Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, Brooke Williamson has carved quite the niche for herself in the food business. From being the youngest female chef to cook at the James Beard House, winning Bravo’s “Top Chef” Season 14, and owning five establishments with business partner and husband Nick Roberts, Williamson’s hard work, creativity, and dedication have created a winning combination.
Prior to venturing on her own, Williamson gained experience at Chef Michael McCarty’s nationally acclaimed restaurant Michael’s of Santa Monica, the renowned Daniel by Daniel Boulud, even became the Executive Chef of Brentwood’s Zax at 22 years’ old, which she recalls was, “unheard of, especially for a female back then.”
After leaving Zax, Williamson and her future husband Nick Roberts opened their first independent venture together, Amuse Café in Venice. Being recognized as “Rising Star Chefs” from StarChefs in 2004, the two would spend the following years methodically and strategically opening more establishments – Hudson House, The Tripel, a four-in-one-concept Playa Provisions, Tripli-Kit, and Playa Vista.
By March 2017, Williamson won Bravo’s “Top Chef” Season 14, which thrust her further in the public eye. And though fame was never a motivating factor when starting in the food business, Williamson welcomes the opportunity to share her message and build awareness for her restaurants all-in-one.
Along the way, Williamson learned invaluable business lessons like relinquishing control in order to scale, embracing negative reviews as learning mechanisms, and the importance of consistency for customer retention – all of which she shares in our featured interview.
What prompted the entrepreneurial path as opposed to working for someone else?
There wasn’t one momentous standout moment. I worked for other people early in my career and put a lot of emphasis on learning, working hard, reading, and never complaining about the long days or physically demanding shifts.
By the age of 22, I was an executive chef, which was unheard of, especially for a female back then. When I left a restaurant called Zax, I started a catering company because I wasn’t sure what I wanted next [or] where I wanted to go, and the company took off. We [needed] a commercial kitchen to prep out of, and [we found] a restaurant. We thought we could do both but ended up doing the restaurant. We had no idea what we’re doing – not a whole ton of life experience – and we definitely learned from our mistakes.
What was the difficulty you faced as a young entrepreneur?
My mom and a couple of family friends helped fund the restaurant, and we were not in a position to lose their money. We had to do everything in our power to make it work, and we did a lot of ourselves. It was a labor of love, but it made it much more important. There are so many hats to wear that if you’re not incredibly passionate and excited about what you’re doing, then giving up is the easiest thing. It was a crash course in learning every facet of the restaurant industry.
Having ventured out on your own successfully, what’s your advice for others before they leap?
It’s all about experience. And there’s no way to get experience without diving in. On the same token, if you don’t have your ducks in a row, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
When I opened my first restaurant, there was an online business plan template I used to give investors some idea of what we were doing – projected costs, expenses – at the end of the day, none of it resembled what actually unfolded. So, expect the unexpected and know there will be bumps in the road.
If you’re not a hundred percent excited and passionate about what you’re doing, it will not work. There will be days where you want to give up – you’re scatterbrained, tired, uninspired – and that’s part of it. A lot of people are getting into the industry because they think it’s exciting on its own, but if you’re not bringing the excitement to the table, it will never exist.
With several thriving establishments present day, what are key business lessons you’ve learned along the way?
From my experience, the most important things are understanding a lease, location, and audience.
A lease is the foundation of your entire business – what you’re paying, who you’re paying, how much you’re going to invest, [your] payback based on projected revenues. There’s a simple formula, and you’re either going to make money or [not]. Eliminating the latter is surprisingly what a lot of people don’t do.
What does it take for one to achieve success in the food business today?
Consistency. It’s something underrated. Providing an experience for people that is pleasant, satisfying, and leaves them feeling better than when they walked in and doing that consistently, is not easy. With turnover in staff and all the factors that go into giving that experience, consistency is at the top of the list.
On a granular level, how does one achieve that consistency in their food business?
Having managers who feel appreciated, inspired, and want to show up to work is very important. Ultimately, they’re the ones who are going to hold the cooks or front of house accountable, and if they’re not excited, then nobody is. I rely on my staff more than anything because I’m unable to be in five places at once.
Speaking of staff, what do you look for when bringing someone onboard?
There’s [not] specifically something I’m looking for, but I’m looking to avoid people who are overly confident. I’m all for people who feel confident and excited to tackle whatever’s in front of them, but there’s a line where it starts to become cockiness. That, in my opinion, means they’re not interested in learning and adapting to their surroundings. Things change every day, and adaptability is much more important to me.
What helped you diversify in various ways and scale to several business ventures?
It was understanding I had to relinquish a bit of control. I can’t control every single situation. I can’t see every plate that leaves the kitchen, or every interaction a waiter has with a customer. At some point, I had to have faith we were hiring the right people, they were being trained properly, and they could handle their positions without being micromanaged. Relinquishing control was really hard, and is often still hard.
When launching a new venture, is there a backup plan or exit strategy constructed ahead of time?
Everything [we] do comes with a backup plan. Whether it be a lease with an exit strategy, or we rethink what we’re doing if something is causing more stress than good. Having the flexibility in your head and the lack of ego is important. Having the mindset to pivot, shift, and adjust is just as important as having the passion for doing it in the first place.
What’s contributed to the successful business partnership between you and Nick?
It’s respect for each other’s opinion. It definitely helps that we are married – the last thing we want is to take work stress home.
Like any relationship, we’ve learned that we need to hear each other’s opinions and ideas and give them enough respect to discuss, consider, and potentially disagree with – and not turn it into a life-changing situation. It’s listening, understanding, and realizing that we are stronger as a team than we are individually.
From a marketing & advertising standpoint, what have you learned that you would impart to others?
We’ve made a point of not advertising in the traditional sense. We won’t buy advertising space because I feel like it changes the perception of who you are and what you do.
Remaining relevant and exciting has a lot to be said for itself. Reinventing yourself every so often, changing the menu, staying inspired, and remaining in the public eye, are all incredibly valuable things. If you figure out how to remain relevant, whether it be with public events, charity events, or TV, it’s going to bring more excitement to what you’re doing.
Primarily, you see value in a PR strategy as opposed to a marketing & advertising strategy?
We’ve always seen great value in PR. We will always have a PR company. Whether it be as a liaison for events or to make sure the press knows something new and exciting we have on the horizon. That is so much more valuable than buying ad space. Money well spent on publicity versus advertising is key.
In this day, opportunities for creating your own publicity are so accessible. You can learn and utilize the value of creating excitement yourself. I have a lot of friends who don’t have publicists who are constantly in the public eye.
With negative press & reviews being a part of the game, how do you handle these?
You can’t please everybody; you have to understand that. If I let every negative comment I’ve read in my career bother me, it would knock me down and turn me into a different person. Using negative reviews collectively as a tool to educate on what makes people happy and what doesn’t has been very useful. Because at the end of the day I’m trying to provide an experience for other people – not myself – and those people are keeping me in business. If they’re not happy, then I have nothing. If I can read stuff that will educate me on making people happier, then I welcome that.
What’s on the horizon for Chef Brooke Williamson?
Right now it’s a matter of maintenance. We’ve done a lot in the last couple of years. I’m traveling a lot, and I want to make sure everything we’re doing is the best it can be before I move forward and stretch myself thinner.
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