Stephen Starr on Food, Theater and Why You Suck

In case you missed it, his Stephen-ness was on FOX Business a couple days ago, talking about his restaurants, himself, making it work in a tough economy and what he’s got planned for the rest of the year. Other topics discussed:

Lorne Michaels (that’s who Starr wanted to be when he grew up, back when he was still in TV)

Madonna (he promoted one of her concerts after giving up on TV and getting into the music biz)

Frankford Hall and Talula’s Garden (without ever mentioning either by name)

Why You Suck (or, at least, why you should assume that your idea for a restaurant does)

Check out the video after the jump.


One thing about the interview that bothered me? The line, “Of course, it has to be about the food, but…” There is no good thing that can follow that “but”–no word or series of words that can be anything but a retreat from what should be the central focus of any restaurant: the grub. To think in any other way puts you immediately in Outback Steakhouse territory–believing that enough crazy crap on the walls can atone for the sins being committed in the kitchen. The food is the most important thing, arguably the ONLY important thing, and any restaurant owner would do well to tread very carefully when he starts moving away from his primary responsibility: serving food to people for money. I get that dining out is about comfort and service and theater. I understand the necessity of good design. But it starts and ends with the cooks in the kitchen and the food on the plates–no matter how cool Steven Spielberg thinks you are.

Oh, and also? Is it just me, or does Starr just look sad the whole time he’s sitting there? The man brought down $125 million last year in his restaurants. If I ever did something like that, I’d be running around the set throwing fifty dollar bills at everyone. I would’ve shown up with a couple fine looking ladies and a giant hat and a suit made of money. I would’ve demanded that the entirety of the interview be conducted from inside the solid gold apartment I had built inside a diamond encrusted helicopter that travels the world on the back of a giant yacht called the Screw You.

I mean, I know it’s just money, but it sounds to me like Starr had a very good year (in a year when a whole lot of other people had bad ones), and he just sits there looking like someone kicked his dog.

  • PC

    The food is still very good, especially considering that most of his spots aren’t astronomically expensive. Jones and Pizzeria Stella are two examples of his that you can enjoy without totally breaking the bank.

  • DD

    I don’t know why this piece is so negative toward Starr. True, he appears tired and not so full of energy or excitement…but his answers are forthright and blatantly honest. He made a point that his restaurants are concepted on design AND food…and food is clearly at the center. So he was happy that Spielberg likened his piece to a film set. So what! I’d be thrilled at that statement as well. Food is still very central to Starr’s places, so I don’t see where you believe that this is not the case. I feel that you are very disgruntled for some odd reason, perhaps you used to work for the Starr Group and are letting out some frustration. BUT, this is a site dedicated to bringing news on the Philly scene, not some editorial site that strays the line of objectivity and subjectivity. Rather than simply endorsing the piece as a nice nod to Philly, which Starr has helped promote and elevate on the dining scene, you decide to trash a guy who has developed and expanded certain trends. Less attitude would be a smarter way to post this interview.

  • Michael G

    So if Starr was all blinqed out acting like a rockstar, you would be the first to call him a pretensious, arrogant dickhead. He might seem serious because it requires hard work and intelligence to run a $125 million dollar operation. While to type snarky critical remarks it only requires a computer in your parents trailer and hopefully you aren’t typing wearing tighty whitties with your feet in a bowl of pudding.

  • RS

    Philly will always have a love/hate relationship with Starr. No need for a recap, we all know how it goes. I think he came across pretty well and quite grounded, all things considered. Well, as grounded as you can be when name-dropping Steven Spielberg on Fox Business channel.

  • Snake

    The food at his restaurants is generally quite good – he does seem to focus so much attention on the visual asthetic of the place but I can’t say that he over-relies on that because indeed the food is good in his restaurants.

    It might not be groundbreaking like James or Vetri but from my experience very consistent and tasty.

  • barryg

    @Jason, understanding that it’s not just about the food is how you get rich in the restaurant business.

    @DD, this is now an editorial site, if you want food news there are other sites that are more comprehensive and timely.

  • Atticus Finch

    @Barryg
    Why r u still so angry after all these months, buddy? Life goes on with or without “him”.

  • SC

    Wow, people warned us that Sheehan was an idiot when he took over this job. Didn’t take too long or him to prove it.

    Hate on Starr all you want, but to think that a dining experience begins and ends with the food is naive. You sell the experience of a fun night out centered around consumption of a quality product.

    And has anyone ever thought that Starr needed to present himself as more rich? I’ve seen him wearing sweatpants in El Vez on a Friday night, something only the mega-rich can get away with. Champagne problems…

  • http://www.federaldonuts.com Felicia D’Ambrosio

    That’s a great, circumspect interview from Stephen Starr, who is uniquely qualified to give tips on success in the risky restaurant biz. He’s not so effusive in real life, either, so that was an accurate portrayal of personality.

  • Lord Chezza

    Author: If all a restaurant should be about is the food, then why do we have to pay so much more than just the cost of the food and the labor it took to prepare it?

    It’s about the food, but also about the space, and the time, and the occasion and a good chef or restauranteur knows the importance of all those factors. So does a good food writer.

    I appreciated Starr’s demure appearance and tone. Would you have rather he gloated?

    Thanks for posting this video, though. It was interesting and I would not have seen it otherwise. Fox is not a place I often look for “news!”

  • jAMBA jUICER

    Hey, Starr is the man. That’s why we all hate. Lets be grateful that finally…people aren’t just talking about Brooklyn and Alinea.

    If restaurant’s were just about the food, then Pat’s and Geno’s would be out of business…and so would Buddakan. Perhaps the most overrated version of PF Changs I’ve ever spent money on.

    And lets clarify that $125 in SALES does not equate to $125 million in PROFITS. He has to pay labor (probably 30 %), food and wine (prob 30 %), rent (prob 8-15%)…and you haven’t paid for water, air conditioning, insurance, legal fees, PR, etc. Let’s get it straight, Starr makes money, but his $125M in sales aren’t as profitable as say…a bunch of Wendy’s Chick-Fil-A’s doing the same amount in sales.

  • barryg

    @Jamba yea the Fox video is mislabeled. If he had $125 million in profit last year, I don’t think he would have any trouble finding financing his projects…

  • PJ

    Thanks for the info, Jason–I had no idea there was a restaurateur in Philadelphia named Stephen Starry. Took an outsider’s perspective to uncover that one!

  • pj

    he’s right about there being more to a restaurant than the food. restaurants that stand the test of time have a sense of integrity about them that comes from the ownership, management, staff, and ambience. no matter how much time and money he spends trying to pipe in character,all his places feel a little fake.

  • Willie

    PJ, integrity is one word that will never be associated with Mr. Starr.

    His restaurants are theme parks. Ok, some people like theme parks. That’s why his places are popular.

    If you’re looking for a real food experience, or want to experience real, warm hospitality, you go elsewhere. His service people are like trained monkeys – they know what they will be “shopped” on and work to that standard alone. It’s not real service, it working a certain way so you don’t get punished when the shopper reports come in.

    Pretty simple, really. Some people like it and that’s good for them, leaves more ressies available at the places I want to go.

  • http://www.thefeast.com CEF

    @ Felicia – Agreed. Stephen might have an eye for the theatric when it comes to his restaurants, but the man himself is not some larger-than-life character with a monacle and top hat, making it rain. He is a money-making machine who knows what he likes.

    As for him saying: “It’s about the food, but” that was the line of questioning coming from the interviewer who framed the story around the idea of movie set aesthetics and his early days as a concert promoter, etc. If he would have said “It’s all about the food and nothing else,” who would have believed him? He was playing it straight, believe it nor not.

    While I am the first to say I can’t deal with the theme park nature of Parc and Butcher & Singer, you can’t deny the amazing grub at his last few places: Stella (Tartufo), Talula’s (Sweet Pea Veloute), and The Dandelion (Chicken Liver Parfait). It’s top shelf stuff.

  • Dc

    Everyone should keep in mind Stephen’s audience during this interview too, middle-class business people, entrepreneurs and wealthy investors for the most part. Not many pure food enthusiasts are watching Fox Business… Fox News interviews a successful person to frame what makes a person successful–in this case Starr translated his flair for theatrics to the restaurant business.

    That being said, the only part of the interview that irked me was him dispensing advice for independent restaurateurs (his competition)–”stay out of the big kids pool.”

    Also, ask people why they go to Outback. They’ll immediately say the food. Steak and potatoes. Chain restaurants are low-hanging fruit so at least make fun of the real rotten ones (looking at you Chili’s).

  • chuck e.

    If Steven Starr was partnering with Steve Wynn his moves in the Casino Resort Industry would be phenomenal. Both of them are stage struck and truly understand successful PR,the magic of Great food in a dazzling setting are major forces in successful experiences.

  • Lori

    Good interview. I am not sure why this entry is so critical of Starr. He seemed very down-to-earth and his advice about playing devil’s advocate & determining the weak spots in a restaurant concept before you bankrupt yourself seems like solid advice. I am sure he is much too busy to ever read your silly blog. Come to think of it, I wish I was too. This is just another example of a person in the media feebly attempting to tear apart a rich and successful individual. And this comment is an example of an insomniac trying to do something to help her fall back to sleep.

  • Rational Gaze

    It figures Starr once promoted Madonna — they’ve both hidden the hole where their talent should be behind a fat balance sheet. Well, that and an army of sycophants.

  • phl_restaurant

    All of you haters…. If you think you can do it, they try it. Stephen has worked his ass off to get where he is. He’s also very smart. He’s a total dick to his immediate higher-level management. But they are all paid well – because they play in the “big kids pool” and they’re big kids.
    Stephen gets results. Why? Because he’s usually right and he pushes like no other for those results. He puts the right people in place and rides them hard.
    It’s business.

  • Marketing401

    Real Estate mogul Allan Domb owns most of the Starr restaurants. The majority of his liquor licenses and real estate holdings list Domb as the real owner. Starr is just a figure head who provides hype and concepts and is of limited intelligence. Starr’s brands have a marketing life about twice that of a nightclub. Starr’s brands are all in the decline of their brand life. I estimate their brand life at 8 years on average, Buddakan longer, Blue Angel, Tangerine shorter. I see most of his restaurant/movie sets rapidly declining in volume when I dine there. The decline is over 25% the past two years. He has responded with aggressive pricing and shrinking portions to deliver profits needed however this tactic has killed his guest count. Unless Domb and Starr continue to open more restaurants at an increasing rate all the bank loans will collapse like a ponzi arrangement. They have not yet adequately addressed possible reinvestment in current holdings to try to extend their brand life.

  • ScallopLover

    @Marketing401- Starr opens all restaurants with a 5 year plan. The first two years pay off loans and the next three are profit. If they happen to stay open longer then 5 that is a huge bonus(Buddakan, Pod, Morimoto, Continental, etc). Starr does not run a Ponzi style anything. What grade did you get in Marketing 401 anyway?