By Stephen Zagor — Dean of Restaurant & Culinary Management Program

“Is New York Too Expensive for Restaurateurs?” read the recent New York Times headline. What’s going on here? Are we about to experience a restaurant Armageddon? To read recent well-written and thoughtful stories in The New York Times and New York Post about the extremely challenging New York business environment for new and existing restaurants, one would think we are on the threshold of a cataclysmic event. Will our lives be mostly composed of delivered meal kits and food courts?

New York City flatiron building

Well, skyrocketing rents are very problematic; the new labor laws and wage and hour policies are challenging; food and ingredient costs are never a bargain; and burdensome laws and regulations targeting food businesses appear in an endless stream. Each of these is a serious issue on its own. Now add doing business in New York City with its unique issues and sprinkle in intense competition from the most restaurants per capita anywhere in the United States. The result makes you wonder why anyone would be in this business. Let’s open a dry cleaning business – it must be easier.

But wait. Is this the whole picture? Maybe there is still one hugely important critical piece missing from the story and it could tilt the balance between feast and famine: Do most owner/operators really know how to run their businesses? To be a popular chef or even a restaurant owner doesn’t necessarily mean someone really knows the “how-tos” of the business of restaurants. After all, in calm or even choppy waters, the restaurant business is challenging but doable. Yet when the economic storms roll in, if you don’t really know the operating side of restaurants, there is no surviving. Read between the lines – all of the forces mentioned above (rents, higher wages, new laws and competition) are forces imposed from outside, tossing operators around like a ship in a storm. What’s missing here is what is going on inside the ship. Does the captain know what he/she is doing?

I was recently shown a space by a woman who is an experienced restaurant GM and budding restaurateur. It was a closed, fully built restaurant on a busy street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It could seat 40 guests plus a handful more at the tiny bar. She was in love with the space; it had the bones to become the cute café she had always dreamed of; it looked great and had a low investment and easy conversion; she even lived nearby. Then I saw the rent — it was astronomical. It required strong, seven-figure sales to survive just the landlord. If she had signed, she might have lasted a year. She would have been working for the landlord, not herself. It would have been just the beginning of not knowing how.

As a former owner/operator myself and a long-time consultant and educator, I have had the incredible opportunity to see behind the curtain of some of the most respected and famous chefs and operators in America. I also have an army of students who, after learning the “how-tos,” have gone on to work at major and minor food businesses only to discover that many restaurants survive on magic and luck. Words like recipes (knowing the true production cost of products), retailing (understanding the true purpose of your business), yields (how much is left to serve after trim and cooking), Q Factor (cost of the “free” items like bread basket, ketchup, mustard, etc.), and purchasing strategy (proper buying and receiving procedures) are unknown. I can name numerous celebrity chefs whose business acumen either doesn’t exist or is pushed to the side in the name of creativity. This doesn’t include those who play with the cash, and keep loose systems and accountability so as not to get caught.


This is not to say that the new wage laws, tip rules, rents, etc., aren’t major challenges. They definitely are. One celebrity chef recently noted in The New York Times that the way we operate now will not be the way we operate in the future. Still, it’s amazing the number of operators and chefs I have seen who appear successful but are really marginally profitable or not profitable at all. Some don’t even know how much they make. They are simply marketers hoping that “volume covers all sins.” When the going gets rough, it’s easy to look outside and blame everything else but yourself – especially when you may not know better.

Is proper culinary education helpful? It certainly could be. In the words of a student who came to ICE already the owner of a successful restaurant, “After I graduated, I put to use what I learned and made a lot more money with no more effort.” But maybe more knowledge will definitely help some. It won’t relieve the pains of a bad lease signed too quickly. But managing costs and maximizing revenues all present opportunities for change. It’s just knowing how.

Are NYC restaurants in a challenging time? Definitely. The way we have operated in the past will probably not be the way of the future. Being a great operator will require knowing how to run a successful business.

Want to study restaurant & culinary management at ICE? Click here for more info. 


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 of Culinary Management

Oh, here we go again. Our beloved Mayor Mike is trying to make us all better, and the world a nicer place. We’ve snuffed smoking in restaurants and most public places; melted trans fats; listed calories: letter graded food businesses; drained giant sweet drinks; and now, the food police are back. It’s time to start voluntary (to become mandatory) composting programs. In case anyone is unsure exactly what composting is, it’s essentially turning goop into gold. In effect, we take the massive amounts of food waste we all create—by one measure 30% of all of our garbage—and, through the magic of nature and a chorus of bacteria, recycle it into fertilizer.

Fruit skins? They can go straight in the compost bin.

Fruit skins? They can go straight in the compost bin.

In principle this is a wonderful thing. It reduces waste to landfills and makes unproductive productive. The world will definitely be a better place. But come on! This is New York, buddy! Hey! What plays well in San Francisco ain’t necessarily going make it to Broadway – got it? Well, let’s see.

As it is, we aren’t particularly good at recycling. NYC ranks pretty low on the list in green cities. (Think: have you ever seen a green recycle bin on a street corner next to a public trash can?)

Fish heads and vegetable trimmings can be used for stocks, but after their strained out? Compost 'em.

Fish heads and vegetable trimmings can be used for stocks, but after they’re strained out? Compost ’em.

In reality, it’s a well known fact that most consumers, including restaurants, struggle with the daily task of recycling bottles and cans. In the case of food businesses, “We have no room for all the containers and racks,” is a standard claim. One manager added, “They draw flies, roaches and rats.” In short, New York has some of the best laws on the books but following them is tough. So when it comes to composting, we shouldn’t be surprised that a recent poll revealed 64% of restaurateurs have no interest or ability to compost.

That said, there were mighty protests against the smoking ban, but today it works—and well. We railed against the calorie counts, but turned out to not be so bad. Those darn letter grades make our hair stand up, but seem to ultimately work. Will composting too become the norm?

That pepper core? Perfect for composting.

That pepper core? Perfect for composting.

Probably. Over a hundred restaurants have already signed on to participate. They know it won’t be easy, but in the end it’s the right thing to do. And do the guests care? Surprisingly no. A recent poll asked diners how important it is to them that a restaurant is committed to green sustainability initiatives. Only 26% said it mattered. No real PR here.

But sometimes doing the right thing is what really counts. “Aunt Michael” is doing what we won’t always do for ourselves—trying to make us and our environment healthier and safer. But, hey, it’s New York, and we love to disagree. Let’s hope that Big Apple spirit never goes stale. If it did, at least now I guess we can compost it.

Bullfrog and Baum

Meet The Culinary Entrepreneurs is an innovative lecture series featuring some of America’s top culinary business owners. The sessions, held throughout the year, are designed to bring some of the country’s best restaurateurs, specialty food retailers, caterers, and other business luminaries to ICE to speak with students in ICE’s Culinary Management program as well as guests.

Last Friday, Jennifer Baum, the Founder and President of Bullfrog & Baum Public Relations came to speak at ICE as part of the series. Baum’s company is an award-winning public relations and marketing agency specializing in food, hospitality, lifestyle and consumer public relations and brand management with offices in NYC and LA. Baum left a career in finance to start her company in 2000. In the past 12 years, they have worked to turn names like Laurent Tourondel and Michael Psilakis into internationally recognized brands while being a strategist for well-known chefs like Bobby Flay and Wolfgang Puck. Her other clients include Alex Guarnaschelli, Alain Ducasse, Richard Blais and Sara Moulton — a veritable who’s who of the food world. More…

Hurricane Irene may have been a bust for me, but its impact on the food industry wasn’t. For me, Friday was spent trying to prepare for the worst — from talking with others to try to figure out whether to close and what time to close, to figuring out what will happen on Monday if the power goes down over the weekend. We closely tuned into the news and weather reports to figure out when the storm was going to hit and employees were asked about how the closing of the MTA would affect their ability to get to work. I stayed later than usual at Smith Canteen on Friday in order to prepare for a shorter day on Saturday and got in earlier the next morning. I was in and out in just a few short hours and worried for the next two days about what would happen if the freezer broke. When I polled my other food friends, I learned that some volunteered to stay overnight in hotels in order to make sure the hotel guests were able to order room service during the storm. Many worried about how they would be able to get to work in time for their early morning shift if the subways were still down. I heard stories about how despite the early morning chaos and the great sales in the beginning of the day on Saturday did not make up for the loss in sales for Saturday night dinner and Sunday brunch. The truth is, even though everyone has to eat, the food industry is very much impacted by what goes on outside.

Before the madness of the storm, we met with Chef Ted to get a chef’s perspective on food costs in early August. He broke down beef and fish in order to give us a visual perspective of what types of portions come out of them and we used those portions to calculate food cost. It was fascinating watching him break down parts of beef to get a sense of what comes out of each section, but even more so to see how much gets trimmed away and how to use those trimmings so they’re not a loss. Finally, I understood why a steak is so expensive. More…

This week, the National Student Leadership Conference held their first ever Culinary Arts & Careers conference at ICE. For over 20 years, the National Student Leadership Conference (NSLC) has invited a select group of outstanding high school students to participate in its fast-paced, high-level and interactive summer sessions. NSLC provides students with the opportunity to experience life on a college campus; develop essential leadership skills; and explore a future career through exciting simulations, exclusive site visits and interactive meetings with renowned leaders in their chosen field.

Students came from all over the country to work with ICE’s Chef Instructors and learn the ins and outs of the culinary industry in America’s culinary capital — NYC. The students worked closely with ICE Chef Instructor Chris Gesualdi to develop their skills in the kitchen. Learning how to roast chickens, prepare vegetables and a plethora of other techniques. The students had just one week to learn the fundamentals of life in the kitchen. More…

Whew. ServSafe is now under my belt. My Culinary Management class took the exam early this month and we just got our scores back a few days ago. I’m happy to report that I passed. The refresher course has actually come at an ideal time as I just started a new job at Smith Canteen. My first few days involved trying to figure out how to arrange storage so that we were in compliance with health codes.

In the past weeks, Steve taught us about the restaurant experience for guests and opportunities for us to be great. He included ideas like having the chef visit all of the tables in the restaurant. He said that many people find being able to chat with the chef and be able to convey all of their ideas and concerns directly to the person in charge of the food is a great touch. However, he warned that the chef shouldn’t stand and hover creepily over diners without saying anything, because that becomes a negative experience. Last year, at Le Bernardin, I saw Eric Ripert glide out of the kitchen and come and visit one of the tables. Even though he didn’t visit my table, I remember how the entire dining room atmosphere changed and how thrilled I was to see that he was in the kitchen. More…

Three years ago, I crammed for the New York Food Handler’s Certificate. The potential illnesses in particular left a lasting impression on me — how was I ever going to eat again? For months, I only ate home-cooked meals — overcooked, dry chicken, salads so over-washed that they were broken and wilted and many, many bowls of cereal.

It took a long time to start eating out again. Even 3 years later, I stare down the cashier to see if he handles my food with the same dirty hands he uses to take my cash, I go through a box of disposable gloves over two days and tie my hair in a bun so tight that I have a headache when I let it loose. I try not to think about all of the diseases I can get from my food. Yes, I will always send back a pink chicken, but I still love my eggs sunny side up. If I think about it too much, I can’t finish my meals.

For the past few weeks, I have been reintroduced to the world of unsanitary conditions and foodborne illnesses via preparing for the ServSafe exam. Yesterday, my alarm went off in the middle of a nightmare. I had been dreaming about catching mice when I heard something tapping. When I looked over, I saw a pink lobster jumping across the floor. Then my alarm went off and I was scared awake. It was only an hour later, when we started covering rodent infestation in class, that I realized I had a dream about a mice infestation and an unsafe runaway lobster. Although we’ve finished reviewing all of the chapters and ServSafe videos, I expect that for the next few weeks I will continue to have dreams about jumping pink lobsters. More…

The past two weeks have been all about visiting guests and field trips. I remember that as an undergraduate, guests and trips were rare. In fact, I remember loathing trips because they involved awkward subway and bus transfers and getting shuffled around museums like a crowd of tourist sheep. I could never hear the teacher talk and I was always getting elbowed by some sightseer trying to inch closer and worse, I would end up in the corner of their photographs, looking sullen about having to wake up early for the trip.

But fortunately, this was different. Jasmine Dadlani and an associate visited us from Cramer-Krasselt marketing and communications agency to talk about current food trends. They discussed the underlying trends and what drives them, such as pop-up restaurants and using guerilla-marketing tactics like Twitter to drive customers to your business. It was very interesting to get the professional perspective behind things I have been noticing in the food industry!

Next, Vin McCann came in to talk about leases and costs. His work history ranges from turning real estate into international franchises and opening a small hotel in the Adirondacks. He has experience in all aspects of the field from catering and quick service to fine dining and consulting. He spoke about what makes a good location for pedestrian traffic, vehicular traffic, and about judging the competition and market health in an area. I asked about whether my hometown would be a good place to open a bakery and his answer was probably not! Good thing it was no more than an idea.

Last week, we paired up with another Culinary Management class (and Vin) and visited Peter Esmond, the Director of Operations at Rouge Tomate. We took a single train from 23rd to 60th and walked less than 2 blocks (score!). Like true VIPs, we walked in during their pre-opening hours and had a quiet private tour of the space and the kitchen (no elbowing involved). This time, I got to take a tourist photo with Peter as the centerpiece and Steve standing in the corner. Already, it was better than any other field trip I have ever taken. More…

My first week of class has been amazing. Before starting, a small part of me was panicking about juggling school, work and my business. This last week was tough. I’m scheduled to work until about 1:00 am, but class starts at 8:00 am and I love my sleep, so get up in the morning can be a battle. Also, this past Tuesday Macaron Parlour started a week-long pop-up shop at Henri Bendel, so I spent every spare moment baking and planning. As the pop-up winds down, I think things will be less crazy, but even if every week is like the last two, this class is worth it. Both Steve Zagor and Julia Heyer come to the class with so much knowledge and energy that I’m both startled awake and willing to prop my eyelids open with pencils to make sure I don’t miss a single thing.

In my previous career, I was an avid reader of Eater, Grub Street, Serious Eats, and all of the fun online food gossip. I read about restaurant openings, drooled over photos and had mini crushes on chefs I’ll probably never meet. Once I actually started working in a kitchen, my grasp on industry knowledge and current news went out the window. BP oil spil? I know about the grapeseed oil I just spilled in the dry storage area. Earthquake in Japan? I think I caught a glimpse on TV while getting ready for work. Martha Stewart’s pop-up pie shop? I made plans to go two weeks after it closed.

So, it is a pleasure to discover that part of our Wednesday curriculum involves catching up on current events. We’ve been advised to keep an eye on New York Times Dining Section, Nation’s Restaurant News, Crain’s and Eater. I wondered if much has changed since I last sat down to catch up on the industry. Well, I read my first Sam Sifton review and I can’t really figure out his true opinion. I wondered if suing McDonald’s over the Happy Meal toy will really do anything. In any case, it’s nice to finally sit down and catch up on what’s new. More…

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