Michael White and Ahmass Fakahany, the driving forces behind Altamarea Group, picked up the Richard Melman Innovator of the Year Award Monday during the MUFSO Conference in Dallas.
Award namesake Richard Melman, founder of Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, joined Restaurant Hospitality editor-in-chief Michael Sanson in presenting the award, which celebrates innovation in restaurant concept creation.
White landed his first job out of culinary school at Chicago’s famed Spiaggia, where he earned a four-star review from the Chicago Tribune. His love for Italian cuisine was cemented in Italy during a seven-year culinary exploration of the country. That journey ultimately led him to New York, where his outstanding cooking at Fiamma Osteria brought him to the attention of Manhattan’s culinary elite. Eventually, that job led to the creation of several other restaurant concepts and the formation of Altamarea Group.
Altamarea CEO Fakahany was a former president and COO of Merrill Lynch & Co. He would often entertain Merrill clients at Fiamma. It’s there he met White and the two became fast friends. In early 2008, Fakahany resigned from Merrill to use his considerable financial skills to help White create and build Altamarea Group.
Today, Altamarea Group is a $50 million-plus company with more than 15 restaurants that extend to London, Istanbul and Hong Kong. Together, the portfolio has collected an unheard-of 11 Michelin stars. The company’s exceptional portfolio earned it a place on Restaurant Hospitality’s 2014 list of the Coolest Multi-Concept Companies in the Land.
White and Fakahany joined Melman on the MUFSO main stage for a lively question-and-answer session that explored the firm’s long-term strategies and trends impacting full-service restaurant operators.
One of the key developments affecting groups like Altamarea, which runs restaurants skewing toward the high end, is the casualization of dining. In response, the group’s locations have embraced more diversity on menus to accommodate a variety tastes and budgets.
Traditionally, White said, “chefs focus very much on making food that they want to eat; there are those chef-type items but we are also very cognizant that we are cooking for the palates of today—so there is a broad….spectrum of food.”
Melman, whose company concentrates more on the casual segment, said he’s okay leaving fine dining to others.
“We have done four-star restaurants,” Melman said, “I don’t think I want to do any in the future. Volume is a big cure-all for a lot of things.”
White and Fakahany continue to roll out new concepts, including the most recent, a stylish French brasserie called Vaucluse, but have not focused on duplicating one. That may be changing with a planned third location of a casual pizza concept, Nicoletta.
“Everybody likes pizza,” White said, but he added that the challenge in expanding is that everybody craves the pizza of their youth.
Over the last 15 years, the Richard Melman Award has honored some of the best restaurant operators in the country, including Danny Meyer, Jose Andres and Steve Ells.
In our opinion, “nobody plays the concept creation better than Rich,” Sanson said.
The MUFSO Premier sponsor is The Coca Cola Company.
Presenting sponsors are: Dinova, Fishbowl, The Beef Checkoff and The Coca Cola Company
Keynotes/general sessions are presented by: Avocados from Mexico, e*Restaurant from Altametrics and the Texas Restaurant Association.
Pillar sponsors include: Heinz Soups, Sweet Street Desserts and Tyson Foodservice (Culinary); Ventura Foods (Entrepreneur); Smithfield Farmland Foodservice Group (Ideas); and Paytronix (Marketing).
The Monday night awards reception and awards presentation are sponsored by: Avocados from Mexico.
Coca Cola presents the Shake, Sparkle & Stir event, and Texas Pete® are sponsoring the MUFSO Kitchen Hero Cook Off, benefiting Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry Campaign.
Hot Concept/Best Concepts Celebration is sponsored by e*Restaurant from Altametrics.
MUFSO Breakfast sponsors are Community Coffee, Ole Mexican Foods and TABASCO®.
MUFSO Room Key is sponsored by Arby’s; Badge Holder Necklace is sponsored by Service Management Group.
Welcome Package is sponsored by Whirley-DrinkWorks!
Refreshment breaks are sponsored by Emmi Roth USA, Royal Cup Coffee, Saputo Cheese USA and Wrigley Foodservice.