Restaurant Consultant Vin McCann

By Carly DeFilippo

“Everybody thinks they know how you should run your restaurant,” says Culinary Management instructor Vin McCann. “But what really matters—and what I focus on as a consultant—is the early stages of a project. The initial choices can be make or break. If you start on the wrong foot, you’re likely to end up crippled.”

As an executive for such iconic restaurant groups and corporations as Shelly Fireman’s Café Concepts, American Hospitality or National Restaurants Management, Vin has truly seen it all. In his seven years at National Restaurants alone, he oversaw more than $300 million worth of projects in more than 100 different venues. So when it comes to knowing where the money goes—and where new business operators trip up—you’re unlikely to meet a more seasoned expert.

Vin’s beginnings in the restaurant industry, however, were somewhat accidental. After graduating from law school, he tried his hand at writing professionally, supplementing his income with restaurant work. Eventually, he opened up his own Irish pub in Washington, D.C., followed by a 17-room inn in New Hampshire. But he soon found himself curious to “get serious about the business side of the business,” which is how he ended up working on the opening of Shelley Fireman’s iconic Café Tartufo. From there, Vin grew his new career under Fireman and eventually National Restaurants Management, establishing himself as a sought-after multi-unit operations manager.

After more than 40 years—and 100+ restaurant openings—in the industry, Vin’s career is truly in a sweet spot. Today, he and fellow ICE Culinary Management Instructor Julia Heyer work together as private consultants on an incredible range of projects, including Noma founder Claus Meyer’s upcoming $16 million project in Grand Central Station.

Vin and Julia have also worked on various smaller restaurants, including the West Village outposts of ICE alumni Mark Sy and Michelle Gardner: Viên (a healthy, Southeast Asian quick service concept) and Chalait (the city’s first dedicated matcha bar), respectively. Yet no matter the scope of the project he’s worked on, Vin is proud to say that he has always left a company in a better position than when he started—an incredible feat in an industry renowned for intense competition.

Watch Vin coach a new restaurant owner in our Restaurant Success video series:

So after all these years, why does Vin keep at it? “I like the pace, the rhythm of the business. You come to work, get set, there’s a rush, it ends and then you start all over again. We always say, it’s a disease—you either have it or you don’t. There’s a lot of moving parts, and for them all to work well—shift after shift, after shift—that’s where the real skill comes in.”

As for teaching, that’s a passion that Vin learned during his many years as a Chief Operating Officer at National Restaurants: “Once you’re managing several properties, you no longer get the hands-on satisfaction of the guest experience, but I really enjoy developing someone who starts out as a ‘know-nothing’ into an impressive, productive manager.”

Want to study with Vin? Click here to learn more about ICE’s Culinary Management program.


Does your restaurant have what it takes to thrive, or will it be just a flash in the pan? With this advice from ICE’s industry experts in American Express’s four-part Restaurant Success Series, learn how proper employee training and responding to customer feedback can help build a stable, profitable business. Plus, understand how to create a cost-effective menu that sells and discover how getting your manager out of the office and onto the sales floor can give you a leg up in this competitive industry.

For more tips on staying ahead of the curve, we consulted with ICE Culinary Management Instructor Vin McCann. Below, see his 7-step strategy for developing a marketable product and building customer loyalty:

  1. Research: Learn about your market—for example, are there already restaurants like your concept (potential competitors) nearby?
  2. Concept: Differentiate yourself in the market by developing a unique product.
  3. Strategy: Develop a business plan, taking into account costs, product, design and more.
  4. Funding: Raise at least 30% more money than you think you’ll need.
  5. Train: Your staff is the primary factor in whether or not new clients become regulars. Ensure they understand and can execute your vision through thorough training.
  6. Guests: They are your indicators of success, so take their feedback seriously.
  7. Observe: Monitor your costs, profits and losses and adjust as needed.

Learn more about the logistics, design and execution of restaurant success at ICE’s School of Culinary Management.

While so much of the allure of owning and operating a food-based business is focused on the cooking and baking, it’s the core business matters for which those in the trade often need the most ongoing support.  Improving a recipe often comes more naturally than maximizing profit margins.  Learning from experienced peers is critical to keeping both dreams and business alive and thriving.

In preparation for ICE’s new One Day Restaurant School program, an exclusive six-hour management seminar for restaurant owners and managers to learn skills to improve their business and grow their revenue, seasoned industry professionals Vin McCann and Julia Heyer sat with us to discuss the many challenges that restaurateurs face when attempting to successfully plan, launch and run a food business.

Vin McCann
Every opportunity I get to meet with a restaurant owner, I marvel at both the nerve and effort each of them has relied on to get into business.  Whatever feeds these characteristics:  whether a passion to excel, a sharp market insight, or the desire for the restaurant life, it is admirable.  But all too often I find that the praiseworthy determination has not been tempered with any solid, coherent business planning.  In fact it is often not tempered at all.  Start-up costs explode budgets.  Snappy designs are marred by dysfunctional production facilities.  Ill-conceived restaurant concepts miss their hoped for target guests.  Many stores open without sufficient training.  Businesses generating healthy sales are unproductive when it comes to profits.  The list of critical oversights is long and costly, and reminds me of that old oil filter commercial tag-line, “pay me now, or pay me later.”  How many operations could be saved or enhanced if they spent the time and whatever money it took to plan the management strategies for each vital areas of their business.

Julia Heyer
Oh wow, Vin, you are getting me started on one of my favorite topics, and something I tend to spend a lot of time on with my clients:  the planning – or often rather unfortunate lack thereof – during the design and pre-opening phase. Restaurant development is complex puzzle. Entrepreneurs generally realize this, but unfortunately they underestimate the pieces involved, mistaking the challenge for an 8,000 piece puzzle, when there really are 15,000 pieces they need to consider.  In other words: It is not that people don’t ask questions… they often simply do not know which questions to ask and in which order.

A prime example: the 6 foot wide dish drop table for a 480 seat casual restaurant, planning on serving 425 guests per hour, using 8 different types of glasses and 12 styles of plate-ware…. Can you see where I’m going here?

Do some basic math and it turns out each of the guest uses an average of 2.5 glasses, 4.5 plates and 3 pieces of silverware. That makes 950 glasses, over 1,900 plates and 1,275 pieces of silverware hitting those 6 feet every hour. That’s 32 plates per minute hitting those six feet alone. You can’t squeeze enough dishwashers in the area to handle the volume and avoid serious breakage.  Details matter, especially the functional ones.

Vin McCann
It’s no exaggeration, Jules. Details do matter, and restaurants unlike so many other retail businesses are all about function.  We make, sell, and serve our products.  Connecting the dots through those responsibilities under the banner of a coherent concept is trip down the rabbit hole of minutia.  Whether the size of the dish drop table, or the size of the menu, the failure to address every connection point brings start-ups and loosely managed operations that much closer to failure.

It is impossible to stress too much the need to understand the market, make the right location choice, avoid the pitfalls of a bad lease, or conduct comprehensive competitive research. Small margin businesses call for a critical eye for detail.  Unless the marginal profits after food and labor are sufficient to cover the other costs, the thought of making profits up in volume is delusional.   Food and beverage portion control, along with recipe costing is vital to both consistency and profitability, but too many operators fail to engage in them.   A good idea is simply not enough to launch a successful restaurant, and the effort and money invested must be tethered to concept and operational planning buttressed by realistic sales and profitability projections.  It ain’t rocket science, but it takes time, effort and team work to navigate the process.

Julia Heyer
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Oh, we’ll figure that piece out once we are open.” It’s nearly as good as “we’ll fix that when we’re successful.” I’m not joking.  Honestly, whether one is planning a new restaurant or trying to improve an existing one, the amount of work involved calls for a collaborative effort, and the determination of who should do what.  At the same time taking care to avoid the pitfall, “Zuviele Koeche verderben den Brei” which is the German equivalent of too many cooks spoil the broth.  Planning for optimal execution calls for recognizing who brings the appropriate and necessary skills and talents to the team, and also identifying which areas they probably shouldn’t be involved in.  The objective is to get the best out of the team, by motivating them to march in ONE joint direction, which, of course presumes a plan, and the ability to articulate it well …. So many puzzle pieces, so little time!

Vin and Julia will be leading ICE’s One Day Restaurant School on Wednesday, October 17th, from 9am-3pm, where they will focus on these and other topics that restaurant professionals face. Click here to register!

Julia Heyer

Is it possible to grow an old concept and still wow people with it? The Marche concept, a limited service market station concept, has been around since the 80s, but has not lost its appeal. They recently changed their location strategy and twenty plus years ago they were in hotels and downtown areas such as department stores and now they are transportation focused. I recently came across one in an airport and another at an Autobahn gas station rest stop.  Who expects lovely design and fresh food merchandising, tossed salad and sausage bars or a freshly made pizza in these locations?  The offering was fresh, delicious and well, rather expensive. Still, expectation exceeded; despite paying 29 Euros for a pizza, juice, two sodas and a latte.  One has to appreciate a good lunch in a space where you generally would be happy not to choke on a week-old, dried pretzel – especially when traveling with two toddlers.

Why can the Swiss pull this off with panache, while here in the good old USA I still get to pick between a nasty hotdog that’s been sitting on a roller for a day, or Twinkies with a half-life?

Vin McCann
If only I was as impermeable to decay as a Twinkie, I’d be a happy camper. Seriously, Jules, I think the strategy makes perfect sense when you stop to consider two significant facts. The Europeans are generally more respectful of their food than Americans, though we seem to be moving, or being pushed by the pundits, in that direction. Secondly, whether you are German, Latvian, or American, the desire for clean, fresh, un-sullied by the trio of processed food flavorants (sugar, salt, and fat) and the usual battery of unpronounceable ingredients is a powerful one. There is a nascent move in that direction in our travel spots, but it is more the product of marketing – sounds good, food styled and cosmetically appealing rather than a real shift towards quality.  As we both well know, you can buy a vast array of menu items, frozen, bagged, canned, freeze dried, vacuum packed, ready to assemble, to offer the public.  It’s all current, contemporary sounds nutritious, and looks delicious. But like the Twinkie, we just don’t know what exactly has gone into producing them.

Julia’s Response
Isn’t THAT the question: is there really a mass desire for ‘unsullied’ food products? Or is the “slow food, organic, farm-to-table” craving the buzz from a small segment of the population?  Disproportionate noise generated by marketeers and the legion of “we know what’s good for you” food writers. If you want my two cents, I think everyone LOVES the idea of healthy, flavorful food, but the realities of availability complicate the issue.  Creating a strong value perception – successfully pairing perceived quality and price is the game changer.  While it may be pricey, Marche managed to do that for me.

The average consumer is not always able to detect the differences between moderately processed versus freshly made food – no matter which continent he/she lives on. They do however see the difference in pricing. Highly processed foods, such as a KFC double-down tend to be more affordable at $2.99 than the gorgeous, unsullied, organic, hydroponic and hand-massaged lollo rosso lettuce for $8 per pound at the greenmarket (which may even promise to make you the impermeable human boasting  a twinkie half life!) . Not everyone can afford it OR sees value in it.  In a time where someone tried to sell me a $40 pound of coffee from the specialty roaster recently, I too see that point on occasion! It all comes back to the value equation, of balancing quality and price.  Are the Swiss really better at this balancing act?

Vin’s Last Word
Eight bucks for a pound of lettuce! What are you complaining about?  It’s loaded with antioxidants and probably hand harvested by enchanted nutritionists. Forty bucks for a pound of coffee! What’s to balk at when you’re saving an African country or delivering the woman who hand picks the beans from a life of drudgery? Open the wallet, woman! Seriously we may be loading a little too much import on food and that certainly clouds the value formulation. But doesn’t the real challenge lay in the fact that we are living in an age where the quality of food and its availability are not rising nearly as fast as its cost?  Success in creating the right value formulation calls for more than a calculator.  Restaurants need a story, a clear brand promise, solid marketing- both internal and external, and consistent performance to convince their customers they are paying fair value.  Still there are countless millions who are reduced to eating whatever is available for the money they have in their pockets, but that’s a much bigger issue.

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…

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 today, they taken on the case of Lenny’s and labor laws.

Julia Heyer
It saddened me to read recently that Lenny’s, a local NYC chain of sandwich shops with 13-plus outlets, recently agreed to the largest settlement in the history of New York State’s Department of Labor. The firm will settle labor violations — for not adequately paying overtime and minimum wages — by plunking down over $5 million in back wages, damages and penalties.

I have encountered plenty of restaurateurs that — besides ignoring the moral aspect —think that shortcuts actually make sense economically. They are willing to ‘push the boundaries,’ pay less than they should to make some money and line their own pockets. Usually as an individual restaurant or two grows into a multi-unit operation, growing in sophistication and bringing on additional leadership and resources, such practices get squelched out, making room for proper business practices instead of exploitation.

Or so one hopes. I opt for the positive, optimistically thinking that entrepreneurs and managers want to treat their employees right.

The case of Lenny’s shows that this isn’t necessarily the case. Why, I wonder? Is it old-fashioned greed? The culture of an organization and maybe our industry? Is it a false sense of entitlement? What’s your take? 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…

While it seems like just about everyone has a great idea for a food business, ICE’s Culinary Management Instructors are seasoned industry professionals who have actually opened and operated their own restaurants and food businesses. They are still active in the industry, working on their own projects while teaching classes at ICE. Julia Heyer is a restaurant consultant and owner of Heyer Performance and has worked on projects from Dubai to Mexico City. Vin McCann has managed restaurant operations ranging from $500,000 to $400 million in revenue and divides his time between teaching, consulting and operating a landmark inn and restaurant, The Wells House, in New York’s Adirondack region. With such a wide range of experience between these two, we decided to ask these two to take a closer look at some of the trends and culinary businesses we keep hearing so much about. First up, we asked them about food TV and the glamorization of restaurant life in NBC’s new show, America’s Next Great Restaurant.

Julia Heyer
My initial reaction towards America’s Next Great Restaurant was admittedly a not-so-mild sneer. A reality TV show about creating a large-scale quick-service restaurant business, when this particular segment of the market is not exactly lacking in competition and tends to be devoid of sex appeal — really? Who do you know who fantasizes about working and spending time at a fast food place?

Cooking and restaurant management is physically demanding work, with looooong hours on your feet, usually at times when the rest of the world enjoys leisure time such as evenings, weekends and holidays. It involves dealing with the random and unexpected curveballs. In a day you may encounter a broken down compressor, no-showing staff (“My rabbit ate my metrocard”) picketing by the “Lobster Liberation Front” and your linen order not arriving. You are so happy to sit down after service that it does not matter that you are sitting on boxes of sugar packs next to the electrical panel in the basement. More…

Through our Culinary Management program, ICE offers a unique series of lectures called Meet the Culinary Entrepreneurs, during which a wide range of culinary business leaders and luminaries share their expertise with students and guests. Yesterday, Joe Campanale, the beverage director and co-owner of three successful West Village restaurants, Dell’anima, L’Artusi and Anfora, came to speak to the ICE students about his career and share his advice on starting your own business with them.

ICE Culinary Management Instructor Vin McCann moderated the discussion, asking Campanale about learning the business and starting his own restaurants. Campanale admitted that it wasn’t his plan to get into the restaurant business. He grew up in Queens then attended NYU for a B.A. in European studies. Campanale wanted to be a lawyer and even studied to take the LSATs before turning to a career in food. He decided to pursue an M.A. in food studies at NYU and followed his passion for service by working in restaurants and the wine industry. More…

Subscribe to the ICE Blog

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notification of new posts via email.