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”

If people don’t come, basic marketing changes can turn business around, as chef Schulson proved at Pod by adding a happy-hour spread and fixed-price menus for those who sit in the pods.

“That is differentiated pricing!” Christopher C. Muller, Ph.D., tells the crowd, back at the leadership meeting.

“The guy is in love with Pod,” Starr whispers to me, shaking his head. (He, too, loves how Schulson’s turned business around there, but he tries not to make it so obvious.)

“When I first heard I was coming to Philadelphia,” Muller continues, “I looked on the Internet and saw a ticket for $100 that I should have purchased. But I waited another few days, and by then the price was $181. So what’s to stop Buddakan from selling a meal three months in advance for 50 percent off, and charging your credit card?”

A surge of debate ripples through Tangerine. These are precisely the sorts of goings-on Starr hates: analyzing the high-end restaurant business as if it is any other industry. “I’m going to the gym,” he abruptly announces, and leaves.

Each restaurant team breaks off into a group, with the assignment to create a marketing plan emphasizing brand identity and price differentiation for another Starr restaurant. Continental has El Vez, the Continental Midtown has Jones, and the Barclay Prime, home of “team player” chef Todd Mark Miller, is charged with beleaguered Angelina.

Tangerine hums with outside-the-box thinking. One restaurant team devises an “S&M” — sake and maki — menu to draw new customers to Morimoto’s suffering upstairs lounge. Continental Old City GM Richard Roberts suggests that El Vez poach attractive gay bartenders, and offer to host the Woody’s and Bump Christmas parties to attract more gayborhood residents.

Starr gets back from the gym just in time to hear the fruits of the session, and Christopher C. Muller Ph.D.’s parting pep talk. “We are in the restaurant business. We say to people, come to me, and for an hour allow yourself to be restored,” Muller says. “You have chosen a career that allows you to be hospitable to people. We are probably the most moral business in the world. Remember that.”

The leadership meeting ends. Team-­playing Todd Mark Miller raises his hand and thanks Howard Wein for hosting it, and Heather Holden of the Continental Midtown gushes about how exciting and helpful it was. “I really feel that way, about this being a moral business, about restoring people,” David Howard, the Barclay Prime’s assistant manager, remarks. “I was going to be a priest before I went into this.” But the most cathartic part of the meeting, it seems, has been getting a break from the “hospitality” to appreciate the entrepreneurial side of running a restaurant, the intellectual challenge of trying to beat last year’s numbers, the methods and techniques of solving problems.

And Starr watches in earnest. “Did you hear him?” he asks, pointing to Miller. “He said he found it really helpful and valuable!” And his mind, which has been fidgeting and tangent-exploring and daydreaming all day, is suddenly and clearly churning and processing this new piece of data about humans: They like thinking about their jobs. They like learning new tricks. They like feeling like “leaders.” And they like working for corporations.  

Stephen Starr will learn to like it, too.