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”

The December leadership meeting of the Starr Restaurant Organization is in session, and Stephen Starr’s attention deficit disorder is raging full-force.

Tangerine, SRO’s Moroccan-cum-Mediterranean fusion restaurant near 3rd and Market, has been redecorated to resemble a hotel conference room, with white tablecloths, silver pitchers of ice water, official-looking card-stock name placards, and a breakfast spread of scones and croissants and fresh berry-topped yogurt parfaits. A PowerPoint projection screen hangs on the smoky purple wall with the indentations that normally hold glowing yellow candles, and all eyes are fixed on an animated man with a thick mustache that evokes a dorkier Alex Trebek. His name is Christopher C. Muller, Ph.D., and he is challenging the room to think outside the comfort zone! Starr, dressed in jeans and a knee-length, cape-like single-breasted coat, arrives late, takes a seat at a table with the Continental managers, and immediately begins defacing a staffer’s fancy name placard. No one pays attention.

The Ph.D. in hospitality management instructs the managers and chefs to plot a graph of weekly restaurant traffic that will guide them on how to calibrate the price of specials for daily demand — “Saturday, Sunday, Monday … ”

Just another manic Monday, Starr sings quietly. Then, to no one in particular: “One of Prince’s great songs.”

“That was the Bangles.” Richard Roberts, general manager of the Continental, finally takes the bait.

“Prince wrote it,” Starr corrects, and smiles. Stephen Starr knows more about music than management, and that is A-okay with Stephen Starr.

“My fear with you is, honestly, that I can just see the headline, like, ‘Stephen Starr: Hip Restaurateur, or Corporate Satan?’”

It is three weeks before the leadership meeting, and four weeks after the opening of the Barclay Prime boutique steakhouse, which brought Stephen Starr’s empire to 13 restaurants employing 1,200 people, grossing an annual $65 million. Next year, SRO will pass the $100 million annual revenue mark, and may overtake successful corporate chains like Roy’s and Smith & Wollensky in sales, with its opening of five new restaurants in New York and Atlantic City, and likely deals with the Borgata Casino and the W boutique hotel chain.

This same Stephen Starr is worried I am going to make him sound corporate.

Starr, who is 50, has gotten this far without having to articulate stuff like business models and growth strategies, allowing his fans to assume he’s just doing it because he’s a frustrated moviemaker, and his haters to assume he’s just doing it to work through some epic midlife crisis — both camps always running under the assumption that each new restaurant is symbolic of some marginal increase in the size of his already massive ego. When Philadelphians talk about Stephen Starr, the conversation is almost always about whether the food is or isn’t actually that good, whether the decor and atmosphere are or aren’t actually that cool — and Starr hasn’t had anyone besides Philadelphia to answer to. For eight years he has thrived with one primary investor (we’ll get to that later) in one two-mile radius of real estate, and he naturally directs the communications organ of his massive ego to overpowering those in Philadelphia’s hater camp with the sheer force of his enthusiasm for his industry and his disdain toward most everyone else who operates in it.