Executive Director, Altamarea Group
New York City and the nation’s restaurants continue to welcome back guests and find their definition of the ‘new normal’. With that in mind, Total Food Service was introduced to one of the true innovators that is shaping the industry’s comeback: Susan Lee.
In her role as Executive Director at Altamarea Group, Susan Lee brings a unique perspective. She is an experienced operator and director with proven success in not only the NYC restaurant and hospitality industries, but also in hotel and food & beverage as well.
For over 20 years, Susan has been known for her back of the house/front of the house prowess and strong financial and administrative acumen. For entrepreneurs including Altamarea’s Ahmass Fakahany and Starr Restaurant’s Stephen Starr, her skill set of leadership, educator and encourager of change was a key to them building their empires.
TFS is thrilled to share Susan Lee’s perspective on the industry’s recovery and beyond.
For those of our readers who don’t know you, what got you interested in the restaurant industry?
I started in the early 90s as a busser at Armando’s, a very popular restaurant in New Jersey. I was in high school at the time, just a young kid looking for some summer money, and I got hired. I was very quickly promoted to be a server, and the owner told me that I was meant for this industry. That was kind of all it took. I instantly fell in love with it. However, it took a while before I realized that the restaurant industry would be my career path. I went to Simmons College in Boston as an English major. I originally wanted to be a writer, either a screenwriter or novelist, but in college, I worked at a Spanish tapas restaurant as a server, then as a cook, then a sous chef. I realized I was more passionate about the restaurant industry and decided to change career paths. To do that, I needed to get more education, so I applied to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), got in, and I went. At CIA, I learned that I could work through just about any situation.
Has the network that often comes with the CIA been valuable to you as well?
Yes, absolutely. The association and the name, CIA, garners so much respect, especially since I was an older graduate of that institution.
Walk us through your career track, what happened after CIA?
I was going to go back-of-house again and be a chef but then I was presented with an amazing opportunity to be a captain at Oceana, such a prestigious restaurant, working for the Livanos family. Their restaurants are amazing, and they know what they’re doing. They understand that it’s about genuine hospitality and serving really good food. I was their first female captain. They offered me a maître d position and allowed me to continue my growth but then I was offered an opportunity to be a captain and open Gordon Ramsay at the London Hotel.
What was it like to go from one extreme to another, working for the Livanos to working for Gordon Ramsay?
It was certainly two very different experiences. I went from the tried-and-true New York industry to this very prestigious London group that hadn’t navigated New York City waters just yet. It was certainly eye-opening for them and eye-opening for me. I learned so much from the hotel opening. It was so hyped-up and talked about that when we opened the doors, people and paparazzi were eagerly waiting. It was a union hotel, so I learned how to navigate line-level staff and better my communication standards to become a more effective manager.
What led you to the opportunity at Altamarea?
I had actually worked at Altamarea as a service director when it first opened in 2010. I worked my way up, really loved my time, but then I wanted to expand my wings and do more in operations, so I pursued different opportunities. I worked for the Starr Restaurant Group for almost eight years, another amazing learning experience for me. If there is one thing that Stephen Starr knows, it is how to operate multiple businesses. The recipes, the standards, and the protocols are all there. It was like getting my Masters in restaurant operations. From there, Ahmass Fakahany from Altamarea came to me directly to step in a new position as the Executive Director. He told me that he wanted me to come back home.
What are the lessons that you took from that?
One of the greatest things about the Altamarea group is that it operates because of the people that it employs. It is successful because of its team. Ahmass gives so much autonomy to his team that he lets you pretty much run the entire process. He trusts his employees. The executive team, we’re small, but we’re very tight-knit. There’s a lot of open communication, and he doesn’t let anyone falter on their own. It is such a great support. Ahmass leads by example, so you really couldn’t ask for anything more or better from an operator or owner of a restaurant company.
The business has changed dramatically over the last 16 months. Can you talk about changes that you’ve seen and going forward, what do you expect that to look like?
Every restaurant has had to pivot in some way in order to survive the pandemic. We went from some of the busiest times we have ever seen in the restaurant industry to being almost completely decimated by the pandemic. It forced everyone to reevaluate what was important to them and what really mattered. It was really great to see how the industry came together to support each other through all of it. It really became like this family unit where we all knew it was either sink or swim for all of us. The way it galvanized the industry in New York is really amazing. There is still so much more that needs to be done to help us recover and get back to business as normal.
What is needed to completely recover?
It’s more than just money. I think that if restaurant industry people are just in it for money, they are in the wrong industry. We do this because we enjoy being in the service of other people. We are driven by hospitality. It is something that we’re passionate about. It is a labor of love for so many people, especially people like the line cooks and back-of-house employees who don’t get paid nearly as much as they should. It’s about maintaining the morale and showing appreciation for the restaurant industry, and evolving how we’re treated and how we treat our staff so they know that there is support within the industry.
When you look at the impact, one of the things I’ve noticed is the tremendous growth in the take-out and delivery aspect. What is your approach to take-out and delivery?
Altamarea was fantastic. It was a great example of how we pivoted as a company. Obviously, people were unable to dine-out, but they still wanted to have the food and restaurant experience in some capacity. We did a lot of pasta kits and full meals and things like that and it was hugely popular. Even when indoor dining resumed, take-out continues to provide a great option for guests who don’t feel comfortable eating inside, who are immunocompromised or are uncomfortable with the current situation. It’s been very positive for them to have that restaurant feeling without having to venture out.
One of the challenges of the industry coming back is finding staff. What are your thoughts in terms of where we are with that and what have you done to find the work staff to be successful?
For the Altamarea group, it hasn’t been as challenging because it is a tried-and-true company. People know it for its consistency and level of excellence. I’m sure it is due in part to the length of time that people have stayed with the company. There is nothing better than word of mouth, knowing that if you join a company like Altamarea group, that it is sustainable and livable. There is an appreciation, affirmation, and acknowledgement so that is how we have always stepped forward. We don’t approach it as a high and mighty stance, but people know that we stand for the highest quality and excellence in everything that we do, so we present that when we interview and meet candidates. Then they come to the restaurant and see how maintained they are and how happy the staff is. You can’t fake those kinds of things.
We’re assuming that at one point you had to lay some people off. Were you able to bring those people back?
Yes, people were furloughed. We brought back as much staff as we could and continue to reach out. A lot of people left the city, but they know that when they want to come back to New York, they are always welcome to reach out. Staff would even reach out to Ahmass personally.
How beneficial was the money from the restaurant relief grant program in bringing staff back? At some point, are you going to face the challenge of bringing them back to the compensation they were at previously, and how will you manage that?
The relief funds were primarily used for payroll purposes to bring people back. Luckily, guests dining in have been very generous, so front-of house staff have been compensated in the same way and maybe a little bit better than they were previously. In terms of back-of-house staff, we are the most competitive, in that we do a lot of research looking at what others in the industry are paying so we can always match it and make sure we are staying on top of it.
The Altamarea group was able to build a portfolio of 15 restaurants around the world. What are some of the lessons that you’ve learned? What are some of the similarities of being successful in each of the markets and some of those differences?
I think it is the people aspect. You have to be able to give people a piece of it and let them know they’re part of the decision-making process. Anything that affects them, they need to be let in on. I think some of the most successful openings are those where the team really felt like they were part of the process. As far as pitfalls, no matter the systems you have in place, there’s always some variables that you can’t control and, in those situations, it is about taking it in stride and figuring it out, being on the ground and troubleshooting with them.
How do you manage the complexities of the different marketplaces in each location of Altamarea’s restaurants?
There are people in each region that understand the workforce and they are there to help us navigate those staff relations. We don’t come in just as New Yorkers and expect everyone to do it the New York way. We know that we have to be mindful, sensitive, and acknowledge that there are cultural differences. We always make sure that we do the right thing by the people that we employ.
What about the supply chain in different marketplaces? Do you have to look to see what you can create menu-wise or do you fly things in that you need? How does it all come together?
We definitely always keep the supply chain in mind. There are very few things that we outsource because that is not bringing the economy to the actual place in which we are doing business. We try to use local foods as much as possible. We are mindful of agricultural differences in the global locations compared to the United States, and don’t try to outsource anything more than is absolutely necessary.
One of the things we did want to touch on, was the departure of Michael White. Any lessons for those of us in the industry to learn from the difficulties and challenges of partnerships?
Everybody needs to do what is right by them. I think one thing that the pandemic really showed us was that people need to make their own decisions and we wish them the best.
So, crystal ball, what do you see ahead for yourself? What do you see ahead for Altamarea?
I see Altamarea doing fantastic in the next 10 years. It is such a great recipe, I mean people love the food, the consistency is there, and the commitment and love are there. I see more global expansion of the brand. As far as my place here, as long as Ahmass wants me and we can continue partnering and I can continue learning from him and continue to grow the business, I am here with him. I am a life-long learner. The day you stop learning is the day you die.
All photos courtesy of Altamarea Group. To learn more, visit their website.