The Empire Strikes Black: Business Basics from BlackHouse Hospitality
Just off the heels of the opening of their latest venture, Steak & Whisky, we recently spoke with Scott Young, Director of Operations and Tin Vuong, Chef/Co-Owner, of BlackHouse Hospitality Management, on what it takes to run a successful restaurant empire. Born and bred in the San Gabriel Valley, the cool kids from the South Bay and LA dining scenes have known each other since their high school days and initially pursued business career paths out of college, only to rekindle a friendship forged in great food as adults. In less than two years, they’ve successfully launched four incredibly popular restaurants – Little Sister, Abigaile, Wildcraft and Dia de Campo – to widespread critical (and local) acclaim. We asked them how they keep churning out the hits.
Looking at the range of restaurant types and cuisines already under BlackHouse Hospitality Management, why is the steakhouse concept a perfect fit for you guys at this moment? What are the things you take into consideration when thinking about what’s next?
It had been in the works for over a year – we were negotiating for the space. The best part of working with this group and the team is the flexibility of creating whatever is necessary for the space, figuring out the demographic and competition in the area, and then how we find our niche within that. We felt there were no steakhouses in the immediate area (people in Hermosa Beach like to walk/bike/uber), which is why we thought Steak & Whisky would be perfect. We always want to find what the area needs.
Given the success and popularity of your other restaurants, public expectations are high for Steak & Whisky – for both food and service. As Director of Operations, what are some of the biggest challenges you face and how do you maintain a superior level of hospitality?
Tin being a seasoned chef, his speciality is back of the house, but with his eye for detail he’s heavily involved in every aspect, starting with the food. My job is to execute the vision that we have.
For me, the biggest challenge is finding the right talent level, especially in terms of management. Hourlies [workers paid hourly] come and go, but management is most important as you grow. The foundation of running a restaurant relies heavily on putting controls in place and maintaining those (beverage, food, labor costs, pilferage, breakage, etc). It’s been a challenge since day one to equal Tin’s quality coming out of the kitchen and match that with a high level of service.
Training programs are put together for each restaurant (Tin hates training more than meetings but knows the importance), but each concept has to have a different kind of training as we grow. Training is key to how we maintain a superior level of hospitality. We want to be working as a team, as a cohesive unit. Eventually we’ll have an opening team that will help open each new space (two more this year alone). Currently it’s just Tin and I spearheading the operations along with the senior management we hire for each location and our super high expectations for execution. Jed Sanford, CEO of Blackhouse Hospitality, is the key part of the team that is directly involved in harnessing the deals, creating the spaces and building them. He usually sees the bigger picture, as Tin and I might be too close to the details.
In the past few years, we’ve seen a trend of heightened public interest in the restaurant world – chefs are becoming popular media personalities and best-selling authors, reality TV is exploding with cooking-driven shows. Why do you think we’ve suddenly found ourselves in a food-obsessed, celebrity-chef driven culture?
You have to eat every day, food is very integral part of life. It brings up memories of your childhood. Different concepts that are interesting and fun let people explore. Millennials want to explore and discover something rather than being told what it is. With food, people find it interesting that they can taste it, try to replicate it, discover it.
A lot of people want to open a restaurant because they romanticize the industry. They see these successful chefs on reality TV and imagine how fun it could be - “Not only will I get to become part of the culinary world, but I’ll make money at it.” The thing is, there are a lot of easier ways to make money. At the end of the day, to make money in this business you need have multiple restaurants and put in the hours necessary to make them successful.
What’s your favorite steak and whiskey combination?
My favorite cut of steak is the Tomahawk, a 42-ounce bone-in ribeye. Or the 14 oz bone-in filet has nice flavor, paired with a Nikka Coffey (a single grain whisky as opposed to a blended whisky or single malt). It’s edgier, with more character than a whiskey from a pot still. With a pot still, you run the batch once and pull it out. With a Coffey still, you put the mash in to go continuously and keep adding stuff to keep it going and going. It ends up sweet, balanced.
You have a degree in economics from UCLA and worked in finance before attending culinary school, what was it like taking the leap from a career in finance to pursue a life in food? Were there any unexpected parallels to your previous career?
I was really young, so what you thought you knew then and what you know now are two completely different things. Being a little bit book smart and disciplined as far as understanding a P&L and understanding business logic and ethics and negotiation, all those things come in handy. But being in the industry and chef for going on 16 years now, that’s what really helps out. Industry experience is really important. You can have all the business savvy but if you don’t understand restaurants, it doesn’t matter. Really just learning the industry over time and letting these two skill sets play off each other, that’s it.
We’ve seen a recent surge in chefs becoming popular TV personalities and best-selling writers. Do you have thoughts on this trend, why it’s happening and where it might be going?
To be honest I don’t know if it really helps the industry to broaden people’s view of chefs in the industry, but it doesn’t really give a reality of what a chef is about. Coming up through the ranks is totally different from how it is perceived now. Being a chef in your early 20s was unspoken of back in the day. I think that younger culinarians have a different view. Before you had to actually go to a restaurant to experience it, but now everything is replicable pretty fast. Through the internet, on Instagram and Facebook, everybody’s connected and I guess the whole old-school culinary thing is kind of lost a little bit maybe. Working hard and going through the ranks, a lot of young culinarians don’t want to do that. They are all about the now, now, now.
A lot menus look kind of the same for the same reason. Even for restaurant design – the nuances, the same type of style of food just because people can easily replicate other people’s things. But the flavors you can’t copy – that’s what separates the imitators from the real chefs. I use the word chef very loosely, by the way. It used to mean a lot, you worked hard for it – you had your tenure, you had to understand the industry, the sacrifices, how hard it is. Now, you can open a restaurant and then all of a sudden you’re a chef. It’s hard to respect certain people who call themselves chefs.
What was it like opening your first restaurant in 2013, Little Sister, compared to the experience of now opening your fifth, Steak & Whisky, under such an esteemed restaurant group (that you co-founded)?
I didn’t really plan to go this far when I first ventured out. Everything organically happened with the right time and luck – with hard work, everything fell into place. How it all happened – it’s different for sure. There’s lot more pressure now. Before it was like, working with a little bit of angst. I didn’t care what people thought, I just did it. Now if I do do a project, there’s a pedestal that people put you on that I didn’t ask for, and you have to outperform yourself. It’s just like any other artist who puts out a record, and then they have to keep putting out better ones. Now I have to think more strategically. Building a better team, there’s a lot more personalities. My team has grown from two to 400+ people now. There’s a lot of noise from social media too. People’s reviews, opening a restaurant, some people try to pull you down. It’s a fact of life and a course that people have to go through.
How do you maintain such a high level of quality – from the service to the food – given that you’re only one person (and you can’t be in five places at once)?
I’m so heavily involved, hands on. I expect a lot from people. Some people don’t really get that. If you want to be the best, you have to be the best. You can’t relax. You got to make sure things are right. Some people say I’m hardcore but there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it, and it’s just the way it’s supposed to be done. You are building a culture around your chefs where they understand what you’re trying to do, and you understand what they’re trying to do. You try to find a balance of cohesiveness between all that but at the same time, there can only be one leader. Sometimes, it’s just not a democratic vote.
As I grow the business, I identify what I need and then I figure out how to fill my need, and then I hire before my need gets there. If I foresee three different projects, I need to identify the person who can be there for me when I can’t be there and support them and pay them well, and give them the tools they need and hope everything works out. I have a team of chefs managing all the business stuff – my labor, food costs, making sure health code is right, all kinds of other daily business tasks, scheduled cleanings – all the stuff that I don’t have time to think about anymore. So I make sure everything is covered.
What’s your favorite steak and whisky combo?
I actually make a butter for every steak that has whisky in it that has that smoky flavor, but we don’t say it. I mount all the steaks with a whisky butter. Inside that butter is foie gras drippings, butter and whisky to give it another layer of flavoring. It really elevates the flavor without you knowing what it is. When you cook it down you get rid of a lot of bitterness and get more concentrated flavor, and then finish it off with really good whisky.