For the founders of Boka Restaurant Group, Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, an educational experience of trials and tribulations, successes and failures, shaped two of the most successful restaurateurs in the world today. Whether they were stiffed by associates or had their hair catch fire from an exploding oven – literally – owning four bars or restaurants individually before their 30th birthday was no easy feat. However, that’s exactly the undertaking before their eventual partnership. One that now has 16 restaurants and employs over 1400 people. And to think, sketching designs on cocktail napkins after-hours would have blossomed to one of the most successful restaurant groups today – true story.
The question many wonder is, “How do they do it?” From their spirited roundtable discussions, hand selected chef partners, immaculate attention to detail, and clarity in purpose, it’s easy to see they’ve dialed in the formula. Each restaurant has a signature look and feel, innovation, and a menu from the chef partner to embody the culture of the establishment.
In their interview for Entrepreneurial Chef Magazine, both Boehm and Katz conversed with playful banter and shared a wealth of knowledge. The pair opened the floodgates to their stockpile of experience on how to build, fund and open not just one, but multiple establishments. Get the full story in Issue 12 of the magazine, but for now, enjoy these five answers from the dynamic duo.
As you started to scale with multiple locations, what were some lessons you learned along the way?
KB: We started relatively deliberate. We opened Boka in 2003, a second two years later, and a third three years later. At that point, we felt we could still get our arms completely wrapped around all those restaurants, even though the corporate office was just two, Rob and I.
When we opened Girl & the Goat in 2010, the company exploded a bit. Right about then we started to lose our minds from being foolish and not building our infrastructure. The huge learning lesson in 2010 and 2011 was that we needed more people around us and needed to trust them. At that point, we were untrusting to let go of things we had always done and allow people some rope to fail. What we were doing was giving ourselves nervous breakdowns.
There was a moment, and we both remember it, where Rob put his hands on my shoulders and said, “What are we doing to ourselves?” We were still treating those first four restaurants as individual island restaurants. A lot of which did things completely different than restaurant one, and it was time for us to build the culture and standard operating procedures. That’s what we started doing those next few years.
Now, we look at our team of 1400 employees and 25 people in the corporate office, and there’s no way we could do it without all those people. But it took time to get all the stuff in our brains and put it into standard operating procedures that can be used throughout all of the restaurants.
How did you build the culture of the organization and are there things you do to ensure its integrity and longevity?
KB: You maintain culture by the way you build the structure of the company. If you look at everybody sitting in our office, from Ian Goldberg, our Vice President, and the first employee we hired, to Abby, our Executive Director, who’s been with us for 10 years, and Erin Phillips, our Director of Education, who’s been with us for six years, these are people who understand the mission statement and culture of the company.
Obviously, Rob and I can’t be at 15 restaurants at the same time. So, it’s building the corporate team with people who have been with us for a long time and have a true understanding of what Boka restaurant group means and what it’s always meant.
RK: To add, we open a lot of restaurants, and that same corporate team picks up and goes to each one. We have people who have been with us for so long, are on the same page with what our statement is, who we want to be, and what we want that restaurant to be, where everyone descends on that restaurant to train in different facets. Someone is training the wine program, someone is training the servers and getting the spiel down, the chefs are working with the back of the house team. We really concentrate on training, and we stay at those restaurants weeks on end, or months on end until we feel the restaurant is running in the lane we want it to run in. We can’t go open more restaurants until we know each of our current restaurants are running exactly the way we want them to run.
What is your secret to maintaining the identity of each establishment rather than seeming like a cookie-cutter operation?
KB: There are two answers here. One being there’s a reason we have chef partners. A part of the identity of the restaurant comes from who the chef-partner is, and they take ownership of those properties. For example, Stephanie Izard, chef of Girl & the Goat, Little Goat, and Duck Duck Goat, there’s a lot about Stephanie in those restaurants. At the same time, we spend many hours sitting around a table with some very smart people, including our branding team, design team, and corporate team. When Rob and I conceptualize a restaurant, we go into a lot of detail before it opens, and that’s a concept we stick to. We think it’s very important that we don’t waiver on who we are.
To be honest, we were not very good at this with the first three restaurants. We opened three restaurants with the same designer, close geographically, and all were American restaurants. We said, “Uh oh, maybe that’s not the right move.” If you look at our website now, there’s a coffee shop, a rooftop bar, Japanese place, Chinese place, a steakhouse. We got very specific about what we wanted to do, what we wanted our restaurants to look like, what the concept was and who the chef partner was, and it was all crafted from very long discussions.
RK: When we’re opening new restaurants, we’re very, very careful to not cannibalize any of our other existing restaurants. We don’t want anything too close in menu or design. We want each to stand on its own with an independent voice, look and feel as a restaurant. We’re very careful to make sure each one of our restaurants felt different, looked different, tasted different and it’s really helped us. We haven’t repeated a concept yet, not one time, and we are still finding a customer base that is supporting us and excited for what we bring to the marketplace.
If tomorrow you were planning another location, what does your checklist entail and where do you start?
KB: First, we place equal importance on food, hospitality, and design. So, sometimes it starts with a chef partner. Sometimes it starts with a concept. It very rarely starts with a location – only one time in our history.
Usually, we have concepts in cue we’d like to do, but we’re waiting for that opportunity. For example, we wanted to do a Japanese restaurant since we started together. We never found the talent to pull it off – that talent is very specific when it comes to Japanese restaurants. We were always willing to do that restaurant, but it wasn’t until we finally did a tasting with a chef that we thought we could build the restaurant around – and then we went after it.
RK: In some instances, timing is everything. You have to have a sense of timing in business. We could have done that [Japanese] restaurant a year or two earlier, or a year or two later, but we had to pick our spot and [at that time] there happened to be an opening in the marketplace. There was a large format Japanese restaurant that ruled the roost for many years in Chicago, and they had seen their better days. There was another [Japanese] restaurant that had opened, but it was a little different than ours. The timing was exact, and we pulled the trigger. We saw an opening, knew what we wanted, found the chef, and had an unbelievable building we fell in love with and purchased.
We look at the landscape. Sometimes we want to open the restaurants we want, and don’t want to look at the competition – what some chef or restaurateur is doing – but we’re not foolish. For instance, there’s no reason to open the third steakhouse on the same block in a small neighborhood. So you have to look at the landscape in front of you.
For anyone looking to open a restaurant, what advice and cautions do you have for them?
RK: Someone who’s wanting to open a restaurant, they have to know every aspect of the restaurant. I mentioned that Kevin and I became experts in each position because we wanted to know what everyone was doing at all times. We made sure we could walk the walk and talk the talk. I think you have to be very, very knowledgeable and you have to be able to delegate.
For us, it took a while to reach that point and life wasn’t nearly as fun because we were working ourselves sick. We did everything; from placing every order that came in, to writing every single check, every payroll check, to making the bank deposits, to plunging the toilet, we did everything. Then we said, “Hey, the manager can put the banks together, this person can make the order.” You have to delegate because otherwise you’re not gonna enjoy life, you’re not gonna enjoy the ride, and you’re not gonna grow.
KB: I would say start small, and keep your middle-class sensibility about yourself. You’ve got to crawl before you can walk. You’ve got to learn to be able to run a restaurant that has 50 seats before you can figure out how to do one that seats 150. I think people get way too ambitious with their first place. Be incredibly deliberate about that first restaurant, because that first foot forward is gonna be your most important. You can’t un-ring a bell – once you develop a reputation in a town, it’s hard to change that. While you’re working for other people, keep a notebook with you. Take notes, keep all your ideas together. And that first restaurant should be something you’ve been thinking about for a long, long time.