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I let my guard down with a business rival. You’ll never guess what happened next

How the author and Chef Michael Solomonov brushed off their pandemic despair to embrace an ‘Ocean’s 11’ approach to business.

I let my guard down with a business rival. You’ll never guess what happened next
[Source Photo: Herbert Goetsch/Unsplash]

“Are you doing as poorly as I am?” I asked.

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Pre-pandemic, Chef Michael Solomonov and I could best be characterized as respectful acquaintances. We had hugged it out at a few events over the years, and I had just dined at his remarkable Zahav Restaurant just weeks before the pandemic.

“If you are doing as badly as me, then I feel pretty sorry for you,” Michael replied.

We both had been shit-kicked by COVID-19 in the prior months, and its devastating, disproportionate effect on the restaurant business had wreaked havoc on our respective companies.  Both of us were exhausted from all the chatter about the demise of the restaurant business, characterized by pundits spouting opinions about the future of dining looks like, how restaurants should pivot, who merited relief or support and whether restaurants were worth saving at all. It gave us plenty to howl at the moon about.

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If misery loves company, then at that moment, Michael and I were the coziest table for two in the Zoom universe. We started to ponder out loud what life would look like without the homes we had built within our restaurant groups, and who exactly we were outside of our kitchens and dining rooms. As it turns out, a guy who is in recovery from a crack cocaine addiction and has weathered his share of twelve-step meetings is the perfect volleyer for someone who is in the lowest depths of pandemic misery. His reaction to my vulnerabilities, defects, and fears was one of a knowing nod, not a judging competitor.

In the almost 30 years I have spent in the restaurant industry, I have had countless inauthentic conversations with other operators in response to the question: “How’s business?”

Without fail, pre-pandemic, all of us would answer: “So busy.” Or: “Killing it!” Or: “My only issue is finding enough seats.”

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In this new world of unknowns, brutal honesty was the only policy.

Boka Group had received an offer during that time for a management contract at the Hoxton Hotel in Brooklyn. It was a deal we had turned down before, based on bandwidth, but now as we stood in quicksand, this “no investment,” fee-based contract seemed like just the kind of stabilizing deal we needed.

Michael’s company and ours had many similarities. Both of our Restaurant Group names were derived from the combination of us and our partners last names: Cook & Solo, from Solomonov & (Steven) Cook, and Boka, a portmanteau of Boehm & (Rob) Katz. We both had multiple stores, all chef driven, conceptually highbrow, lowbrow, and everything in between. Our respective companies had also remained loyal to the cities that initially showed us love, Philadelphia and Chicago, with each of us only having one interlude with another big city. Finally, we also found common ground in our spirits. Restaurants were always the thing that  gave us oxygen, and our projects were not only fueled by their ability to pencil, but also their ability to make our teams adrenalized.

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As my conversation with Michael moved from letting off steam to all the virtues of our crazy industry, we talked about how much fun it is to collaborate with like minded people. We began to wonder out loud if there was still room for some fun to be had.

“Doing a place together sounds pretty fun. Is that crazy?” I asked.

“Crazy? How about dreamy?” Michael said, laughing.

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We were unlikely teammates: two groups that excelled as solo artists, we didn’t need each other. Yet maybe we could have twice the fun, if constructed right, by super-grouping. Isn’t there a connection between our ability to be inspired, the spirit of collaboration, and our ability to execute? If we are all having more fun, won’t our dining rooms, our businesses, or offices reverberate with that energy?

It’s the Ocean’s 11 approach to business. Build a heist team of specialized talent, and perhaps turn rivalry into revelry. As the four partners stood up to address its new team in Williamsburg in January, you heard  four distinct voices: Steven’s was calm and steady, never veering off its course; Michael was sweet and empathetic; Rob was strong and confident; and I tried to convey my passion for what we did, and why we did it. There was harmony in the four voices and the two companies, and this strange collaboration of competitors spoke to the idea that you must change to stay the same.

Perhaps there are other unlikely groups in the business world who could fuse together for a one-off project that colors their creativity, in a left-of-center way that’s so beautiful that it changes the game. If you do an internal audit of what things you are spectacular at, and what aspects of your company could use a boost, is there another company whose DNA lifts your productivity in the aggregate? Perhaps we need an Eharmony for businesses.

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At the end of my Zoom call with Michael that day, I told him that I had been daydreaming about owning a very sleepy bookstore in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time in my life that there was not some new restaurant sitting on my imagination horizon. As we sat together in Williamsburg, it was our collaborative effort that now floated in the distance.

“Still dreaming about that slow bookstore,” he asked?

“Nah, That’s sounds terrible. I like this more.”

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Kevin Boehm is cofounder and co-CEO of Boka Restaurant Group, which partners with chefs such as Giuseppe TentoriStephanie IzardChris PandelLee Wolen, and Gene Kato. 

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