By Carly DeFilippo

As the Dean of ICE’s School of Business & Management StudiesSteve Zagor oversees one of the most innovative culinary business programs in the country. He has mentored countless alumni—from Jim Nawn of Agricola Eatery to Jason Soloway of Wallflower, Mark Sy of Vien to Christina Ha of Macaron Parlour. In fact, those four students-turned-entrepreneurs hail from just one of Steve’s graduating classes. Multiply their success by his 10+ years as a teacher (not to mention his lengthy career as a restaurateur and consultant) and you’ll get a ballpark idea of Steve’s undeniable impact on today’s culinary industry.

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Growing up in New York City, Steve’s parents were friends with a number of successful restaurateurs, most notably the owners of historic speakeasy the 21 Club. So after his undergraduate studies at Tulane, it was no surprise to Steve’s friends and family when he chose to pursue a Master’s degree at Cornell’s renowned hotel school, with the intention of one day returning to the New York restaurant scene.

Yet after a three-year stint at Marriott Hotels, which “taught him how to make money” in the business, Steve bypassed New York for a more ambitious project in the American south, opening the 300-seat “New York Café” in Houston, Texas. At the mere age of 26, this first entrepreneurial venture was a home run. Not only was Steve a local hero, but he was also written up as the “hippest lunch spot in Texas” in Rolling Stone. His business expanded to a small restaurant empire, including “the best deli in Texas”, a cafe with singing waiters and a huge off-premises catering service. But in the ninth year of the New York Café’s ten-year lease, Steve’s landlord announced he wanted to build a high-rise on the property.

Steve has even coached the pros—current and former NFL players—on the ins and outs of the restaurant business.

Steve has even coached the pros—current and former NFL players—on the ins and outs of the restaurant business.

Finding the opportunity in this unexpected turn of events—an essential skill he teaches our Culinary Management students—Steve sold his business to pursue work in corporate food & beverage consulting. That is, until he met the “crazy brilliant, genius IQ” Shelley Fireman of The Fireman Group. Steve couldn’t resist Fireman’s offer to oversee management at Midtown’s trendy Trattoria del Arte, boasting 170 employees and an unbeatable celebrity clientele. Steve describes the work as so engaging that he barely cared about the grueling hours.

But after three years at one of New York’s top Italian restaurants, Steve was itching to try his hand at something new and lay his stakes on a restaurant in Greenwich, CT. Yet unlike his “home run” in Houston, the Greenwich restaurant was a challenge from the get-go. Opened during one of the snowiest winters in New England history, the restaurant had too many investors and not enough success to sustain the venture. Today, Steve credits this failure as much as his success in his formation as a teacher. “Your life is how you handle the bad times,” he says, and having instructors who have weathered such failures is of inherent value to any business education.

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Steve returned to consulting and began teaching at New York University. In 2001, he joined the faculty of ICE’s Culinary Management program and was named program director later that year. A charismatic lecturer himself—known for the occasional magic trick and his stand-up comedy style—Steve knew he wanted to diversity our students’ experience. Since then, he regularly taps into his wide network of contacts to invite successful culinary entrepreneurs to speak with our students or integrate field trips into the curriculum, expanding both the diversity of our students’ educational experience and their access to networking opportunities.

Today, Steve maintains an active consulting practice—as do all ICE management instructors In his long list of clients, he has worked with everyone from Federal Express to Universal Studios, Paul Newman to the Time Warner Center in New York City, and is frequently quoted as an industry expert in the media. This year, Steve and his Culinary Management colleagues have also added a new consulting division to ICE’s roster of services—offering clients the combined expertise of our top-notch faculty, while simultaneously providing students with a first-hand opportunity to work on the next generation of culinary businesses.

Despite all his success, what is perhaps most impressive about Steve is the endless hours he spends mentoring our students and alumni. His sage advice always comes with a side of salty humor, generating an enviable list of witty one-liners that sum up his wealth of wisdom and experience. With his deep connections to the industry and New York as his classroom, it’s safe to say that a day in Steve’s class is unlike any other.

 

By Stephen Zagor, Dean, School of Business and Management Studies

Living in New York City and partaking in its incredible culinary scene often leads to an inflated food ego. How can we learn anything from chefs or owners outside of NYC, the cradle of modern culinary civilization?

As it turns out, John Gorham, the well-known and successful chef/owner of Toro Bravo and two other Portland, Oregon restaurants, has quite a few things to teach us. He spoke at ICE as the latest guest in our Meet the Culinary Entrepreneur series. In his modest and unassuming way, John shared important lessons about running a successful restaurant, whether in New York City, Portland or beyond.

Courtesy of Portland Monthly Magazine

Courtesy of Portland Monthly Magazine

For almost two hours John captivated the room with his story of growth and development, both personally and professionally. He opened Toro Bravo, his flagship Spanish Tapas style restaurant, over five years ago for $180,000, and crowds still line up daily. Later came his next two restaurants, both carefully crafted to fill a market niche: Tasty n Sons, a neighborhood brunch-centric restaurant and Tasty n Alder, a steak house that also caters to the brunch crowd.

According to Gorham, all of his restaurants have shown positive cash flow in just month one, with total capital investments paid off in under a year. Not bad for a man who sees himself as just a simple guy from North Carolina who started making charcuterie on a whim.

courtesy of LizCrain.com

Courtesy of lizcrain.com

Gorham’s lessons don’t end there. He and his team go out of their way to make sure that all employees are treated well. His chefs and managers work only four days a week—a schedule that is almost unheard of in New York City’s culinary scene. Working fewer days allows Gorham’s employees to maintain work-life balance and show up to work well-rested and focused. Gorham himself tries to keep a balanced life, taking weekends off and keeping Sundays free to spend with his wife and kids.

As far as a marketing strategy, John doesn’t use PR or advertising and thinks social media is overrated. He prefers to promote business through charities and local events. He realizes that the appeal of his restaurants are their party-like atmosphere and sells over 40% of his revenue in alcohol. And he pays well, too—waiters make $10.00/hr plus tips (the state regulated minimum wage) and his kitchen staff starts at $14.00 per hour. Add to that the lower cost of living in Oregon, and it all seems pretty enticing. Does John really work for the local Chamber of Commerce?

Courtesy of Kacheff.com

Courtesy of Kacheff.com

Has it all been great? Of course not. John described a falling out with an early partner who he still doesn’t speak to. He mentioned that the original $180,000 investment was too low, resulting in cheap equipment that broke almost immediately and cost even more to replace. He’s been sued from time to time and has learned many hard lessons along the way.

Despite these bumps in the road, Gorham has enjoyed tremendous success as a business man and restaurateur. When asked if he would ever open a place outside of Portland, he commented: “Not likely. There is still a lot of opportunity in Portland.” It’s a smart, conservative comment from the “simple guy from North Carolina” who taught us New Yorkers a thing or two. “Take it slow and know how to how to manage money,” he said. Good advice from a winner.

ICE’s Culinary Management Instructors are seasoned industry professionals who are still active in the industry, working on their own projects while teaching classes at ICE. With such a wide range of experience between them, we decided to ask Julia Heyer and Vin McCann to take a closer look at some of the trends and culinary businesses we keep hearing so much about. Their first post was about NBC’s America’s Next Great Restaurant. Now that the winner of the show has closed his restaurants, they decided to revisit the show.

Julia Heyer
About a month ago, a new restaurant closed its doors within weeks of opening — generally a bit of a non-event in NYC. However, in this case it garnered some news as it had been the winning ‘concept’ of America’s Next Great Restaurant, the TV show we didn’t lose any love for in our first blog post here.

Restaurants are a tough industry to break into in general — but what if you can’t even make it given financial backing, “mentoring” by some industry experts (and unknowns presented as such), the operations machine of Chipotle behind it, good locations and national marketing on a level an ordinary operator can only dream of? What went wrong here?

The cynic in me asks where to start. Well, number 1: Opening one restaurant is no picnic. Trying to open THREE, at the same time, in COMPLETELY different areas of the country seemed like a, well I could call it less prudent, but really, just mind bogglingly DUMB idea from the beginning — especially with a NEW concept that will need to be honed, tweaked and adjusted. And yes, all concepts need that in the beginning, no matter who the operator is or how genius the idea seems.

Vin McCann
Of course the idea was stupid and unsurprisingly it failed. I don’t normally think of you as cynical, Julia, and true to form, you are simply not cynical enough. The show was canceled after the first season, but the producers had to deliver on their promise of a new national chain with three versions of a new concept in three different markets at the same time. Without the ratings to continue on it was a matter of just getting it done — here today, gone tomorrow. One has to wonder what the lease terms of the Soul Daddy locations were — 60 to 90 days? Despite doing sales the store in downtown NYC didn’t stay open long enough to determine if it was a viable business or not. It was just a continuation of the show’s script, and the ending had been written well in advance. More…