Cooks Management

How a Restaurant Matures: A Conversation Between Tony Maws and Eli Feldman

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Written by Eli Feldman

Chef Tony Maws has one real child and two quasi-children. He is father to Charlie, husband to Karolyn, and the chef-owner of Craigie on Main and Kirkland Tap & Trotter.

As people move through life they mature; children become teens, teens become adults. The same can be said of restaurants. Just as parents help children mature, operators play a critical role in their restaurant’s maturation. Chef Maw’s has found that while he’s been nurturing Craigie and KT&T’s development, he’s also had to mature himself.

Eli: So, how old are Kirkland and Craigie on Main now?

Tony: Kirkland is a year and four months and Craigie is just over six. But before it was Craigie on Main, it was Craigie Street Bistro- so it’s also 12.

Eli: Do you think of Craigie as a six-year-old restaurant or as a 12-year-old?

Tony: It depends. I think about it as both because there are certain pieces practically, or physically in the building that relate to it being a six-year-old restaurant. I think our philosophy, our mission, the way that we think of ourselves as a restaurant are absolutely twelve years old. Kirkland is very much a different restaurant. So that very much feels both in structure and in physical aspects and emotionally- everything about it is a year-old restaurant.

Eli: ‘Emotionally’- what do you mean?

Tony: Opening this restaurant up a year ago, made me remember what opening means, I think you block it out, and it’s an emotional experience for some obvious reasons. The toll it takes on you personally and how meaningful it is to you because you put time and energy into building this thing. There’s a tangible part of what you built but so much of a restaurant is an idea. You walk into a restaurant and it has a feeling. And these are things that are really hard to put into words but that’s why you pick this chair or why you painted this color; so it feels a certain way, and our guests feel a certain way. As an owner, you’re tied up in this huge relationship with the building itself, physically, the beams and the posts and the lighting.  You’re tied up emotionally in how everything is. How the staff is feeling about working here, how they feel about selling this product and representing this company.

Eli: So it’s in every possible way.

Tony: Absolutely.

Eli: Is there a parallel between how a restaurant matures and how a child matures?

Tony: Definitely. I think one of the biggest travesties in the American public is that we latch on to the ‘new’ things all the time and we forget or sometimes don’t even realize that restaurants mature. Everybody only wants to play with a baby and that’s awesome but to me that’s far less interesting. And I’m not saying that with any bias, I just feel that way. If I go to a restaurant that’s not mine I can absolutely identify where the restaurant is in its life and appreciate it for that. I think that analogy is perfect.

Eli: So, where are Craigie and Kirkland at in their ‘lives’?

Tony: Well, I don’t want to have any predictions on how long Craigie is going to go but I feel like it’s a mature restaurant. Mature in the sense that it’s a 22-year-old. We’ve got this whole experience behind us, we’ve got tremendous information at our disposal and we’ve accomplished a lot and now we can look ahead and say, ‘what do we want to do with the rest of our lives?’ Kirkland definitely had a good early childhood but a lot of it was looking at this thing and saying, ‘what is it going to become?’ I didn’t have that perspective with Craigie in the early years because I was so immersed in it. I was a lot younger and naive and not thinking I would ever make it this long. It didn’t even enter my mind that I would be doing this 12 years later. It has also been well-published that I said for a long time that I would never open a second restaurant. I betrayed myself. There are some days I say, ‘what the hell did I do?’ And then there are days where I have a blast and it’s great. But Kirkland is young, and when I say it’s young, that’s not a bad thing, but we still have to figure a lot out. I analyze things at Kirkland very differently than I analyze things at Craigie on Main. At Craigie we have a history of people who come for something that they love about the place and we want to keep giving them what they love. At Kirkland a lot of people come in and don’t know what to make of this place yet. That’s where we’re at.

Eli: I don’t think many restaurants or people operating restaurants are consciously thinking about what stage they’re at in their maturation and you just said that you weren’t thinking about it in the early days. What triggered the introspection?

Tony: Well, I think at some point I realized that I’m probably going to be doing this for a while and I certainly hope that it’s with Craigie on Main and Kirkland. We’ve written all of these chapters and it adds up to a pretty awesome story and if you have a pretty awesome story then you have a lot of experiences and you lived a lot of life. You begin to reflect on change and all of a sudden you realize that there’s probably more change ahead of you, not just what’s behind you. So, if there’s going to be change ahead, let’s plan for some of it. Let’s not have everything be reactionary. Let’s talk about it. Maybe we can actually help direct it and steer the ship instead of feeling like we’re just on this bumpy road and it’s taking care of itself. I think that’s where a lot of it has come from and part of that conversation led to hiring a higher-level general manager. And that conversation continued when we brought in HR. To even have HR; to be a single restaurant, independently-owned with an HR guy- no one does that. But we wanted to start thinking bigger, not in terms of growth necessarily, but ‘how do we do this better?’

Eli: Did these changes impact you as an owner? Did you have to adjust how you do things?

Tony: I had to really think about it and say ‘ok, how am I going to do all of this? How am I going to manage this?’ I think about that all the time. Everyone knows that I’m committed to my job but once you decide to have two restaurants, there’s only so much control you can physically have. Then I have this really awesome wife, and I refuse to not have her as my wife sometime. That can’t happen. And then I have this son and I’m not going to be the guy who in fifteen years says, ‘I missed my son growing up’. That cannot happen. So, I’m the owner of two restaurants with a wife that I love and a kid whose life I want to be a part of; how do I make all of this happen? That’s the trick question. My restaurants now recruit based on this, because it’s going enable me to be able to do my job better and we manage our companies based on this and we talk about the future. I’m always going to work a ton because I love my restaurants, but maybe I’m not working a hundred hours a week, maybe it’s more like seventy-five to eighty. If that has to happen then who can start doing some of the things that need to be done but it can’t be me? These are all huge conversations. None of them are small.

Eli: What parts of your restaurant’s maturation process challenge you most?

Tony: In no particular order: One, figuring out how prolific I’m supposed to be in my craft and what I produce. When I started Craigie, we tore up the menu every night.  That couldn’t happen anymore, so how often are we changing? Then really looking in the mirror and figuring out how often I need to change? And that’s been a challenge because in this business everyone wants the ‘new’. I’m supposed to be innovative, I’m supposed to be this or that. Somewhere along I started thinking, “what if it just tastes good?’ If it tastes good and people are happy eating it, can’t I just cook it? Is that ok? The other night at Craigie I had the pig tails and they’re freaking delicious, so do I have to change them for the sake of change? I think in some ways yes but in some ways no and I have to be comfortable with that. I’m still trying to figure that out and that has been a challenge. Also as you grow and are able to delegate more, trying to figure out what part of this restaurant is still “mine” and which part I’m willing to let other people do.

Eli: Speaking of people, what about your maturation as an employer? Have you changed there as well?

Tony: It used to be that you worked and worked until you were done and you were done when the chef said you were done. I was ok with that. I liked that work and that’s the business I grew up in. There are so many factors that have changed the way we now schedule. Some of it is legal and some of it has to do with what other people’s expectations are for their work week. I can’t control the way that people feel, but I still want to own two restaurants and I want my employees to be happy. I know that I’m hard to work for and we’ve got high standards and we know those standards aren’t for everybody. So, we want people that want to be here and work hard, but everybody else wants those people too. There’s competition about this and we’re competing for a very limited resource: that good employee. So, that made us ask, ‘what needs to be different about this place?’ The cost of not having the team that we need is far greater than the cost of the benefits that we offer our employees now. Honestly, I’m happy to offer benefits. I think that’s the other part of my personal maturation. I can still be a prick, but I want to teach people that we stand for something that is about doing things with no shortcuts. We’re now having conversations and we’re not good at this yet, but we’re beginning to really try things and want people to understand that the “traditional barriers” to working in restaurants don’t exist. So, for example, in front of the house and back of the house we have people that have families or have decided to continue on with education. I want my employees to know we’re open to that stuff and we want to work with them and their lives. Let’s talk about how you can work for us with a baby or grad school or whatever. Let’s figure it out. If I can’t do it, I’ll tell you but let’s talk about this. It’s not just the boss, me, that can have a kid; that’s not right, that’s not ok. So, my director of operations, he’s got a kid and my sous chef, he’s got a kid. I just hired a guy for a line cook position who has a kid. These things can happen here and you can work in this restaurant with a family. Obviously, it ultimately has to work for everyone involved, but the conversation has to happen and I’m super proud of what we’ve done for the people that work for us, in all positions.

Eli: What benefits do you offer your employees that you didn’t before?

Tony: We’ve been talking about a lot of different things for our employees and the business. We want those hard working people to work for us and we have a lot to offer them. We offer insurance with supplemental dental and vision. We offer free Hubway memberships for people which is pretty cool and all of our dishwashers get free MBTA passes. We’re probably going to start doing that for our line cooks too. We have a deal with a yoga studio that our employees get a discount, which is also pretty cool. We’ve been doing paid time off for a while and obviously with the new laws, that’s less of a thing per se, but how we handle it, being able to buy back any time that they didn’t want to take off. There’s a bunch of free meals and stuff that’s also a part of training. Referral bonuses. We’re working on something for our cooks, where they basically get paid in furloughs to stage somewhere because when you come back we all benefit from that.I’m happy to offer these benefits.

Eli: That’s awesome.

Tony: That’s just our start. The irony of restaurants is the busier it gets, which is good, the harder it gets.

About the author

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Eli Feldman

Eli Feldman is the founder of Three Princes Consulting and Clothbound and has worked in restaurants for over a decade. He is most excited about raising the dialogue around the hospitality industry. He often dances in the morning to start the day off right.