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This article originally appeared in the Bentley Magazine.
Rich Rosenthal ’81, P ’13 fulfilled a teenage dream upon opening a restaurant in his Connecticut hometown of Hartford, in 1986. Today, Max Restaurant Group (named for his “inspirational” grandfather) is a mini-empire. Its 10 award-winning establishments serve up classics like hamburgers and pasta as well as more exotic fare — think wood-grilled octopus. Here, he shares wisdom gleaned from three decades in the business.
Begin with “a committed passion,” Rosenthal says, but don’t skimp on the prep work.
Learn the business.
At 16, Rosenthal got a job bussing tables at a local steakhouse. The food was mediocre, he admits, but minimum wage plus tips seemed like a lot of money at the time, and “for a kid, it was a blast.” After Bentley, he learned to cook at the New York Restaurant School in Manhattan, then spent three years in restaurant kitchens. “It wasn’t my vision to be a chef,” he says. “But I felt if you were going to be successful in the restaurant business, you had to have a clear understanding of cooking and food.”
Raise the cash.
Adequate capital is essential, Rosenthal says, especially in today’s competitive market. His first restaurant, Max on Main, cost $300,000 to open — about $640,000 in 2015 dollars. “But it wasn’t as large or elaborate as the way we do things now,” Rosenthal says, noting that his most recent venture, The Cooper in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., required an initial investment of $2 million to open last year.
Find the perfect spot.
What makes a good location? “Lots of rich people living there,” Rosenthal jokes. But in all seriousness, he says, the restaurant needs to be close to where your target customers live or work.
Settle on a concept.
Keep abreast of trends — “farm to table” is hot right now — but also take stock of your competition. In a neighborhood saturated with seafood, an Italian trattoria might make a stronger impression than another lobster shack.
Every successful restaurant, no matter its concept or location, relies on a few key ingredients.
A leader in the kitchen.
An executive chef needs top-line cooking skills first and foremost; but that’s not all, says Rosenthal. “Your chef has to understand how important hospitality is,” he explains. “Our goal is to make guests happy. If it’s 10 o’clock at night and they want scrambled eggs and bacon and we don’t have that on our menu, try and find some and give it to them.”
The chef oversees everything “back-of-house,” but front-of-house operations are just as important. At each of Rosenthal’s locations, this is the domain of a “creative and thoughtful” managing partner with a vested stake in the restaurant’s success. “I don’t want a cookie-cutter management style,” he says, “because I don’t want a cookie-cutter restaurant.”
In the past decade, customers have grown increasingly savvy about where their food comes from, Rosenthal says. “They want to know who grows your tomatoes, who bakes your bread, where you get your ice cream. Then you get into organics, sustainability. People now want better everything.”
“Technology has become a very big thing,” Rosenthal says of computerized systems that can track everything from a plate of truffled fries to gross sales and net profit. The tech mix also includes social media and websites like Yelp. Any Max restaurant guest who posts a critical review receives a personal message or phone call from the managing partner, who works to right whatever went wrong.
Rosenthal works with professional designers to keep the look and feel of his eateries in synch with the times. “The restaurant I opened in ’86 was the hottest Hartford had ever seen at that point; today it wouldn’t work,” he says of elements such as a hung ceiling, painted walls and carpet. “Nowadays, the tendency is to have paneling, decorative light fixtures, tile and wood.”
For the restaurateur whose venture prospers, the rewards are more than financial.
“A good restaurateur needs what we call the ‘hospitality quotient,’” says Rosenthal. Not everyone is born with the trait. But for people like him, seeing guests leave the restaurant happy provides the ultimate satisfaction.
Restaurants are integral to civic life, and they’re well placed to give back to the community. Max Restaurant Group has raised millions of dollars hosting fundraisers for New England nonprofits like Ronald McDonald House, Bay State Children’s Hospital, and the Boys and Girls Clubs. Support for worthy causes offers a psychic benefit for partners and team members, according to Rosenthal. “But we don’t do it so we can feel good. We do it because we have the resources and ability to help — and feel it’s a responsibility.”
The restaurant business can be all-consuming, testing people physically and mentally, Rosenthal says. “The hours are difficult. It’s tough when you have a young family . . . 80 percent of our business is in the evening.” In the early years, Rosenthal made a point of spending any time off with his wife and three daughters (now in their 20s, including Emily, a 2013 Bentley grad). He called on his chef training to create memorable weekend breakfasts and weeknight suppers. But the stress and sacrifice are not for everyone, he admits. “In the business, we joke, ‘You’ve got to have grease in your veins.’”
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Amy Crawford is a journalist whose writing credits include The Boston Globe, Boston magazine and The Smithsonian, among others. Follow her:
Photo by LibbyVision.com; illustrations by Steven Simpson