Every restaurateur has endured that alternately fear-and-hope-filled moment when he unlocks the front door and, for the first time, flips his “Closed” sign to “Open.” At that point—and this is a stretch, given the complexities of operating a restaurant—he has trained his new cooks, waiters, and bartenders well enough to merit the prices on his menu. But training costs money. To get a kitchen up and running, restaurateurs must cover kitchen payroll as well as finance the ingredients with which the cooks can practice new dishes. In the front of the house, the training of waiters and bartenders also costs money, and all before the restaurant actually generates income. Factor in that restaurants open often after a period of construction that inevitably has gone over-schedule and over-budget. Often, a restaurant’s opening day is determined less by the degree of preparedness than by an urgent need for cash.
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Restaurateurs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten have the deep pockets to permit a two-year span between the purchase of a space and its opening.
The Soft Opening: The Inn at Pound Ridge by Jean-Georges
Of course, some of the best-financed restaurants have very little sense of urgency. In the fall of 2011, Jean-Georges Vongerichten announced that he had purchased The Inn at Pound Ridge. Instantly, this announcement (via New York Magazine’s Grub Street blog) kicked off breathless anticipation among local foodies—but, after a year or so—those hyperventilations turned into yawns as Vongerichten turned his attention to opening other restaurants around the world. Back in Pound Ridge, Vongerichten had tasked architect Thomas Juul-Hansen with the massive redesign of the centuries-old building formerly known as Emily Shaw’s Inn. In fact, Vongerichten did not debut his Westchester venture until 2014, more than two years after his much ballyhooed purchase of the property. During the last weeks before Vongerichten’s January debut of The Inn at Pound Ridge, foodie speculation zoomed into high gear as selected townspeople and neighboring chefs were invited to experience the restaurant for an extended “friends-and-family” period. This invitation-only trial run is designed to iron out the bumps before paying customers (not to mention Yelpers and bloggers) help to discover the problems. The length of Vongerichten’s friends-and-family at The Inn at Pound Ridge is a testament to the deep resources of this multi-national restaurateur.
The Medium Opening: Saint George
In October 2013, Chef Chris Vergara opened his third restaurant, Saint George, which went on to snag the top rating in the New York Times. The venture benefitted from his past two experiences opening restaurants. “When we wrote the business plan and came up with the capital requirements, we budgeted a bunch of money for pre-opening and we wound up pretty well below it,” says Vergara. “That’s a big one: You need to make sure that you have some money set aside because, when you open a restaurant, there’s a lot of experimentation. Sometimes, there’s a dish that you think is going to work but it doesn’t, so you end up throwing it away or giving it to staff.” Vergara paid his entire staff, back- and front-of-house, for five days before he opened the doors. “This is what a lot of restaurants forget. They forget that you’re going to have to pay the cooks for five days before you open. You’re going to have to pay the front-of-house staff for training and to show up and clean. This time around, we were ready for it.”
Vergara and his partner in Saint George, Jason Steinberg, held one night of friends-and-family—not free of charge, but steeply discounted. “You invite all the customers that you know you’re not going to lose. That way, when the wheels inevitably come off the bus as the first tickets start coming into the kitchen, you have a dining room full of people who will understand.” What are the types of things uncovered in a friends-and-family? “With the computer, you’re discovering how it’s been programmed. Like an entrée will get sent in on an appetizer line, things like that.” Is one night enough? “No,” laughs Vergara. “You really need like three weeks!” But he doesn’t regret his choice to open after one day. “I think we were ready to start selling stuff. I mean, you’ll still working out kinks for the first month or two, anyway.”
Jicama salad with grapefruit and pumpkin seeds, a dish from pop-up Restaurant Maize.
The Hard Opening: Restaurant Maize (a Pop-Up)
Both The Inn at Pound Ridge and Saint George had the luxury of being actual brick-and-mortar restaurants. I visited Eric Korn’s pop-up, Restaurant Maize, which was operational for only three days on the site that is, by day, Irvington’s Cupcake Kitchen & Luncheonette. Said Korn (in his daringly open kitchen—even more daringly overseen by diners sitting at a chef’s table), “Talk about a hard opening!” From the moment Restaurant Maize opened its doors, it was packed with people clamoring for food. Happily, Korn is also a caterer, with a caterer’s sense of adventure—every event that he does has elements of surprise. “I love it. I mean, I’m used to dealing with crazy things that come up during service. For me, this is where I like to be.”