You know a place is good when guests — many of them chefs-are willing to endure a wait for a table in the wee hours. That's the kind of following Eric and Bruce Bromberg have built in the 18 years since they opened the first Blue Ribbon in New York's Soho neighborhood.
The Brombergs started with a deceptively simple business plan: Serve consistently good food with a broad appeal, offer professional but friendly service, stay open really late. The formula was the essence of lessons they had learned in school at Le Cordon Bleu and in the real world as employees of other restaurants. Before they teamed up in 1992, the two brothers had picked up college degrees, then pursued their real interest: cooking. They each worked for a variety of high-profile restaurants in the U.S. and France, joining forces at the American Hotel in Sag Harbor, NY.
The first restaurant became a chef hangout, and other night owls followed. Since then, the Brombergs have built on that success with a string of spinoffs, all in New York City: two Blue Ribbon Sushi locations, a bakery, a second Blue Ribbon in Brooklyn, a market in Manhattan, Downing Street Wine Bar in Manhattan, Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar & Grill in Manhattan and Brooklyn Bowl, a bowling alley/nightclub partnership that opened last year in the Williamsburg district of Brooklyn. Bromberg Bros. Blue Ribbon Cookbook was published a few months ago, and the first out-of-town venture, Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar & Grill, will open later this year in Las Vegas.
Their basic menu approach? “Whatever Bruce and I like to eat and cook. Those are really our only qualifications,” admits Eric. The 48-year old and his 44-year-old brother sifted through their food memories from years of traveling the world with their parents and sampling fare near their New Jersey home and in nearby New York City, and built a menu around their favorites. “It's an interesting process to try to reconnect with a flavor or an idea that you had when you were a kid — or even five years ago,” Eric says. The skills learned at Cordon Bleu made the job a bit easier, he adds.
The resulting menu is a round-the-world trip — beef marrow bones with oxtail marinade, hummus, salt and pepper shrimp, pupu platters, escargot, paella, matzoh ball soup, fried chicken, raw oysters, steak and eggs — and because it is so classic-centric, it hasn't changed in 18 years, resisting trends that have swept through the foodservice business during that time. Local? Artisanal? Sustainable? The Brombergs have been sourcing high-quality local product all along, working with the same group of farmers, fisherman and meat suppliers. “Our primary concern is taste and consistency and what we think tastes great,” Eric explains. “We don't necessarily change from this to that because it's in vogue.”
The Brombergs haven't spent a lot of energy on fancy market studies over the years. The decision to open for dinner and cater to night owls was probably more a personal choice than a bottom line-driven business decision, for example. “Bruce and I found an emptiness in the marketplace in New York,” Eric recalls. “We were working in restaurants and would finish around midnight, and we hadn't eaten because we'd been working all night. What do you do in New York City, the city that never sleeps?” Both found the options of fried or fast food lacking. “Lots of people in New York don't work 9 to 5. They don't want to go to a club and order deep-fried food. They want an appetizer, a main course, dessert and wine, and have it served to them by real waiters with tablecloths on the table.” Neither of the brothers liked mornings, so the decision was easy: They would create a later-day concept, open from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m., partly for selfish reasons.
The Brombergs have followed a similarly organic approach to expansion. “A lot of times we don't figure out the menu until the opening week, when we're sitting in the restaurant space and we ask ourselves, ‘what would you like to eat if you were sitting here?’” Eric says.
A lot of thought went into the food at Blue Ribbon's locations, but the service culture was carefully planned as well. The intent is to provide top-level service but in a less formal, more relaxing and friendly way. “We are focused on having as attentive and innovative service as any three-star restaurant. But we have a really approachable attitude and try to serve with consideration for each person's experience,” Eric says.
The objective, he adds, is this: “Everyone we bring into the group we want to teach to be better at the job than we are. We learned very quickly from working in other people's restaurants that if you are a dominating person and it's all about you, when you're not there, everything is different. Our focus has always been consistency and longevity. We know that the better we are at teaching — employees and each other — the more successful we are able to be in our lives.”
New hires start as bussers in the front, dishwashers and prep cooks in the back, and they work their way up. “We train in culture as much as in technique,” Eric says.
Just as the brothers deliberately did not stroke their own egos by naming their restaurants after themselves, they don't draw attention to themselves at the locations, either, even though they are often present, working the line. “The massive bulk of our clientele doesn't really know who either of us are,” Eric says. “It's as much about the team that works as it is about Eric and Bruce.”
Eric describes that team, which has swelled to 700, as “an enormous collection of very proud and happy people who enjoy working with each other.” Creating an environment where everyone works hard and cares about the rest of the staff “is our number one priority,” he adds. That makes a lot of sense when you consider that the original Blue Ribbon operates with a single crew for each 12-hour shift. Those long hours can be intense. “We are packed essentially every night,” Eric says. “Many nights there are waits for tables all the way until 4 a.m.” Teams are scheduled for three nights in a week, but there's an upside: four days to play or pursue other interests, which is a nice perk for many.
The name, Blue Ribbon, also has a simple source: It's the English translation of their French alma mater. It also stands for first place, or top quality, and one look at the lengthy list of kudos Blue Ribbon and its eight spinoffs have earned over the years (including this year's nod as a semi-finalist for best restaurateur in the James Beard Foundation awards, though Eric is perhaps proudest of New York Magazine's award to Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar & Grill for “top fried chicken”) are proof that this was no idle boast.
Next on the agenda for the Brombergs is the first Blue Ribbon to go beyond the Big Apple. After 14 years of being pursued by Las Vegas developers, they finally found one in synch with their approach, and they expect to open a Sushi Bar & Grill in the Cosmopolitan Resort & Casino by the end of 2010. And there are more projects in the offing.
“Ultimately, we just try to be the best at what we do,” Eric Bromberg observes. “If we're not trying to be the best, we're not doing it.”