Ahmass Fakahany & Chef Michael White Q&A

Brick by brick they built the Altamarea Group with a shared vision to create restaurant brands that are distinct in concept but united in delivering unsurpassed quality and outstanding service. Total Food sat down with Ahmass Fakahany to discuss Altamarea Group’s beginning and future.

Where did the name Altamarea come from?

Altamarea means high-tide in Italian. We liked very much the name Marea, or “tide” for our flagship restaurant on Central Park South. We were contemplating between either for the restaurant but chose to stick with our first instinct and call the restaurant Marea. Now, five years later, 2 Michelin Stars awarded, James Beard Best New Restaurant 2009, and a Relais & Chateaux classification, we are glad we did. With that said, we decided to call the umbrella group, Altamarea, given the association and the over-arching nature of the word

What brought you both together? And what drives both your passions for this industry?

There was a natural chemistry that brought us together. One of us was a Merrill Lynch & Co. President & COO who had business acumen but a passion for food & beverage and the other a Chef who lived and loved the culinary arena but also had a strong business interest. These different yet complementary skills blended nicely and brought us together. We first met at restaurant Fiamma in Soho, New York where Michael was the chef. I would prepare for client business speeches in the private events space while Michael listened and we began discussing both financial markets and food. We decided we would work together when the time was right.

What makes a restaurant successful in your eyes?

The two “Ps” – Passion and Paranoia, simultaneously. Besides the core importance of uncompromising quality of product and service, a restaurant’s success in our minds is tied to two key things. 1. Retention and development of our key talent and 2. An intense client focus. This means knowing your client, listening to the client, anticipating their needs and then exceeding those expectations.

You’ve resisted the opportunity to duplicate concepts in multiple locales. Why is each restaurant a separate concept?

We have some concepts that are distinct, separate and one-off. In some cases that is the right stance and keeps a unique element to the idea and concept. But we also have a strong “ neighborhood” restaurant part of our strategy and direction. Those neighborhood restaurants can be replicated in other communities, and we have done that. But we concurrently make sure they are also aligned with the local environment and client needs. Osteria Morni is one such key example. It is a rustic and fun Osteria featuring food from the Emilia Romagna area of Italy, a true neighborhood restaurant. We have one in Soho, New York, one in New Jersey and one in Washington D.C. They are all very similar yet have distinct differences too.

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Are you in the real estate business or the people business?

We are no doubt in the people business. Our entire aspirations sit on the shoulders of our quality talent and the loyalty of our clients and new clients we interact with everyday. This is also a labor intensive business. To succeed you must spend much time on the Human Resources component and ensuring training, proper benefits and other aspects to support the employee is in place. This does not mean we should not be extremely focused on the real estate piece of the deal, as it can hurt you badly. But our engine and our fuel are our talent and our clients.

From the very beginning you’ve been committed to supporting charities in your communities. Why?

All of our transactions are very long-term. We are not in a hurry; we are part of the communities we serve and become part of the overall fabric of the location. From that comes natural and needed philanthropy that is important to our neighbors and clients who regularly visit our restaurants. It is a good feeling and the right thing to do for Altamarea as an organization.

What’s your approach to building your teams? Front of the house? Back of House?

For both the Front and Back of the House, we provide growth opportunities and experiences for all the deserving employees then we also rotate many across our properties so they can have a different experience in different concepts with different price points. This results in cultivating a more developed player with breadth and depth. We take this very seriously and spend a lot of time on it. Almost all our promotions, as a result, are internally sourced and the retention level of our key talent is fortunately quite high.

Low pay and job insecurity has led to an exceedingly high turnover rate, compared with other businesses. This is costly for restaurateurs and chef-owners, who contend that they cannot afford to offer higher wages or benefit. What’s your take and approach?

Employees who feel and have better job security are better performers and have the greatest chance of developing the needed “owner mentality.” The owner mentality helps develop a culture of excellence and of performing one’s role in a broader fashion …. You care more about the business and the property. We do all we can to pay very competitively and have put in place a very clear performance and reward system. Every employee in a position of influence gets a review and appraisal, and we set goals and objectives and measure them. We have tons of passion and soul in all we do, but we also have to have a process that is fair and rewards deserving superior contribution and performance.

How has the marketing of your restaurant evolved with the advent of social media? Is Yelp good or bad for the customer, or the operator?

All feedback from different avenues is good for the customer. It also keeps us on our toes, which is also good for the customer. Yes, there is certainly periodic newspaper and magazine reviews, but we are also now reviewed every day and hour from all angles, and globally too, from social media. There is nowhere to hide, and we like those odds. It forces a better product and service experience with all these feedback mechanisms and helps you consistently raise your standards. Naturally, as a result and in symmetry, we have also built our social media capabilities extensively to engage with our client and prospective client. It is fun and very interactive.

What’s your approach to the design of your restaurants?

A. “Go-to” architect/designed or variety

It varies. We together set the design and the concept, and have very strong views on all the details. We work with different architects and designers depending on the circumstance. We also do some of the design work ourselves.

B. “Go-to” kitchen consultant and equipment supply dealer

As the kitchen requirements have become more complex. We work with a premier kitchen consultant on most of our key projects. We vary the equipment supplier depending on who is best in class at the point in time.

What’s your approach to purchasing food & beverage?

A. Do you go to bid daily/weekly?

It is a combination. For the level of fresh produce we require, we have daily deliveries from multiple vendors. For hard goods we can focus on more reliable sources weekly or monthly. For fish, for example, we have multiple vendors as not one has all we need at any given time and availability fluctuates. Given the variety we need and locations we source from globally, we also need extensive range and flexibility. We believe the client can really taste and hopefully appreciate the difference in quality.

B. Do you look to build long term relations by paying a little more in return for quality & value?

Certainly, now that we have the 15 restaurants in the Altamarea Group, we can build deeper relationships because of our scale to assure quality. We have strong relationships with large organizations as well as several local farms and purveyors close to our restaurants. It is a win-win for everyone.

What are the differences in creating successful properties in “Jersey/the suburbs” VS. Manhattan?

Out in the suburbs, we feel we have to be even more aware of the local community and what drives its pulse and its highs and lows – and being part of the location. ‘What is our customer thinking about lately? What would our customer prefer? What is happening in the township, etc.?’ These are the questions we ask ourselves. At times we have less density and more of a “repeat” customer so we also have to pay close attention to keeping the menu fresh and interesting. Constant awareness to quality is imperative regardless of being out of the fast paced environment of NYC.

Crystal ball – what will the Altamarea Group look like 5 years from now? 10 years?

Hopefully, we still feel and act small but we ALWAYS have and always will think big. It will be an organization driven by excellence, creativity, and new levels of client service. We will have a diverse and empowered team from all walks of life that represent our clients and our geographic reach – we will be multi- cultural. We will be more global in presence and hopefully have best in class practices. We will be still smiling, having fun and always remember that food and wine soothes the soul.