Mark Birnbaum is the co-founder of the EMM Group. Mark has played a major role in transforming New York City’s Meatpacking District into one of the most sought after areas in the city.
Dubbed by Forbes Magazine as one of the “New Kings of New York Nightlife,” he, along with partner Eugene Remm, have continued to develop EMM Group into a multi-faceted hub for successful venue ownership and operation since the company’s incorporation in 2006. Total Food sat down with Mark Birnbaum to discuss his inspirations and aspirations.
Forbes said that Mark has the aesthetic eye, that Eugene has the attention to detail and Michael the negotiating skills. How would you describe what each of you bring to the success of the team?
As partners in EMM Group we share the responsibilities of overseeing every aspect of the company, from operations and finances to the conceptualization and construction of new properties. There is absolutely no such thing as an average day in our world.
There are many who find success in the nightclub and bar business, who look at food and restaurants as a necessary evil. What role do they play in your business?
Food and restaurants are crucial to our company, and in many ways the nightlife and restaurant components compliment one another very well. People are looking for the whole package, and we can provide both a great meal and a memorable night out at almost all of our venues. To do this well, you have to make extra efforts to ensure that the food and service are top notch, and that the experience is one that leaves an impression and encourages groups to want to come back.
With all the success you have had in Meatpacking and Brooklyn no longer being a secret, what areas do you see for growth in NYC…or is it all about picking your spots like the General on the Bowery?
The Lower East Side and especially the Bowery are trending to be one of the next big neighborhoods for NYC’s hospitality business and nightlife scene. The opportunities for growth and expansion on the Bowery remind me a lot of Manhattan’s Meatpacking District back in 2006 when we opened our first nightclub TENJUNE, followed by Abe & Arthur’s and SL in 2009 as well as CATCH and CATCH ROOF in 2011.
What’s your approach to training and consistency? In the case that a guest does have a poor experience, what systems do you have in place to respond and recover?
The first step is hiring people who care and that want to take care of people. The details are trainable, but hospitality is innate and you need people who have that in them. The next step is providing the tools for people to do the job and setting them up for success. Finally you have to encourage the mentality that every guest experience matters, and that the way you handle less than perfect experiences is the way you often build the most loyal guests.
What’s your approach to recruiting and keeping top-flight management?
We always stress that there is no glass ceiling and look to provide opportunities for people to be creative and make a real impact. Providing opportunities for growth, treating people respectfully and listening to others ideas and feedback is crucial. We also try our best to always hire and promote from within the company so that servers become managers, managers become general managers and general managers become directors of operations, which creates a great corporate culture.
Do you centralize culinary functions through a corporate chef or do you delegate through the executive chef at each restaurant?
It’s a little bit of both. We are all involved in the development of our menus and bounce ideas off each other. However, oversight of our kitchens and quality control falls under the job responsibility of each restaurants chef de cuisine. It is a team effort though, and feedback from employees, managers and guests also helps us to monitor quality and consistency.
Is your approach with food to go out to bid every day or will you reward loyalty with a produce, meat or seafood vendor?
Loyalty is number one, however we do have a purchasing team who is constantly bidding our prices and staying in touch with what is competitively out there. We are willing to pay for quality and look at the big picture rather than chasing one great deal after the next. Loyalty is the best driver of competitive pricing anyway.
What’s your approach to building and designing kitchens and dining areas? Do you have an inside team that builds for you or do you use an outside dealer (M. Tucker etc?) and consultant?
We’ve worked with M. Tucker on our kitchens and iCrave has designed all of our spaces. Again, loyalty pays dividends here and also helps build brand consistency. We have a team of people internally who also help provide feedback along the way.
We’re coming to an end of the Bloomberg tenure that included legislation on smoking to transfat oil, posted health inspections and most recently 16 oz. cups and styrofoam. What issues would you like to see a new mayor tackle to make EMM’s path to growth easier?
The biggest issue right now facing restaurants is finding fairness in the Health Department grading system. While we maintain ‘A’ grades across all of our venues, the system is broken and detrimental. Sanitation is a huge priority for us and we use outside companies to assist us in monitoring. However, shutting down the restaurant in the middle of a busy Thursday to walk an inspector through damages the guest experience and the employees of our restaurants. This process has become a way of levying fines and has lost track of the reality of protecting the public. Restaurateurs everywhere feel similarly and it’s become a true detriment to our industry when it should be helpful.
Crystal Ball, what will EMM look like in 2023?
We have a lot of big things in the works for the future but are really focused on the task at hand right now with all of our new properties.