Chefs On Fire

Young chefs are opening restaurants in urban neighborhoods

In New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Denver — and other major cities across the country — creative young chefs are opening their own restaurants.

"In New York, the trend isn't all that new. Think of Andre Soltner, Jean-Georges, David Chang and others," said Faith Hope Consolo, noted trend-watcher and chairman of Douglas Elliman's Retail Group in New York City.

Indeed, we probably shouldn't call it a trend any more. In a growing number of cities, chef-owned restaurants are a mainstay of rising urban neighborhoods.

"Urban dwellers love restaurants like Zahav, a casual Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia offering four-star quality for neighborhood prices," said Tim Duffy, VP of Michael Salove Co., a Philadelphia-based retail real estate advisory firm/brokerage and X Team International partner.

CookNSolo Restaurants, a company co-owned by chefs Steven Cook and Michael Solomonov, started Zahav in 2008. Its success led to two more CookNSolo restaurants: Federal Donuts, which serves up fried chicken and honey donuts, and Percy Street Barbecue is — you guessed it — a barbecue place. Both are fast casual, a rising alternative to mass-produced fast food.

Not Just Any Chef: Chefs opening their own urban restaurants boast excellent-to-impeccable credentials. Take the co-owners of The Mildred in South Philly — executive chef Michael Santoro and his partner general manager Michael Dorris, culinary arts classmates at Johnson & Wales University. After graduating in 2004, both signed on with a succession of internationally acclaimed chefs in Europe, Asia and here at home.

In 2006, Dorris founded Michael Dorris Catering just outside of Philadelphia. Six years later, he and Santoro opened The Mildred.

"Our concept is American cuisine with heavy British influence and cooking styles reflective of England, France, Spain, Korea and other countries," Dorris said.

Top Chefs D.C.: Washington, D.C., may have more contestants on Bravo TV network's "Top Chef" program than any other city. Three you may have seen:

  • Spike Mendelsohn who created D.C.'s Good Stuff Eatery and We, The Pizza.
  • Mike Isabella created Graffiato and Bandolero and has two more concepts cooking.
  • Bart Vandaele, the owner of the popular Belga Café, recently opened a second D.C. concept: B Too.

"Washington, D.C., has created a unique environment that attracts young people who prefer conversation and food to materialistic spending on things like clothes," said Jeff Pollak, managing partner of Bethesda, Md.-based Streetsense, a real estate consultant and brokerage and X Team International partner. "Our chefs are taking advantage of that with new restaurants."

On to Denver: Chef-owned restaurants arose in the large cities of the East and West Coasts (plus Chicago), and they have spread to the interior. Just look at Denver.

"In Denver, a lot of talented chefs are creating hip concepts on the less expensive edges of our city neighborhoods," said Kelly Green, president of Urban Legend, a division of the Legend Retail Group in Denver and another X Team partner.

It's going on across the country.

The Money Recipe?: Chefs acquire seed capital from family, friends or private investors, said RJ Cilley, corporate development at Toronto-based Hudson's Bay Co., with personal investment interest in restaurants.

"Restaurant start-up costs run $150,000 to $250,000 for 2,000 to 3,000 sq. ft. in an existing building," Cilley said. "This includes second-hand kitchen equipment.

"A chef might earn 20% to 25% in sweat equity," he continued. "A chef who contributes capital may also get around 20% in sweat equity."

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