New York City grinds down entrepreneurs and ships them out as if the Meat Packing District was named for business owners. Some make it. And some seem as if they were made for taking on City-sized projects and churning out businesses. John McDonald chose to tackle restaurants and magazines in what seemed like a peculiarly bad choice of two notoriously difficult businesses. What he delivered, however, has been a success.
Starting with Soho’s MercBar, McDonald has added to his repertoire of restaurants with Lure, Chinatown Brasserie, and Lever House. All this while publishing City, an award winning magazine. Both the restaurants and the magazine showcase McDonald's use of design as a way to speak to consumers and readers. These are the types of businesses where every detail adds to the experience. Miss a detail and risk losing a customer. McDonald has delivered on the details for over a decade. I spoke to him to find out how:
JP: How long have you been an entrepreneur and what was your first business?
John McDonald: Fifteen years. My first venture was when I opened MercBar in 1994.
JP: What do you think is the single most important attribute of a successful entrepreneur?
John: Passion. You absolutely must love what you are doing to the point that you never really know when you are working or count the hours.
JP: You’ve chosen two notoriously hard businesses: the restaurant business and the magazine business. And you continue to open more restaurants, what about these businesses do you love?
John: With the restaurants, I truly enjoy the process from A to Z. Crafting the concept and seeing it through the design phase, construction and opening is akin to putting on a Broadway show. After, then I love to be in them, to see people and feed on the energy. Every day is different. The magazine has similar creative satisfaction but has a boundless freedom to discover and produce great content for design, travel and fashion. Every issue is like a mini-construction project.
JP: What was your most memorable event or moment in publishing City magazine?
John: Two years ago we were nominated (National Magazine Awards) for Best Design and Best Photography and actually won for Photography competing against the likes of Vogue, Details and Vanity Fair. It was a true testament to the young talent that exists outside of the famous names that only work for the major publishing houses. And just last week, we received more two nominations for “Photo Portfolio.” CITY’s two stories are up against GQ (Bruce Weber), Vanity Fair (Annie Liebowitz) and Details (Michael Thompson). While the odds are slim going up against their talent and budgets it feels good to be acknowledged.
JP: Who has helped you become the success you are today?
John: Almost all the credit has to go to my parents. Both of them gave me the confidence to attack any challenge and never fear failure. They showed me by example how to work hard and persevere with dedication to what you love; and must do to succeed. In part, I work today to show them they did it right.
JP: You love the food business and have created very successful businesses in New York City, besides your own, what restaurants and restaurateurs do you look at as the prototypical or best examples of excellence in food service if I can call it that?
John: I have great respect for Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Few people work harder or are more passionate about food. While he has built a vast collection of successful restaurants he never looses focus on what is important. Also, you may find this surprising but I have to say that George Biel who owns Houston’s (I think he has almost 50 of them) is the absolute operational king. His standards and ability to execute with consistency are in a league of its own for such a large company.
JP: Besides making money, what do you think really drives a business owner, or you specifically?
John: I am driven to compete and challenge myself all the time. The great football coach Vince Lombardi said, “You don’t do things right once in a while; you do them right all the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.” I keep that saying on the wall in my office and If I know one thing about myself, it is that I hate to lose.
JP: How has New York changed since you started? Your Merc Bar is an institution on Soho, and Soho has seen quite a bit of change since you opened your doors does that affect your business, do you adapt or were you anticipating the trend that turned Soho into one of the most desirable retail locations when you opened?
John: I am not one of those people always complaining about “the way it used to be.” It was amazing when it was still undeveloped but then again my staff was getting mugged all the time. Even today with all the change Soho still has a remarkable personality that is unlike any neighborhood. MercBar always stayed the same regardless of the evolution...I loved it in '93 and still do in '07.
JP: Whether you own a great restaurant or a magazine you can only be as great as your staff – you can’t do it all yourself. What have you learned as an entrepreneur about getting excellence from the people on the front lines of your business?
Any business is only as good as its people. I have been very fortunate to have great talent and amazingly dedicated people to work with...any accomplishment or success is much sweeter when done with a team and shared. I also believe in giving a lot of rope to allow for creativity to thrive. Too much micro-management can kill you.
JP: In and interview in 2002 you said that on your drive home after finishing work, even late-night, that you sometimes stopped at newsstands to check on the distribution of your magazine. At the time, you said, "I can't even fathom being at the point where I wouldn't do that." Have you reached that point or is that still a stop you make?
John: Funny enough, I just did that very thing this week. I am always interested in my visibility and shelf space. I travel frequently and stop at every single stand to make sure I am being sold and displayed properly.
JP: Through your effort you’ve added to the way someone living in New York or visits New York experiences the City. There is a corner of New York that is created by John McDonald, is that enough? What’s next or what would you like to add to the City that you haven’t yet?
John: Right now I am pretty happy with my corner so-to-speak but every time I tell someone that I am not working on something new, something comes up and I have to eat those words. My latest venture is completely out of left field, not a magazine or restaurant, but a vitamin called E-BOOST. It’s a high powered vitamin C and B12 product similar to Emergen-C or Berocca. The same basic elements of design, packaging and marketing that go into the magazine or the restaurants in part are applied to this venture as well.
John N. Pasmore • New York, NY • Very.fm