michael chernow seamores

"If everybody works well and does what they’re supposed to do, you win," Chernow says. Photo: Wil Brawley

Meatball Shop creator shares tactics for site selection, motivation, more

Michael Chernow keeps lots of balls in the air at once. He’s the Owner of Seamore's, co-founder of The Meatball Shop and WellWell and host of FoodPorn on FYI. He recently spent some time explaining his latest concept and how he handles everyday demands of operating restaurants.

What lit your fire to get started in the restaurant business?

I grew up in Manhattan, and I wanted money in my pocket. In order to have a $5 bill in my pocket at all times, I needed a job. When I was 13 years old the only place that would hire me was a restaurant. So luckily, I kind of just fell into it. But very quickly thereafter I found out that I was more passionate about people, hospitality and food than anything else. And, really, my passion resides in people. The best way to feed that passion is to surround myself with people all the time. So, that’s ultimately what I set out to do. I followed my passion, followed my dream, and ended up really creating a life beyond my wildest dreams through luck and hard work.

Without the people, the food doesn’t matter. It’s really a people business, internally and externally. You can have amazing food, but without the right people behind it or serving it, it doesn’t resonate. My real pride and passion are in the people that work with me. I put them before everyone and anyone, outside of my wife and my son. If you put all your blood, sweat and tears into your staff and into your people, that makes everything work like a well-oiled machine. Everything else will fall into place. The people are the most important piece of the business. 

I break it down like this: If you have a retail concept, like a clothing store, a guest walks in the door, and you have one or two people walking around the floor trying to sell product. You have one or two cashiers. In the restaurant business, somebody walks through the door and there’s a host at the door. There’s a manager on the floor, there’s a bartender, there are five servers, four bussers, somebody at the takeout station, six cooks in the kitchen, five cooks out there prepping. So, that same $60 transaction that needs about four people in a retail store, needs about 16-18 people in a restaurant. You have to understand the amount of people that it takes for the same sixty-dollar transaction is huge. 

Being able to keep all those people happy and excited and pumped to work is a full-time job. I love it. That’s the part that I love most. The instant gratification is truly incredible if you do the right thing. Every day is a new battle, a new challenge. You have a lot of people doing different jobs. Everybody has a protocol. If everybody works well and does what they’re supposed to do, you win. It’s just an incredible business.

You started The Meatball Shop in 2010, and within a few years you had six locations. What did you learn through that rapid growth?

The team is the most important piece of the puzzle. Once you as the operator start to check out because things get rough, the team checks out. The team is such an important element — it’s probably the most important element in growing a restaurant group. The other piece of the puzzle is that fact that you can’t be good at everything, and you shouldn’t be good at everything. You shouldn’t try to be good at everything. Find the smartest people around to help you grow — people that are smarter than you. Taking any sort of pride and ego off the table and learning from your team is probably, if not the most, eye-opening, valuable experience I’ve had. Hiring better people, smarter people than you is really where it’s at. With those two things — investing in your team and hiring really smart people — I feel like you have a good chance at it. 

The success rate in restaurants, as we know, is slim. Margins are very, very slim. Trying to learn from the folks who have done it before me is really where I’ve found the most success. That’s what I do. I try to hire up, and support my team in the best possible way I can and not try to do everything. If I’m not great with numbers, well, let me go out there and try to find the guy who is. If I’m not great at ops, let me go out there and find the greatest ops guy. You get a great team of people together that are experts in their own category and you can really make things happen.

michael chernow quoteYou and Daniel Holzman started The Meatball Shop together. You are no longer involved with daily operations. What did you learn from having a difference of opinion on the future of that business?

Partnerships are really, really tough. Specifically, when you get two alphas, it’s even tougher. And Daniel and I happen to be two alphas. We just think very differently. The beauty of our day-to-day partnership was that we thought so differently. He would look at one thing and then I would look at the same thing and we would think completely differently about that same thing, which is awesome for a partnership because you always get to see both sides of the coin. What makes it a challenge is coming to decisions. What I learned from the very beginning was that before you get into a partnership or as you’re developing the partnership, really draw a thick line delineating labor and defining who is doing what and sticking to that. Once you start to overlap, you’ll always overlap. If you can, try your best to have a delineation of labor that details who’s going to be in charge of what and that whoever’s in charge of that ultimately has the final say on those specific items. It really makes things smoother. 

The other piece is you’ve got to have total and utter confidence in your partner. If you don’t have full confidence in your partner, it’s really, really difficult to make decisions. If somebody’s in charge of pulling the trigger on something but the other person doesn’t actually have confidence in that individual, then you’re in trouble. I would say partnerships are probably, if not the, most challenging piece of this business. Not many business partnerships in the restaurant industry survive for a long period of time. There are some great success stories, but the vast majority of business partnerships tend to fizzle away over time, especially when money becomes a real topic, and/or failure becomes a real topic. You don’t know what you’ve got until you really succeed or you really fail. Daniel and I went through a number of different hills and valleys. We ultimately decided that it didn’t need two captains to run the ship. I was really passionate about seafood so I decided to step away from the day-to-day stuff over there and I have full confidence and faith in Daniel to run the business. He’s doing a fantastic job at it. But business partnerships are hard. I would suggest and highly recommend having a very, very clear vision of who’s doing what.

Tell me more about Seamore’s.

Seamore’s is kicking butt and taking names, which is fantastic. I grew up in New York City but on Sundays, as a kid, I would always go fishing out in Freeport and Patchogue, Long Island. Every Sunday I would get on a party boat with friends in my sports club and we would go out there and fish. I started doing some research on the ocean, and the ocean is not in a great place. There’s a ton of overfishing and there’s unregulated fishing. Ninety percent of the seafood that we eat here in the U.S. is actually not from the U.S. — it’s shipped from overseas. We don’t know what species of fish are coming here because it’s all processed by the time it gets here. There’s just a lot going on in the ocean. It’s arguably as bad as what was going on with livestock. But, there’s just a ton of stuff that has to be sorted out with the way the supply chain of the fishing industry is regulated. So, I decided that I wanted to do a seafood restaurant. 

I knew that I couldn’t do a regular seafood restaurant — I had to do a seafood restaurant with a mission. A seafood restaurant that would allow people to learn about the underutilized species that swim local to the waters that we live in here in New York, and also that are abundant in the species count. It was really all the fish that I grew up fishing. The fish that I grew up fishing are blackfish and the porgy and the bluefish and the sea bass and the monkfish and the fluke and the flounder, and the stuff that you don’t really see on menus but that happen to be really delicious. I created a concept based around those species of fish. It was a bit of a risk because people are really not familiar with those species, but I decided that it was something that I felt passionate enough about to do it. I felt like I had enough momentum behind me with The Meatball Shop to put it together and at least get people in there one time. If I was able to perform and execute on that first-time visit, then I had a good chance of getting them back in. And so we did it, and I opened it up. Sure enough, we’re cranking away here. I’ve got a couple more in the pipeline. It’s really exciting. I think I’m making a stand for the underdog species of fish and I’m excited about it.

You decided on a location and signed a lease before raising all of your money, right?

Yes. I was looking to raise a $1 million. And I ultimately did raise it, but I found this location that I desperately wanted and I wasn’t nearly done on my raise. I just knew that this location was where I had to have the restaurant. So, I just threw $100,000 of my own money down on the lease and raised about half of the money. I crossed my fingers and closed my eyes and prayed that I’d get the rest of the money in the bank. And sure enough I did, thank God. It was a risk that I took because I just knew that the location that I had my eyes on was a pioneering location and I just knew that the restaurant would really thrive there. It would be a real flagship, and I wanted to do it so badly so I took the biggest risk that I don’t recommend anybody do, and it worked.

There are some times when I just walk through the doors of the space that was there before, and I just say, “Man, this is it. This is it.” I don’t know what it is. I just could feel it. So far it’s worked out. I can’t really explain that sort of sixth sense, but I get it from time to time. I see a million spaces. I pound this pavement in New York City so hard looking for restaurant spaces. It’s one of my favorite things to do and I do it a lot. I’d say one out of every 20 or 30 that I see, I get that feeling. I do a little due diligence on it and I don’t like walking to neighborhoods that I don’t want to have a restaurant in, so I typically know the neighborhood that I’m looking around in. But at the end of the day, I just don’t know how to quite explain that.

michael chernow quoteYou opened six Meatball Shop locations in just a few years. Was that the right pace, and what did you learn from that that you applied to Seamore’s?

I think that it was the right pace. We could have definitely done things a little differently though. We could have probably had a few more than we have now if we would have made a couple of decisions differently. But ultimately, the business is in a great position and what I’ve learned from working on Seamore’s is that I really enjoy the creative aspect of this business more than the cut-and-paste. I really enjoy the building and creating aspect of it. So I’m not going do more than three Seamore’s in a market. Maybe we’ll have one small QSR, just to test it out per market, and see that spinoff of the concept. I just don’t like the idea of taking the exclusivity out of a brand. The golden ticket is having a totally inclusive brand. I know that doesn't make a lot of sense when you hear it, but for me it makes a ton of sense. It’s trying to keep the brand exclusive and absolutely inclusive, so we are here for everybody, but we keep it limited so they’re not on every street corner. What I’ve learned through the growth of the Meatball Shop and now with Seamore’s is to keep it to three, maybe four, in a market. And then take it to another market and just drive that excitement back into the brand and get it in front of a whole new set of individuals. That’s what I’m most excited about with The Meatball Shop and Seamore’s.

Right now I’ve got a five-year plan, locked and loaded. 

You are a devoted family man. How do you balance time with family while still keeping your eye on the ball at work?

That’s a million-dollar question. I’m still trying to figure that out. I really am. I’ve spoken to a lot of individuals who have been doing this for a lot longer than I have. The number one thing they say to me is, “Don’t forget about your family.” This business makes it really easy to forget about your family. My family is absolutely my number one priority in life. It’s really difficult. I hang with my son and my wife in the morning from about 5:30 to about 8:30, and take my son to daycare. Then I don’t get to see him. I don’t get home before my son goes down at night. It’s heartbreaking. But it’s the reality of what I do. I get the weekends because I’ve been able to give myself the weekends off. So, I get the mornings and the weekends, and that’s how I’ve managed it. 

I’ve got this five-year plan with Seamore’s. I’m going to give it a 150,000 percent, going to go as hard as I possibly can, and take the temperature in five years and see how well I’ve done. I want to be able to be the coach of my son’s sports teams. I really want to be at dinner every night, talking about school. I want to be that dad. I want to be the dad that I didn’t have. That dad is so important to me. I’m focusing on getting these next five years in line, so that I don’t have to be the 60- to 80-hour a week guy anymore. That’s my goal.

What advice do you give people who want to emulate what you’ve done?

The love of the work is obviously the most crucial. I would go as far as say I’m addicted to it. I’m addicted to the risk factor. I’m addicted to the excitement of giving something a try for the first time. I’m one of those guys who just jumps off a cliff first. I typically say, “If you’re really interested and it’s a business that you’ve been working in for a long time, put a business plan together and go at it as hard as you possibly can, and put it in front of as many people as you possibly can.” Once you get one person to want to hop onboard with you, you’ve got to let go of what you’re doing. Because if you’re not diving in 100 percent, it’s just not going to happen. People talk all the time about, “Ah, I want to open up a restaurant. Oh, I want my own place. Oh, I want to open up a bar.” It’s not a talk business, it’s a do business. It’s scary taking that risk. But you’ve got to get there and the only way to get there is by taking that risk. Once you’ve taken that risk you’ve got to invest money in the right place. In my opinion today in this super competitive market, you’ve got to invest in a publicist. The only thing a publicist can help you do is to tell your story. You’ve got to have a story, and you’ve got to have a story that people want to hear and that you know how to tell really well. You’ve got to make a decision to get out of your comfort zone and do it. Once you get out there and do it, you’ve got to get a publicist. Once you get a publicist, you better have a story because that publicist is going to be out there to tell your story, help you tell that story, and hopefully, people want to listen. 

I think the business is storytelling and relationships. You never know who you’re talking to, so treat everybody kindly, treat everybody the same, with passion and integrity. I’ve had conversations with people I’ve met and had no idea who they were, and before I knew it, they were people who would want to be in business with me and were huge assets as I grew in my career. I really think the biggest piece of this is probably the story — we are in the business of telling stories. The Meatball Shop is a story — a really cozy, warm, comforting story. Seamore’s is a heroic kind of story that people get excited to hear. Every time they come into the restaurant they get a little bit more. They get another chapter of it and, I believe in that wholeheartedly. 

Have a story, know how to tell it and get a publicist to help you. Take the leap of faith. Invest in your team one hundred percent. Your team is your number one asset. You put your guests before your team, you’re in trouble. You’ve got to put your team first, before anything and everything. Keep your eyes on the prize. If you worry about your competition too much, it’s worrying about what other people have going on as opposed to what you’ve got going on. I learned that early on, when people started to take The Meatball Shop concept and have their own iteration of it. Daniel and I started to worry about the competition and say, “I wonder if they’re going to do it better than us.” What we learned was any minute we spent thinking about the competition was a minute we were not spending thinking about what we were doing well. 

Nobody can replicate your story. 

Authenticity is something that you cannot duplicate. It’s the exact opposite of duplication. It comes from the heart, it comes from the soul, it comes from the gut. And it’s really hard to copy that, to duplicate that as well as the original. 

Wil Brawley is a partner at Schedulefly, a company that provides restaurants with web-based staff-scheduling and communication software. He is the author of Restaurant Owners Uncorked: Twenty Owners Share Their Recipes for Success.

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