Few new business ventures are as risky as opening a restaurant — especially in the hypercompetitive foodie landscape of Manhattan. But New York has welcomed native Vermonter and award-winning chef Seamus Mullen with open arms. His first restaurant, Tertulia, opened in 2011, and was a James Beard Foundation Award finalist for best new restaurant. Two years later, he opened El Colmado, a celebrated tapas and wine bar in Hell’s Kitchen.
Throughout his culinary adventures, in New York and elsewhere, the 40-year-old Mullen has followed a deceptively simple set of self-imposed rules: do what you love; do it well; do it within a budget that actually makes sense; do it with people you like.
“I try not to use the expression, ‘the people who work for me,'” Mullen says, “because nobody works for me. I work for me. I work for the betterment of the whole business. And my colleagues do the same thing. When you feel as though you’re working for somebody else, it means that you’re working at the behest of somebody else’s ego. And I think trying to change that and create an environment where we’re all part of a team, working collaboratively, makes a big difference. When you work some place and you’re feeling your own contribution — say you’re a sous chef and you have an idea for a dish, and that dish makes it on to the menu — you take that with you in your heart when you leave work. You feel that what you contribute has real value.”
Mullen recently spoke about managing cash flow, the absurdity of chefs who throw tantrums, and the importance of keeping an eye on the small things that make up any business.
A restaurant is, in many ways, a different sort of animal than other businesses. But what are some lessons you’ve learned that you think translate to pretty much any other enterprise that wants to be successful?
One of the things that is particularly true of restaurants, but that I’m sure is true for small businesses in general, is that it’s very important to be aware of the minutiae, and to understand that the overall success of any organization usually depends upon thousands of little moving parts. And you can’t underestimate the value of each one of those parts. So keeping an eye on the little things, while also keeping a relatively clear focus on what you want the business to achieve, is really key.
A central concern in any business venture — especially when you’re first starting out — is managing cash flow. How do you address that when, say, undertaking a risky venture like opening a new restaurant?
I’ve always kind of broken things down into the buckets that represent expenditures that we have to make in order to function. Without these, we don’t have a business. I need a stove, I need gas, I need refrigeration, etcetera. Now, one particular brand of stove, or some excellent but very expensive knives or pans, would be ideal. But what are the things that, within our budget, are actually necessary and doable, and that won’t compromise the quality of our food?
Starting out, for example, I might not be able to afford the exact stove I want — but I can still afford a quite good one that will serve our purpose for the first year or two. So make some concessions, and then earmark a time when you’ve hit certain metrics and you can say, “All right, now I’m going to reward the business by upgrading the quality of some of our equipment. We’re going to re-invest — but only after we already have in place the tools we need in order to do great work and turn a profit.
The restaurant business is also, in a way, a bit like show business, right? You open your doors each night and invite the public in. How does that affect your approach to your work, day in and day out?
You’re right, it is a bit like show business, and especially in light of the fact that we’re in the hospitality business, the climate and culture that we create within that environment has a huge effect on the experience that the guests have when they come in. So, whether it’s a guest in a restaurant, or a client in the service industry, the way that you’re training your people and delivering for that client or guest is critical. In our case, if it’s at all disingenuous, that becomes really apparent very, very quickly.
You mean you can’t fake it?
Exactly. If it seems inauthentic, or that your host or server is just going through the motions, most people can sense that right away, and it’s usually indicative of larger issues. Or if you’re in a restaurant and the chef is yelling and screaming and throwing tantrums, that’s usually a sign of a small, insecure chef who has no business in a professional kitchen, and there are bigger problems at play.
You’re not just a chef. You’re an author and an advocate for healthy food and healthy lifestyles. How important do you think it is for small business owners to find ways to merge their passions with their work?
I only know that for me, it’s absolutely critical. I really believe that if you don’t have conviction about whatever it is that you’re doing, it’s very hard to do it well. At the same time, we’ve all met people who are really good at certain things, but they don’t actually enjoy doing those things. So there’s not only a kind of built-in limit or ceiling on how well you can do if you don’t love it, but there’s also a quality-of-life element that comes into play. And that brings us back to this question about the culture you create in the workplace. After all, every business, large or small, has some sort of corporate culture, but if you don’t feel a genuine conviction for what you’re doing, it’s hard for that culture to be inspiring to your colleagues. And let’s face it, to get the most out of people who are working with you, you really have to have buy-in from each and every one of them. And you just aren’t going to get that if you don’t care yourself. They’ll see that right away.
Seamus Mullen is an award-winning chef, restaurateur, and author.
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