The Caterer Interview – Ahmass Fakahany

18 October 2013
The Caterer Interview – Ahmass Fakahany

Since leaving Wall Street, where he was president and chief operating officer of Merrill Lynch, Ahmass Fakahany has built a restaurant empire with chef Michael White. Having opened his first London site, Chop Shop, he tells James Stagg how financial principles can be applied to the restaurant industry and what New York can learn from London

After a long career on Wall Street, what made you move into the restaurant business?

When I was 50 I felt it was time to leave finance, and I realised that I still had the 
passion to pursue it.

Was that when you met chef Michael White? I met Michael at a restaurant called Fiamma Osteria, where we used to hold events when I was a Merrill Lynch executive. He would ask questions about stocks, quoting statistics, so we started talking. Despite our different backgrounds, there was chemistry.

The Altamarea Group has grown swiftly since then. When was the first restaurant opened? The first was in 2007 in New Jersey, in an affluent town called Bernardsville [which has since closed]. The concept was simple. We wanted to start with something manageable: bringing good New York food to New Jersey. From there, the big move was to take a chance on Marea 
in 2009, when everything was negative.
For us, it was difficult because every dollar we spent felt like 10. The bet was on New Yorkers who, like Londoners, are very resilient. They might not do the more extravagant things, but they can still escape by going out to eat.

And you focused on Italian food? Italian food is also on an interesting incline in terms of growth. It's the most acceptable and comfortable food for people outside their own local cuisine. If you're in Japan, you can have pasta with crab, for instance. French is more complex if it's not bistro - not everyone wakes up and dreams of a rabbit terrine. But Italian has a nice bridge culturally across boundaries.

Has your background prepared you for 
a successful hospitality career? The similarities are immense. People want 
to be respected and have a chance to grow. Retention is massively important to us,
and we spend a lot of time on it. We want 
to keep our talented people and move 
them around the properties and allow them
to be creative and innovative without 
having to leave. I feel I've brought that to the business.

Of course, with my background I'm able to do financial deals by going direct to the 
chief executive without dealing with the 
middle men.

I would say my background gives me a 
sustainability view - a longer-term view. 
Our leases are around 20 years. We want to
be part of the community and for people 
to have confidence in our product.

Is the pressure from running restaurants 
on a par with working in financial services?
It is a very different pressure, but it's a hard business to run. If you're a financial consultant, you can't recommend it - it's highly 
litigious; people say things they shouldn't and they leave with little notice, so there are challenges on the people side.

The restaurant business is very rewarding, and people are appreciative compared with 
Wall Street, but there is pressure. Many things can go wrong, and even though you can 
control some things, you're also dealing with health inspectors, building departments and regulators.

You have introduced financial incentives for staff that mirror those in Wall Street - how have they worked? Firstly, we pick people competitively. I don't believe in the whole employee base eating and drinking all of our inventory. I pay a lot and tip like a drunken sailor. They get a good base 
salary, which I think is what they want.

Our bonus structure is more aggressive than most, and we also have a structure called cash performance units. Basically, employees get a chunk of money they don't receive immediately, but they can build those chunks up and after three years they cash them in. And that is ongoing every year. Hospitality employees aren't great savers, but with this, they suddenly have good savings. It's a huge retention tool
as well.

What has surprised you most about the restaurant industry? It has struck me how much people didn't believe in a direction. Here we are, building a company with great people who help each other across portfolios, and it surprised me how much resistance there was to that. 
In hospitality, people want to take what they can and leave. I don't want that.

Most people in this business are like nurses. They turn up, ask 'Who's ill today?', fix them up and go home. There's no direction. It 
surprised me how little sustainability there was in the process. In other industries there is more credibility.

But what did surprise me is how many chefs and general managers want to become 
business people. There is a huge thirst for empowerment that I've never seen before. Many don't know profit and loss beyond covers each night; they don't know the purchase costs or how they can help the business.

For me, a general manager runs the property. Those who have an ability and feel they are going to get a fair shake want to do more.

What do you put the rapid growth of the business down to? First of all, when we got into building the Altamarea Group, the food culture globally was on an interesting incline. I've never met 
people who know so much about food as people between the ages of 20 and 50 do now. There is a generation that is really into food, so there's a demand-supply dynamic.

In London, it's been a rapid growth. When
I was here as a teenager there was nothing. 
But now food is no longer fuel, it's an experience; so we had a tailwind.

The other thing is we spend a long time thinking about our brand strategy and what could be a brand. Chop Shop is a neighbourhood-feel place, though there may only be one.

We already have the Michelin recognition and are good at the high end, but we've also thought about these sub-price points that are all joined by quality.

How did you come up with the concept? What makes Chop Shop special is that we wanted something influenced by New York and that is in New York now. Something that fits with the bloodstream of the local people. I believe in this project. We want the staff to have ownership, too. It's having the courage to have different concepts that are joined by quality. Frankly, we open places we like to go to.

How do you feel the UK market differs from 
the US? I cannot tell you how much easier and 
fulfilling it's been to open a restaurant here versus New York. It's more organised and it has been a good experience.

Have you recruited locally? We spent a long time getting a great general manager in Harriett Horne. She has the 
service DNA. The hiring comes from that - it's a young service team.

The people taste the food so they understand the whole menu, and hopefully they can then make recommendations to the customer and serve with passion. Maybe that's a bit 
New York and pushy, but I think it works.

How does the difference in selling culture work? Have you had to tone it down? I used to think so, but what I bring to the company is that I have been a client all my life. The more I think about it, there is a similarity - it just comes down to tone. At lunch, people want to leave earlier and there's nothing wrong with asking 'Sir, are you on a schedule?' But don't do it at dinner. Dinner is real estate.

If someone's finishing their cocktail, I want staff to notice and ask if they want another one or something different and to be ready with an alternative.

The other thing we're big on is 'know your client'. So if a customer comes in and orders the same dish for the third time, I want our team to ask: 'Are we doing it again or are we going into danger land?'. They should chat but not stay there - not be overbearing.

All your other restaurants have Italian foundations, but this seems a departure
This is a fusion between New York influences and London seen through the lens of an Italian cook. That's why we have meatballs and 
cottage pasta pie. The influences are Italian.

Will this be the first of a number of UK openings? Would you consider a fine dining restaurant? I know it and love it here. My father worked around the corner, and both my brother and sister still live here. We will wait and see. The client will decide, not us. They will tell us 
if there should be one somewhere else or not.

It's not 'the Yanks are coming', but if it 
resonates with people, we will look at it. If the time was right, what we do in Italian food could work out here.

Altamarea Group
Employees 750
Turnover US$50m (£31m)

Opened in May 2009 as a partnership between Fakahany and chef Michael White. The Italian restaurant holds two Michelin stars.

Osteria Morini
In October 2010, Fakahany and White
opened the first Osteria Morini in downtown Manhattan. The restaurant is inspired by the rich flavours of Italy's Emilia-Romagna region.

Ai Fiori
Ai Fiori at the Langham Place Hotel New York, which opened in November 2010, features a Mediterranean-inspired menu that focuses on the Italian and French Rivieras. It was awarded a Michelin star in its first year of operation.

Al Molo Located on the Victorian Harbour waterfront in Hong Kong, Italian restaurant Al Molo opened in May 2011.

Nicoletta Pizzeria in New York's East Village opened in June 2012.

This steak concept in New York's Soho opened in May 2013.

Chop Shop
The group's first site in London, Chop Shop is a collaboration with Will Guess, whose family own Rowley's restaurant in St James'. It opened in September 2013 with a menu serving dishes including 'crocks' of baked meatballs, gratins and various meats served on the bone.

Chop Shop
Chop Shop on London's Haymarket is designed to be a neighbourhood butcher-shop-inspired restaurant. It is a collaboration with Will Guess (whose family own Rowley's in St James's, London), who has been brought in as Altamarea Group UK director.

Its accessible menu is divided into 'jars' of meat and fish pÁ¢tés; 'planks' offering a selection of cheese or charcuterie to share; and 'crocks' of baked meatballs and gratins.

The building spans two floors, with a 58-cover restaurant downstairs featuring stripped-back brick walls and reclaimed tiles, and an upstairs bar serving New York- and London-inspired cocktails including the Haymarket, a version of the Manhattan, which combines Buffalo trace bourbon, Dolin sweet vermouth and pink clove.

Dishes from the menu
•Cottage pasta pie: baked pasta, braised oxtail, Parmigiano £9
•Middle White porchetta, grilled peaches and crackling £14
•Rosemary-brushed beef chop, 35-day-aged 300g £26
•Patty melt sandwich: dry-aged beef burger, onions, cheese, toasted caraway bread, chips £12

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