that was my first restaurant. Chicken wings, burritos, burgers, that kind of thing.
Then the restaurant next door became available and I opened up a little Italian trattoria that I changed six times. And then, Good Enough to Eat. They’re standing out in the freezing cold, waiting in line. Now, here we are, The Restaurant Group, with over 15 restaurants.
Where did the Fuel concept come from?
About 15 years ago, I was visiting my mother in Charlotte, NC, and said, this is a town that needs restaurants. Driving by this old 1930’s, 40’s gas station, my partner, Lincoln Clark, had this vision of building a restaurant, making it look like it was a 1930’s Pure Oil gas station. We ripped out the sheet-rock, and, just brought it back to the natural beauty of this restaurant. Won preservation awards for it and everything. There are nine other Fuels in D.C and the Carolinas.
When did you start getting into pizza?
This place called Punch Pizza was doing this thing where you order at the counter and you sit down and they bring you your food. You choose your toppings and they put them on and you sit down and everyone gets their individual pie. And I thought, we have to look into this. About a year or two ago we started researching how to do this individual pizza concept, Chipotle style, Subway style, and about a year and a half ago, we started going all over the country and looking for these things and we found one in Vegas, a bunch in California, San Diego, LA and Atlanta. And we tried to pick all the best attributes of each one and things we thought didn’t work the best. Get rid of those. And we created what we think is the best ingredient menu possible. We’ve been making pizza for 25 years and we’ve got this crust that is crispy with a wonderful chew.
We’ve also got what we think is probably the most diversified menu of any of these concepts out there, from pulled pork barbecue to Buffalo chicken, to margherita burrata, to Old Bay shrimp. You can come in and design your own with barbecue sauce, cream sauce, and cocktail sauce. And then you can use goat cheese, gorgonzola, prosciutto, shrimp, arugula, pineapple, you name it.
It cooks in two minutes. We can pump well over 150 people in an hour, 150 pizzas in an hour, and every one of them is great. That’s how Custom Fuel was born.
How is your salad line different from your pizza line?
You can create your own salad by choosing all the same pizza ingredients. And it’s spun right there in front of you, with your choice of dressing. So it’s a pizza and salad concept.
One of the things you’ve done better than anybody is this collective mix of concepts you’ve been able to build.
How did you do it?
I have a great staff. I’ve got a great salesman, Eddie Schwartz. I’ve even got my former boss at Tavern on the Green, Patrick Faup. Hardest working guy in the industry, still, to this day. Patrick has worked at La Reserve and many of the French restaurants and then Tavern, and then he ran the Merchant Group and Flute. Zach Current is my partner and he’s worked just about every job in the industry. Then there’s Carl Carbone, who was my college roommate, who consults for us. It’s all like a family. We all work way harder than we should, probably.
So after all this, are you pleased with your success?
We probably make less money than we should, but we like it. We really put the investors first, because they’re our friends and family. It’s a lot of $25,000, $50,000 investments, and, even in a restaurant that’s doing well, from time to time, a restaurant doesn’t do what you expect it to do. But we still find a way to give them 10 or 15%. So we take care of them that way. It’s not in our contract but we’ll eat the management fee ourselves and take care of the investors because these people, my friends, I feel like these people are my family.
What’s made you so successful?
We’re friends outside of work, we like to go to dinner with each other, hang out with each other and I think that’s a big part of it. It’s a family environment, and that’s what makes us so successful.
What lies ahead?
We’re signing two deals right now for 2 AG kitchens. We’re opening, Custom Fuel in Harlem next week, and we’re building Dupont Circle Custom Fuel as we speak. We’re in talks with a well-known chef from the Food Network. We’ve got a lot of different things going on. And I’m excited about all of them!