Culinary Career Choices: Restaurants – Restaurant groups.
For my money, restaurant groups, whether corporate or privately owned are the sweet spot in the industry for people building their skills and forming their careers.
They are as different as doughnuts and fois gras in their various concepts and levels of quality. Their location and their prestige differ, some groups focusing on suburban locations, sosme with multiple hotel and casino units, some in malls and others limiting their locations to central city, but they have a great deal in common:
As a rule they include a variety of concepts under different names. They may have a small group of same name rollouts within their structure.
Most are incorporated, although partnership structure with investors is not uncommon.
Contrary to chains, where all decisions are made centrally and menus are set in plastic, independent corporations allow a fair degree of unit based management and kitchen decision making and hire their management staff for their entrepreneurial spirit and their intelligence rather than just their capacity to follow rules.
I like them because:
Their corporate structure offers anyone entering in the early phase of their career exposure to many techniques and responsibilities, they usually train, and they offer growth and promotion opportunities within the areas of the corporation.
While rarely driven by departmental politics which frequently haunt hotels, restaurant groups have access to the expertise of dedicated professionals for functions from staffing and human resource management to promotion and vendor negotiation, thus making them more profitable for everyone involved and providing valuable support for their management employees.
Restaurant groups walk the path between the policy set by chains and the arbitrary nature of management in many but not all privately held locations. Since without some knowledge of good practices they would not have achieved their growth, there is some assurance that they are both balanced in the determination of appropriate individual management freedom and professional in their handling of the various units.
Because most have grown from ground level they have learned how to do what they do and do it well. They understand the real worth of outside services and dedicated employees for services a free standing restaurant may over or undervalue. Having achieved knowledge of best practices, they generally manage to walk a comfortable line between policy driven systems and and individual skill and talent.
They are to various degrees chef driven, allowing the chef to set and determine most to all of the menu and make decisions regarding staffing, product sourcing, etc. These may require corporate approval, but respecting the chef’s ability to determine the best local practices shows respect for the people they hire.
Many offer their successful chefs and managers opportunities at partnering and vesting.
There is generally a high degree of flexibility and interchange within the restaurant groups. One we know, which is more centrally driven than many, adjusts their menus by assembling their chefs several times yearly to exchange, discuss and redevelop the menus.
Many are chef owned or owned by a group of chefs and managers, who are committed to quality and a professional atmosphere.
The diversification of location and often of concept offers the owners a safety net for the individual restaurant which does not meet its goals for a short period. As a whole the groups tend to provide stable employment.
The diversification of location also provides for movement of staff within units to achieve both growth and experience in a variety of atmospheres.
They are excellent places to learn well developed systems you might want to use for your own independent restaurant some day or to augment your culinary and production skills with rock solid management capabilities. Most of these groups will help good staff with good attitude to excel in those areas where they are strong while supporting them in those where they are not.
They have better access to fairly priced insurance and in some case retirement plans, so they generally offer good ones. Their size often provides advantage in purchasing of some produce, beverages, services and dry goods.
What’s not to like, then?
Restaurants in corporate groups are not a free for all, and sometimes a completely open environment is more fun.
The lack intimacy of small independents where the chef and cooks work cheek to jowl through a service.
Their compensation structure is generally somewhat lower than the top offers of some independents and some hotel units. Most of them have a performance based bonus structure.
Only a few of them focus on really high end, complex cuisine. While Thomas Keller’s restaurants and the Danny Meyer Groups certainly belong to this category, most of these restaurants aim at a broader audience with more accessible cuisine. Those whose aspiration is rarified five star, highly complex cooking style of a Coi will find fewer opportunities in the world of corporate groups.
The line between Corporate Group and Chain is can blur. Many corporations eventually sell or accept outside funding and become chains with centrally determined policies.
Even being more unit management driven, they have to maintain some level of policy, which limit some people’s individual creativity. This for a beginning culinary aspirant is probably a good thing, as s/he can profit from learning from others, but further on it can be frustrating.
There are people who are simply not suited to the corporate environment and whose success will be built on highly creative opportunities in independent venues.
You choose not only the corporation but the restaurant within the group. Lettuce Entertain You has a vast network, as does the Levi group. Puck has everything from fine dining to haute cafeteria, Danny Meyer has Shake Shack and Grammarcy Tavern. The Lark Creek Group has the Lark Creek Inn and Lark Creek Cafes. Thomas Keller’s empire includes Per Se and Bouchon. While the concepts within the group may range from very casual to extremely formal, however, the level of professionalism and quality demanded from and imparted to their staff and management generally remains constant.
Determining who you are and what you need (which may not be what you want at all) is essential in all career choices, especially in the decision which restaurant type to work with. These corporate groups, however, are well worth an open mind, even if your plan is a one off. The tools you can pick up in a couple of years in a well-run corporate environment which supports individual decision making are some of the best you can gather for your professional tool kit. If your background incorporates some of the most recognized kitchens, you need to determine whether the corporation you are considering will permit you to continue at that level, assuming that is what you want to do, and what it offers you beyond the salary, but then that should be the rule for any job consideration.