Empire of the Rising Starr

With two Manhattan restaurants opening and annual sales approaching $100 million, Stephen Starr is reluctantly adjusting to running a 13-restaurant profit machine. In the cocktails-and-calamari mogul’s own words: “I hate that corporate s**t”

At some point, though, the pencil-pushers have to take over for the envelope-pushers; the spreadsheet guys and the guys who’ve read Good to Great and Seven Habits have to come in, streamline, apply proven techniques, and start bringing in guest speakers like Christopher C. Muller, Ph.D., who at this moment of the leadership meeting is carrying on about the changing palates of Americans.

“Ever since my daughter was eight, she has had one favorite dish that she orders at every restaurant — squid,” he says. “She knows every restaurant in town by its calamari.”

Incidentally, almost all of Starr’s 13 restaurants have calamari on the menu, and all of Stephen Starr’s menus go down relatively easy. Tuna tartare, mushroom risotto and Chilean sea bass can be found at nearly every SRO spot. In the documentary the Food Network filmed on the opening of Morimoto, Starr insists on adding salmon to the menu. And of the culinary problems at Washington Square, which initially offered such odd delicacies as Kobe beef tongue: “Sometimes you just want to sit outside and eat a lobster,” Starr says matter-of-factly. “You know?”

So does New York need another restaurant with tuna tartare and sea bass? Does it need another Asian fusion place? Does it need corporate dining?

“He’s a dime a dozen in New York,” says a Starr employee. “Everyone brings their A-game,” adds Perlik, the trade publication editor. A business associate of Starr’s puts it more sneeringly: “I just don’t see how this chain of knockoffs belongs in New York.”

But Phil Suarez, the business partner of venerated chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, New York restaurateur, says that one of the reasons New York restaurants so often fail is that they aren’t, well, corporate enough. They haven’t negotiated their leases well, or driven their break-even levels low enough — unlike restaurants that are parts of groups, like his Suarez Restaurant Group, or Steve Hanson’s B.R. Guest that owns Ruby Foo’s and the Blue Water Grill, or Jeffrey Chodorow’s China Grill Management. Chodorow, Starr’s longtime rival, isn’t sitting back as Starr comes to New York — Chodorow has opened Red Square, a vodka bar in A.C., and is looking at sites in Philly that include the Ritz-Carlton. Starr says his break-even for the $9 million Buddakan New York is $5.5 million a year — less than Suarez’s break-even of $7 million for his similarly sized, similarly appointed $5 million Spice Market, in part because he has no debt to service. “In the end, of course, it’s a matter of whether people come to your party,” says Al Lucas, the old operations director, now working for Cosi Inc. “But Stephen is pretty well situated going in.”

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