By Carly DeFilippo
What’s it like to be the co-owner and executive chef at one of New York’s most buzzed about restaurants? Just ask Daniel Holzman of The Meatball Shop.
As Daniel shared with current ICE Culinary Management students, his road to food fame was hardly a smooth one. His self-proclaimed “bad attitude” resulted in his being fired from many of his previous jobs. It’s hard to imagine the affable, funny Holzman as such a controversial personality, and he credits his shift in perspective and maturity, in large part, to his experience at TMS.
Holzman entered the restaurant world at the age of 14 and, from the beginning, was working through the ranks of high-end kitchens, including that of Le Bernadin. When it came time to choose a career path, however, he realized that only his ego aspired to become the executive chef at a fancy restaurant. In truth, Holzman knew he’d be much happier in a less grueling, more fun work environment – like that of The Meatball Shop. He explained that only a select few chefs have the tireless work ethic, talent and drive to survive in a top tier environment. Luckily, as Holzman proves, there are many kinds of culinary success.
Speaking of success, Holzman credits his to a number of different factors. He opened his restaurant with his best friend – a risky decision, but one that ultimately panned out, due to their complementary strengths. His partner, Michael Chernow – “the cool one”, in Holzman’s words – is more of a front-of-house personality, while Holzman oversees the kitchen. Daniel cautions that partnerships are like marriage, and he and Chernow went so far as to attend couples counseling for several years. He insists that you need to join forces with someone you like, that you can be brutally honest with and that you won’t hide behind if things go wrong. But Holzman’s most resonant advice regarding partnership was this: choose carefully what you fight for. There will be potential for arguments at every turn, and its best to save your influence for the times when it matters most to you. He went on to add that many things he has “let go” ultimately worked out the way he would have hoped.
To that point, Holzman finds, “Decisions are like money.” Running a small business, if you don’t have the ability to up employees’ pay, you can increase their stake in the business by providing them with more influence and responsibility. In fact, Holzman’s goal was always to create a business that wasn’t dependent on one person’s creativity, talent or personality. The employees who run his three – Lower East Side, Williamsburg and West Village – locations are as essential to TMS’ success as Holzman himself.
Another predicting factor of the shop’s success, for Holzman, was the business plan. He had been working for months on the elaborate idea of a Byzantine restaurant, but was struggling to write up a comprehensive plan. Once he and Chernow finally fell upon the meatball concept, writing a business plan became “easy”, and almost fun. To boot, because the duo wrote their own plan, (instead of relying on the guidance of a financial advisor or other mentor) they were able to persuasively respond to the questions of potential investors, who responded enthusiastically to the idea.
When it comes to growth, Holzman cautions against being too hasty. He and Chernow were very familiar with the LES neighborhood where they opened their first shop, but in moving to the West Village, they struggled to anticipate the habits and expectations of their clientele. Knowing a neighborhood is just one of the elements of thoughtful, slow growth that Holzman advises. He also suggests to try own as much as you can of each subsequent location, because the more investors you have, the more pressure there is to expand at an accelerated pace. In addition to managing multiple locations, press appearances and other engagements can interfere with the day-to-day management of a restaurant. To ensure smooth operation, Holzman knows he has to invest time on-site, working side-by-side with his staff.
When asked about hiring, Holzman referenced the old adage: to predict someone’s future, you can only look at their past. But good-natured, passionate and transparent, Holzman seems to have surpassed even his own expectations. Who knew opening a restaurant could be such a transformative experience?