Nine years ago Matt Fish unveiled Melt Bar & Grilled in a tatty Lakewood bar that barely accommodated 50 guests, and that's counting the folks sandwiched in at the bar. Jump to today and that number lands somewhere around 800 when you tally up all the seats found throughout Melt's six locations spread across two cities.
If bigger is better, then by all outward measures Fish is a restaurant success story, a paradigm to be analyzed and emulated by every ambitious new restaurant owner out there. In the restaurant industry there seems to exist this belief that the measure of a chef-owner is determined by the number of seats and units under his or her control.
But along with increased revenue and, hopefully, profits often come diminished food and service quality, additional labor headaches, crushing debt and the reduced likelihood that you will be doing something you love in a place that feels like home.
"There are parts of me that wish I had never expanded because life was a lot easier, it was simpler," Fish admits.
For 16 years Karen Small has, as numerous deferential chefs have expressed, "kept her head down and worked." Throughout her tenure as chef and owner of Flying Fig, Small says that she never once seriously considered opening another restaurant. Of course, in the beginning an operator is too focused on the day-to-day tasks to look down the road, but it didn't take long for Small to recognize and accept her path.
"As time went on it became pretty clear to me that the way to maintain quality and maintain consistency and maintain the vibe that I wanted to have in a restaurant personally was to keep it small and single-unit," she says. "When I talk about quality I'm talking about being able to make sure that everything that goes out on a plate is the way we want it, and I think that's difficult to do if you're extended too far."
Call him a control freak, but chef and owner Nolan Konkoski is not comfortable – or even familiar – with the concept of delegating much responsibility at his 75-seat Southern-influenced eatery SOHO Kitchen. Throughout his career Konkoski has only worked in small restaurants, absorbing everything he needed to know at previous places of employment like Lopez, Momocho and Tartine.
"I don't know how some of these guys do it; it's hard enough to run this one small place," Konkoski says of his multi-unit colleagues. "The more things that me and Molly [Smith] can have a hand in and touch, keep an eye on and control, the better our restaurant is going to be."
We keep hearing about the talent crunch that is affecting the local restaurant industry, and those issues only seem to get exacerbated with each additional linear foot of kitchen line and square foot of dining room space. Odds dictate that the more employees one is compelled to hire, the more incompetent staffers one is bound to bear, says Konkoski.
"You're always at the mercy of other knuckleheads," he states matter-of-factly. "Whether it's on the line, serving tables or bartending, this business is populated by a lot of people who aren't very good. The bigger you are, the more people you have to have on staff, the more issues you will have because the talent pool is only so big."
Lean operators like Konkoski, Small and others also are less reliant on multiple partners, investors and lenders, all of whom can muddy the waters when it comes to quality, efficiency and peace of mind.
"To open a restaurant is a lot of money, but it's a lot easier to open a small place from a financial standpoint, in terms of the amount of equipment you're going to need, decorations, seating...," says Konkoski. "You always hear nightmare stories about bad partnerships in this business. To open a 300-seater, I can't even imagine."
Matt Fish can. To the outside world it must look like Fish is rolling in dough, what with his soaring celebrity status and vast, expanding empire of grilled cheese restaurants. But the truth is that each of those shiny new eateries cost mountains to erect, the type of investment that will take years to recoup.
"My life from day one was if this fails I walk away basically free and clear. I tried, it didn't work and I can bounce back and start over again," Fish says of his humble beginnings. "But now I'm so far in debt that I would need 10 years to dig myself out of the hole. That weighs over my head in ways that it never did."
For owners, restaurants are not merely homes away from home; they are your home. The amount of time spent at the shop compared to those few, blessed hours of slumber back at the crash pad are so lopsided that you might as well make sure your surroundings match your preferences. That was the mindset of Jonah Oryszak, who designed his intimate 50-seat Ohio City bistro The Plum around the notion of personal comfort.
"If you're going to open a place, to spend this much time and uproot your whole life working on a place, it should be the kind of place you would want to go," Oryszak says. "When we sat down and started thinking about all of the coolest places we've ever been and what we like about those places, it always came back to small. The nice thing about a small space is it doesn't take a lot of people for it to feel like something cool is going on in there, and that makes people want to be there."
What's more, adds Oryszak, when that small space begins to show its age, it will be a much more manageable endeavor to refresh and revive it compared to a 300-seat beast.
"If you're around long enough, everybody is going to have to do it eventually," Oryszak says. "So in 10 years from now when Punch Bowl Social starts to look dated, are you going to renovate the entire place? If our place looks dated 10 years from now it will be a lot easier to renovate because it's small."
All of the above is not to say that small, successful restaurants don't have their share of shortcomings. If you are lucky enough to make it as long as Karen Small, you too might have cobbled together a reliable staff of veterans who can function just fine in your absence. For creative folks like chefs, stagnation is its own kind of suffering.
"When you have a restaurant that operates on its own because of very good people who have been there a very long time it does become enticing to put your energies into something else," Small admits. "In a successful restaurant there are not a whole lot of avenues for change. When people like you how you are, you don't want to be completely different tomorrow."
Konkoski concurs, but says that he and partner Molly Smith always manage to talk themselves off the ledge.
"When you're creative people you can't help think about what's next; there's always chatter, your wheels start spinning," he says. "But then it always comes back to staffing, and that's more terrifying than the financial aspect of growing."
For all of his honest impressions about what it's like to be the very public face of a large, unstoppable restaurant chain that began life as a neighborhood bar and grill, Matt Fish says that he wouldn't have done it any other way.
"I don't have regrets – I don't want to live that way. That's why I opened up Melt in the first place."