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June 4th, 2013
Q&A Jody Pennette
Tell me how you got into the industry?
I was originally studying to go to medical school. At the same time I was really into music. My dad was a creative guy who worked in advertising. He saw me studying and actually suggested that I might want to consider pursuing something I would love and then having the success follow that.
So that was the end of the medicine. I moved to Los Angeles and joined a rock band. While earning a living as a musician I had dabbled in working at restaurants. I found something about it that appealed to me. I think the production, like a movie or a play. To me the meal was an ensemble performance. So it wasn't food that actually attracted me to the business at first. It was kind of the flow and the production, the performance of it that really turned me on.
So talk to me about what got you into the restaurant business?
So I came back east and began working and learning in all kinds of different types of restaurants. I learned systems from fast food and white tablecloth operations at country clubs. In each case the common thread was how small groups of people would work as a team.
At the same time from my dad's eyes, I saw the importance of the aesthetics and design of restaurants. Today even though he's semi-retired in Santa Barbara we hire his design company to do a lot of our work. And I think he gave me an appreciation for the industry.
How do you balance marketing and food?
If your goal is to build on great restaurants and it’s all about your food and turning the world on to your vision of dining then you need to be in the kitchen grinding it out one dish at a time.
I think you can become a bit myopic with a food only approach. So if you want to create businesses that have the ability to connect to different markets then you need to balance food with marketing and be aware of trends. The DNA from my dad helped me. If you have great food, but lousy marketing, or mediocre food and great marketing which one is going to win, over the long term? I think the restaurant industry has become more of a performance art.
What's changed is that it’s a given that with the cost of real estate that you must have good food and service. I think the consumer has become awakened and their demand for experience and to be fulfilled and entertained, that comes on the foundation of good food and good service.
Where did the name cb5 come from?
Our company's based on the five Chinese brothers fable and the idea was to take individual talents, all masters in different areas and approach the business with those, left and right brains working together.
So where did the cotton candy and smoking dishes come from?
They probably seem silly and like gimmicks. They're actually pretty strategic. The cotton candy at Red Lulu and the dry ice smoking dishes of fresh mint granita and grapefruit mint granita at Lolita are meant to get your attention. Customers walk in today with their faces in their cell phones.
So we needed to create something to get them to pay attention. I also changed the way our waitstaffs work with our guests. I told them with the smoking dish that we give; you have 10 seconds to bust a move. In that 10 seconds, don't introduce yourself by name. Don't ask if they've been here before. Try to size up the host, make eye contact, and let them know that, just maybe, this could be a different ride and a fun experience if you can get them to trust you. If you can get them to just look at you. That connection sets the tone for the meal. Make it more than an hour and a half of fetching Diet Cokes.
Look at the Connecticut restaurant scene; nobody knows it better than you do what's your read on how it's evolved, what makes it unique?
I think it's interesting because for many years Connecticut restaurants were really an amalgamation of people mimicking New York restaurants. Because of the easy proximity to Manhattan they replicate some aspects which many times were superficial and occasionally pure.
Today Connecticut is truly a market of its own where there's true talent and inspiration. It continues to emerge and what's great is that operators realize that you think you can't fake it. Showing someone what exists somewhere else is cool, but it still has to have its own "Made in Connecticut" soul.
As you look at the Penette restauranting 101 are there common elements that create success in the different venues?
We've worked on 200 plus projects, which doesn't make us smarter than anyone else. It just means we've had a lot of experience and paid attention at what seems to never work, what seems to always work, what seems to sometimes work. The cornerstone of success is a foundation of a true story, a soul, and a purpose.
I know it's not sexy, but I think with every great movie and every great book there's a core. So when we start a new restaurant, we really agonize over its purpose. Lolita is a good example. Lolita wasn't meant to be a Mexican restaurant. It isn't one. It serves Mexican food but there is no piñatas, mariachis or sombreros. It isn't cliché homage to that. What I wanted to do was create a place that sells to the club set in Greenwich. I wanted a place that was for the bad boy. I wanted to take that little bit of misbehaving. So I picked a name and a concept that was flirtatious, sexy, and a little darker.
And it wasn't mainstream. I deliberately put it on a street in Greenwich that wasn't well known. I wanted it to be a destination. And the soul of the Lolita was this flirty, sexy woman. It was out of the way. It was a secret, and it was one of those places in everyone's vocabulary where we've just had dinner at a big, fancy restaurant. Let's go there for a shot. So once the soul was determined it was campy. It was fun. It was a bit outrageous and all packaged to be a little secret hideaway in the corner.
This is a world-class polished town, so it was the contradiction; it was the contrast, the textures. Now we need someone to mix songs that are vintage. You know some obscure version of Purple Rain in Latin. And maybe a little old grand funk. The uniform should be cool jeans, a CBGB t-shirt. But let's have a Waldorf Astoria waiter jacket. So they don't forget that we take our food seriously. And let's get real expensive tequilas and turn people on to that. And let's make all the food fresh.
And, as organic and local as we can even within the Mexican genre. And let's not melt cheese over everything. Let's try to keep it healthy and cool. So, little by little, it turns into this unique product. We're not child-friendly there. Because I say, I don't know how to stretch that. I know Greenwich is a family town. I created the restaurant for when you're lucky enough to find a babysitter. When your wife tries that little black dress on and feels sexy. So, while everyone else is trying to feed you, we said, Lolita was meant to make you feel young, sexy, and have a good time, and the food's damn good, and the service is spot on.
What's your attitude towards the restaurant approach to vendors? Do you like to bid every week? Do you use the same designer all the time?
No, we're loyal to vendors. I think it’s important to be market savvy and know what's out there. But, I think what you do is you create a network of vendors who know what’s important to you and the nuances of your needs without having to even speak. Those core relationships save a lot of time. You also need to understand that the real high end, specialty guy needs to get paid in two days, but then again, no one has tomatoes like him. You need that company who can be there at 9 o’clock when you forgot to order something. But the idea of cherry picking vendors every day is just not right. I think that hurts you in the long run.
In this world of a super star chef can you live without a super star, do you need a super star chef? How does all that work?
You know, especially in our hotel sector, we look at the operation as a movie. If the chef is the star of the movie, I think it works best when there's a script, and there's a producer and a director. So I'm not afraid of a superstar chef. If it's a strong story line, and we've got good production and good direction, yes. Then we can do it. The notion of just tossing the keys to the chef because of reputation or pedigree doesn't fit our model. He or she needs to be part of a team effort. The licensing and branding of celebrity chefs means that in many cases, chefs are no longer getting sauce on their aprons anymore. I like the idea that there’s a connection that is real between what we are serving and the customer. Brand identity through a recipe and training just doesn't get the job done for us. I think some chefs do this very well while others are expanding beyond their depth.
What’s your approach to equity and compensation?
The question becomes does a guy like that end up with equity in a place? Not end up with equity in a place? How do you dance around that? Or how do you motivate with that? I don't know if people truly understand it that just being a partner in a restaurant might mean you're taking on liability as opposed to the upside.
It's incumbent on owners to recognize the continuation the passion and the drive to keep evolving your restaurant. You need, people to care. And, sometimes that can happen through the relationship. Other times it comes through sharing in the wealth. I believe bonuses are a good way for ownership to demonstrate keeping people happy without giving up equity. Bonuses feel more like a reward for a job well done. They tend to do a better job of reflecting the restaurant's economic posture at the time. Equity is nebulous and doesn't get the same direct connection. But I think for security, that's one of the reasons. Certainly the owner should do something to share in the success with the team that helps build it. That’s absolute, because they are the backbone of the success. There's no question that their daily contribution is where the bullets get real and that needs to be steeped in motivation.
How did your business evolve?
We've become developers with a passion for the production of restaurants. We found the hotel sector in particular to be a perfect fit. Those projects needed a way to balance the aesthetic, the business, the performance and execution. We would get a reasonable budget, an opportunity to craft from scratch our ideas. That's where we started actually with Barry Sternlicht and Starwood Hotels. They gave us our entree. And we did a considerable amount of work for them. Actually, we were the first company to get folded in as kind of in-house and when they were just emerging, so we did a lot of the W hotels and then we got spread out to other areas. Like producing a movie or a song, we know how to make it and how to make it and create a hit. Someone else can take a bow, with behind the scenes but we provide I think significant horsepower to the complete final product.
What’s your approach to a new project?
The process begins when someone decides that a restaurant is required. Whether it be from the ground up, a hotel that's three years out or re-positioning an existing one. We come in ice cold and size it up. We do that by learning the market, understanding the aspirations, analyzing the budget and the strengths of the team. Then we come back with a one of a kind story for that restaurant and build on that core.
You’ve recently expanded with a new office in Manhattan. What is your read on the New York City marketplace?
New York is Big Daddy and it is unforgiving in a good sense in that you don't get a pass because they loved you yesterday. You have to earn it everyday. It keeps the restaurant pure. It keeps the energy vital. It keeps the ideas fresh and I think that’s the best proving ground for restaurants. I think the migration of Brooklyn is one of the natural evolutions when you saw the neighborhood in New York between Soho, Chelsea and Tribeca. Brooklyn has become a next evolution of the frontier where maybe you don't have a big budget and, it's a little more hands on organic. And the sensibility of the lifestyle of Brooklyn is very much akin to today's living. It likes to be hands on and soulful. So I think Brooklyn represents a little more of what these emerging neighborhoods did in the natural evolution.
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