Managing Director of Notar Hospitality
How did you get into the industry?
I fell into it; a friend of mine was working at a place called Enchanted Gardens in Queens. And, I was about 15 and he said, look dude, there’s a dish washing job available why don’t you take it? I can’t even remember what it paid.
But it was a paid dishwashing job. I took the dishwashing job and during the first hour of work a little guy walks into the kitchen. It was surreal. It was a huge kitchen. I was just putting glasses in a rack. It wasn’t very busy. And he said, “Hey what are you doing?” I said, I’m washing dishes. And he goes no, no. I thought, did I not put the rack in correctly?
It was Steve Rubell. And he said, I like your smile buddy. You shouldn’t be in a kitchen. I’m having a dinner party, come out and bus. Just be with the people and help out. And that was my first foray. I was there at the right time. He liked useful people around him. He had a good eye. For some reason he thought I should be helping out with the public. I was a gopher, running errands for him, driving for him and Ian Schrager and then I remember the day they said listen we’re opening this place in New York why don’t you work for us. And it was Studio 54.
You began as a busboy at Studio 54, what did you learn by watching the amazing Steve Rubell?
Well, I learned about the theatrics. And how it’s not just about one thing. For example, restaurants you know are jokingly called dinertainment. I think that everything is saturated and it’s food everywhere. Good food. And I’m trying to provide to you more than just filling your stomach. This was an experience. And I learned that hiring is incredibly important. Having likable people on your staff that the customers can be comfortable with and find interesting.
And also you need to know how to treat, some notably high-end people, and all types of people. People that you know are famous, wealthy, but also understanding where, people who aren’t that they fit in as well. They’re very wealthy people that wanted to do something. What Steve Rubell used to tell me is “It’s like a tossed salad.“
If you have too many couples, you need some gays. You have too many girls, you need some guys. Just keep tossing it up to make it interesting. Which is really ‘dinner party 101.’ right? But I also learned Hubert Bell was a confident host, and Ian Schrager was a wonderful nutsy and boltsy guy.
My question becomes, does success happen with a P and L, does success happen on the floor, how do you marry those two things? What’s the wonderful mix that makes these things work?
You know, it’s funny I feel you have to do the right thing on the floor, there’s no way out so I’m more focused on getting in the zone, focusing on just everything working. Synergistically the best you can. And then the money will come. And then you have to find someone much more qualified than me to organize it. And make sure that, you build and maintain. You know there are certain red flags that go up and I know if financially things aren’t working. You have to know your strong points.
Does that start with the lease on the property?
Yes. The first thing you do is you get a good deal on the rent or whatever economics that you have to start with. Because then you have a much less risk of failure and a higher return.
What’s your approach to real estate? Are you afraid of something that somebody else has failed in? Are you looking for the next, meatpacking? How does your brain get around what’s going on real estate-wise?
I’m not afraid to go into somewhere that hasn’t made it. If the deal is correct, I just feel if you have heart and soul and a good team and a good idea you can do it anywhere. I’m not looking for the next meat pack industry because the rents are too high. And I don’t want to be just a tag-a-long. We’ll start a trend, not follow it. One of the things I’m doing now is a place that was used prior. And, you know I normally wouldn’t look in this area but my deal is so fantastic that I had to give it attention and take the deal, and now I’ve fallen in love with it.
And, is this the one at Lounge Park property?
No, this is on 56 off of Park at the Lombardy Hotel but it’s sort of separate from the Lombardy but it’s adjacent, within their space. I love this; it’s got great architectural character. It’s got the high ceilings, and the moldings, and the details, and chandeliers that were picked by Randolph Hearst, when they were building it. So I’m liking that vibe right now.
Pretty amazing that for a long time hotels couldn’t get out of the restaurant business fast enough. What do you think has changed?
Ian Schrager. I lived it and I know it so I’m going to tell you what I think it is. There was a stigma attached as you just said to hotel restaurants. They were bad. No one wanted to eat in them. You probably had your breakfast in them. They were just dead in the water, most of them. I would say 90% of them at least. I think the Waldorf might have got some attention with their Bull and Bear restaurant. I think that they were just terrible. I worked in them, I cooked in them.
I went to culinary school after the 54, years. And I thought I wanted to be a chef. Restaurants start with Prada, Louis Vuitton, Nobu, you know, JeanGeorges. And so they were going out and what happened was as restaurateurs you go wait. Are you going to build it out for me?
I don’t have to spend any money? Oh fantastic. And so there the marriage was born. When do you license to the hotel? When does the hotel license to you? How do you look at those? How do you get a feel for what the right deal is? The more you want the hotel the more you have a little bit more control. If you want to you can license it. I always feel like my reputation is all I have so I’m going to manage it as if I put my money in.
So, if you’re in Hong Kong you have to run it as if it’s yours. Which is the best way to go into it. Although all the build out is from the hotel. So it’s a management deal really. Licensing sounds too much like Starbucks. Deal where they will normally build it out for you, the labor, and all the expenses. I mean, it’s really their restaurant but you want it as your own. And you get a management fee and, you know it’s an upside to turn up your profit.
You’ve worked with celebrities and superstar chefs what role do those guys play in your world as you look to develop your own company?
I feel like the dining trends are more about a humanistic approach, meaning I think some of these things that are missing in hospitality. I really feel that as people are doing multiple stores right now it’s too expensive. Opening up the Lombardy, I’m creating a brand. I’m just doing the regular brand again, you know? So I’m more, right now. I’m like the Simon Cowell of the restaurant business. I like to look at the guys that are coming up, that that are really engaged, but then again, might not get a shot, because the chef is not moving anywhere.
Or the general manager isn’t moving anybody anywhere. And you know what happens? You lose those people. So, I want to nurture them. So you go elsewhere, still stay in the family, and grow another set of people. So you can keep going.
And that’s what makes it possible to do a Moscow, a Hong Kong, a Milan, or London. So going back to your question, I prefer to hire from within. Now if I walk into your house for a dinner party, are you going to have someone meet me at the door that rolls their eyes and makes me wait, you know what I mean?
You have to think, when you’re walking into a restaurant, that you’re walking into someone’s home. That is, the mentality and the formula that I’ve always tried to adhere to.
So, you know, I really feel like, look, we’ve all had a waiter that was very accomplished, worked at all the great places, but he only, almost makes you feel like he’s doing you a favor, by waiting on you. And look, we all make mistakes, eventually that guy will. And spill a glass of red wine on someone.
And they’ll be the first guy you go at. Or, we’ve been in restaurants where someone is charming and maybe a little bit green, but they actually care when something goes wrong. And they’re, oh I’m sorry. I wind up giving them more. Because I want that. I feel like there’s an intimacy there. And these people are around my table, and my friends and family for a couple of hours. I want someone that’s likable. I think that’s going back to what happened with me. You know, I’m not a snob, and there’s a likability there. And I find myself in these wonderful opportunities, I think, because of it. You know the door is open to nice people.
Are you like the way Rubell found you, a lot of it was feel, and you just kind of followed?
Just systems in place. So, I will absolutely, it’s sort of an amalgamation of both. If I have a good feeling about someone, if I’m interviewing someone, I just push the resume aside. Quite honestly because no one is going to put a paper in front of me that says I’m really bad at what I do, I’m no good, you know, I’m a slouch. You know half of them are fudged anyway. I look at someone and if I get a good feel about them no matter what it says on their resume I feel that I can teach them anything if they have the right demeanor.
It’s a little bit of both. My feeling has to be good about the person and then we put them in a program that will make my entity look good. Think about service and hospitality and my background. Well, I have a lot at risk. So, they have to represent what we want to do really well. We are very heavy on service, but not, you know obnoxious service. It’s not over service. I don’t like over service. I call it common sense service. But I want my drink to come up. I like the girl at the front door to know that my reservation is there. I just want to know that people are on top of everything. That’s all. And it could be in any atmosphere. It could be in a Starbucks, or it could be an elegant restaurant. I just want to know that someone knows their job.
You’ve announced plans to open in Harlem, what are your goals for that property?
I’m a New Yorker, I love New York. I assembled some people that worked for me in the musical theater- they love it. It could be great. And I said the last thing I want to do is to worry about booking acts or anything. So I coined myself with it and went up there. First of all the building is remarkable. I love architecture. An art deco building.
So, right away, I was, like, wow. And it has a history; I love something with a bit, to resurrect something. And so, I didn’t want the entire headache. You know? Going up to Harlem was a big thing. It’s a very tight knit community. And I said, well if the building becomes available. Got in the ring. So I met with the owners and before you know it you’re in deep. You know you don’t even know how it happened. Like you wake up and you’re married, you know.
The owners liked me. All of the people around him liked me. And they said, we really like what you’re saying. We would like you to have the lead. And all I was saying was, I don’t want to change it. I want to enhance it. But I don’t want to just focus on jazz. I feel like it has hollowed ground. And I want everyone from, you know, Lady Gaga to come up there and do a record launch. Going back to my decision. Wynton Marsalis was in my building and Paul Schaffer. I said oh okay now you’ve got my attention. So that resonates with two.
It must resonate with a bunch of people. But, let’s go there. Let’s, bring up the kitchen, put some food up there that would be good. And let’s have a diverse sort of musical, spontaneity. That could be interesting. And again, I like to hear that Harlem has spirit. I’ve been doing chopsticks and soy sauce for 20 years. I think it’s good, it’s a good way to get people’s attention that I can do many things. It’s like an actor, you know what I mean? Why did De Niro pick Frankenstein? You know? Maybe that’s a bad analogy because that movie didn’t do well but as an actor you want to do different things. If you’re known as the comedic actor, you want to do something serious. So I just want to show range. Of going up to Harlem. Doing something Midtown. And I will do something Downtown.
The one thing we missed. How did you go from Rubell and Schrager to Nobu and Drew Nieporent?
I was at three places at once. I found myself, like, walking around New York yelling at cabs. you know? It was, like, ugh! It just got to me and I thought I’m going to move out to Montauk, for what I thought would be two months.
I love Montauk. It’s a great rest from the world. I’ll leave, and I’ll come back, and I’ll figure it out. And so two months turned into a year. A friend of mine, from my old neighborhood was going be a sous chef at East Hampton Point. Drew was a managing partner. And I needed a job. And I met with them and they said well, you know, we have all our managers but we’re impressed with you. We like you. We’re going to be busy. We’ll offer you this job as a manager.
I went okay. Got in there, you know? Was fully engaged, you know? I just really wanted to sink my teeth into something. At the end of the summer there was a fall out between Drew and, the other owners. They offered me to stay out in the Hamptons, stay by Drew of course who was having meetings with me. You should leave them and come to the city. I said for what. He said don’t worry. Nobu Matsuhisa was getting a lot of attention in New York. DeNiro likes him. We’re bringing him to New York.
And, you know, we’d make you the GM there. But I thought long and hard about it. And I said, you know what? It sounds interesting. It would have been an empty building. David Rockwell, who wasn’t as known at the time, was going to be buying it. My friends made fun of me – what do you know about Japanese food.
I did my research and I’m telling you more than one Saki bar I left completely in bits because I didn’t realize the fire power of the Saki but I did my research and again I was fully engaged. You know, before we knew it, it became a huge hit. And there were a lot of hurdles there. We had no liquor license when we opened up, which a lot of people don’t know about. I mean it was difficult.
Nobody lived in LA. He’d come in, you know? Drew had his own way of doing things. I had my way of doing it. And it was a really interesting thing to do, but it just all flowed. And then I became a partner. And we opened up London after that. And I moved, I went to London for a few months.
Look in your crystal ball…what will Raptor Hospitality look like – five years out – 10 years out?
I want to have the right cashmere throw on there. You know I love all the things that can be developed within that, and our partners in London did that at the Hotel the Metropolitan. They have their own line of shampoo and shower gels and they opened up a spa. I think you could do one thing right, and you show professionalism, and taste, and you know, good decision-making you could do many things within the same type of genre. So, I’m feeling more entrepreneurial. And I’m going to utilize all of my skills. I see scalable, quick casual restaurants that I’ll bring around the world. Utilize my network there. I’ll see some more diamonds, higher end places that I’ll go where people want it. Where someone says, I like what you did on 56th and Park. I have a property in Park, in London. I’ll do it there. So I feel like scalability is very important to me. I want to put together a huge hospitality company that is respected.