As the Founder and President of LDV Hospitality, John Meadow is focused on concept and business development, being the creative drive for LDV behind successful ventures Scarpetta, American Cut and Regent Cocktail Club.
Total Food Service sat down with John Meadow to discuss his inspirations for LDV Hospitality, aspirations for new culinary endeavors, and industry lessons learned.
How did you get into the industry?
My first actual paid job was in high school as a dishwasher at Au Bon Pain. I liked it. There’s something about putting your head down and just doing the work. Then I moved up to the sandwich station, having the uniform on and making the sandwiches and interacting with the customers.
You always wanted to run The Plaza. Where did that come from?
As a kid, we always had Easter brunch there. My grandparents lived around the corner, and I was always obsessed with the flower garden. We would just sit out there and look at it and I was obsessed with The Plaza. That’s when my whole LDV started to come forward. LDV stands for “la dolce vita,” which is this idea of old world hospitality and nostalgic yesteryear and how do you apply that kind of social life to a restaurant now. It’s Fellini’s vision of Rome in the ‘60s, and then what does that mean for New York or wherever we expand today? It’s always a little glamorous moment that has a foothold in the past. I went to Cornell and my first job out of college in the real world, manager of The Plaza!
What did you get out of the experience at Cornell?
At the time, I got an education. But now I’m very involved with the whole Cornell community, maybe even more so than when I was a student. And I’m an entrepreneur in residence so I can go back and have office hours and try to get back on campus and recruit and speak to students. What’s unique about the Cornell hotel school is, it really is a community of people with a common bond and passion for the hospitality business.
So what happened after The Plaza?
I did the Plaza; I liked the sensibility of the Plaza. But I realized my real passion was the entrepreneurial realm, and I ended up partnering with a group of people. We went out and raised a modest sum from an investor pool to open an entrepreneurial venue, which was Local West. That was in 2004. And that one was a great success, but I wanted to do something current. So I went on and signed a lease in the Meatpacking District, raised new capital and opened a restaurant called Gin Lane. And Gin Lane was a dismal failure. But it was a great lesson in failure, in understanding the value of real estate. From there we moved on and recapitalized and launched a new restaurant and that new restaurant was Scarpetta, which became LDV Hospitality. That, really, was the restaurant that truly launched my career.
What were the lessons learned from Gin Lane?
Well, the location was changing. From when we signed the lease in 2005 to when we opened Scarpetta was three years. And in that time, the neighborhood changed dramatically. And it became more apparent that the reason that Gin Lane failed is that we were entirely under-capitalized. I believe that restaurants work or fail based on their location, money, and ego.
Was that what happened in your case?
The location was premature, the money wasn’t enough, and the egos were too tremendous. And therefore it failed. Three years later, the location is the best, and because the location is the best we’re able to raise the right capital. If I had cut my reckless ego and ambition out from beneath myself and I was far more humble and a little weathered or rather more experienced, and wiser, then the story would have been different. But then we were able to make a right restaurant there.
What did you do differently this time?
The location was better, the business was appropriately capitalized. And then from an ego perspective, we put together a great team of people. It was a solid, concerted team effort, and it worked. One of the key factors there was the general manager, Antonello Paganuzzi, who’s effectively been with me since opening Scarpetta in 2008 and is now director of collaborations for the entire company. He really was the backbone of the team. But having the team, the human capital, is everything. And the reason Scarpetta worked is Antonello. Today, there’s 29 outlets, 1,200 employees. We’re in eight different cities. Human capital is number one.
So what kind of person do you think succeeds in an LDV and a restaurant-type of environment. Are they people-driven? Are they egotistic? How do you describe the type of person who succeeds on your team?
We encourage everyone in our organization from the waiter to the regional directors to illustrate and showcase who they truly are as people. We take all of their imperfections, all of their quirks, and there’s one common thread. They have a passion for this industry. And they’re encouraged to amplify their personality. You look at some restaurant organizations where everyone looks the same, talks the same, acts the same. Well, we are some motley crew of a hodge podge fruit salad of characters. But everyone is encouraged to be themselves. Yes, there’s lots of human imperfections, but they’re allowed to put forth their true, genuine persona. And it makes for a real experience, a soulful experience. It makes for a tangible experience. It comes with certain imperfections and inconsistencies, but the beauty is in perfection. The message is that I trust you, that’s why I hired you. Do your thing and be you and it’ll all work.
What do you like most about your job?
I micromanage, I own my creative development projects. What kind of red counts do we want to do, where do we want to do it, what is it going to look like? Who is going to design it, who is going to put that together? That’s my job. I own it. I want their input but I own it. I control it. Likewise, I give up that level of control and all the other disciplines for the purpose of encouraging and empowering the team around me that has that same level of passion and are able to express it. And that’s why we’ve had fantastic employee retention. We would probably make more short-term dollars and we probably leave some money on the table by not explicitly controlling everything, but we have that balance between commerce and magic. I like where we sit and the balance between commerce and magic is the thing that’s going to allow us to really go forward and build this company to where I want it to go.
When you walk into raw space, do you look and see who’s on the next street corner? Do you look and think about who lives in the neighborhood? Do you look and see what type of offices are there? What are the basics of how you look at this?
It’s all of that. We do not like to cater to one customer base. We like restaurants that have a mix of corporate, entertainment, social, leisure, travels, etc. But I will say that, for the most part, major urban environments are where we want to be. We largely know who the successful restaurants are. And then it’s a matter of proximity to them; we want to be close to them. We’re not trying to be frontiersmen. Most neighborhoods we’re looking at, we pretty much know by virtue of price points and content accessibility, what is the right concept for you. The other aspect of this is also in terms of our development pipelining strategy. Most of our preliminary growth, up until I would say the last two years, has all been opportunistic. And whatever we feel is going to be the right place, that’s what we go with. Now we’re starting to become far more focused. Our three core concepts: Scarpetta, American Cut and Dolce. We are eager to expand and develop, with the market we want to go to and finding the marriage between what are our development pipeline objectives and what’s going to be a good restaurant. I used to do this out of passion and a desire to grow. Now, with 29 restaurants, we’ve opened enough restaurants to know, finally, for the first time in my life, unequivocally that it’s going to work.
Has your vision changed, over the years?
It used to just be about opening. I was so excited to just open and go to a new city. Now, the passion is to build the healthiest, strongest LDV that we can as a responsibility to our 1,200 employees. And therefore it has to be about smart business. In fact, the smart business is more strategic than opportunistic. You have to find the balance, the passion for the craft and the creative process that brought you here in the first place. In our eight years I see the need to let our new Philadelphia location be a unique restaurant unto itself. It’s different than the feel of Scarpetta in Miami. Even if the differences are nuanced, they’ll never be a chain restaurant. What’s so exciting about the 2016 restaurant business is growing up. The only scalable models used to be, in fact, chains. And that was kind of a bad word. It was good for business but it wasn’t where we necessarily wanted to dine. Now it becomes more of lifestyle brands, whereby brand DNA is consistent but the experience, and team of people, and the customers are specific to that place and therefore it’s still at its fundamental core, an independent restaurant. It’s a very fine nuanced line, but the more that we tune into that precisely; the more it allows us to maintain our passion. Each concept ends up with a local interpretation, versus what I see in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, with many of our competitors, which is a replication.
What are some of the other front of the house design changes that you’ve seen through the years that have evolved since ‘04, when you look at a space and how you’re trying to design it.
We like existing space with a history. When you convert an old industrial building, there’s a history. There’s always some ceilings 100 years old that were there that you can’t replicate, old New York City, industrial brick. Or the old braces in the ceiling. It’s a genuine sense of place. So whenever we can get that, that’s very appealing. The public wants authentic. Give them a reason to stay; to drink more, we need to turn the table on a human basis. Invite them to the bar; buy them a drink at the bar, so that we can get that table back. Let’s give them a great experience. Everyone in the industry wants to talk about quick service and all these trends. And I respect it and understand it from an analytical perspective.
But it’s not the business we’re in. All of our restaurants are purposely built with great reverence towards the building’s history.
What lies ahead as you look at 2017?
In 2017 we’re opening in Dubai, which will be our first international deal. We have an exciting hotel project coming to New York City. We haven’t finalized plans yet.
Do you see yourself ever doing anything else?
I don’t intend to ever do anything else. My goal is to build this to be as healthy and robust an organization as we can. It would be cute if my daughter wanted to be in the restaurant business. If she doesn’t, I won’t deter her. I don’t look at LDV as my personal family business. I look at it as our collective team. Some think I’m a deal junkie but I really believe the key to a healthy hospitality organization is in fact growth, because growth is the thing that affords the opportunity.
To learn more about John Meadow and LDV Hospitality, visit their website.