When luxury gym chain Equinox’s first-ever hotel — marketed as one of the top attractions at $25 billion development Hudson Yards and billed as “the place where compromise doesn’t exist” — opened earlier this year, the matter of who would run the corresponding restaurant was the (many, many) million-dollar question. Whichever restaurant group controlled the space would not only get access to the guests spending up to $8,000 per night to stay at the hotel; employees from companies like Amazon, HBO, Coach, and Facebook; and the projected 125,000 daily visitors to Hudson Yards by 2025 — it would potentially be a partner in future Equinox hotels, too.
The person largely responsible for negotiating the deal to bring James Beard award-winning restaurateur Stephen Starr’s Electric Lemon to the hotel was not Harvey Spevak, Equinox’s detail-oriented executive chairman, or Stephen Ross, the CEO of Related, the sprawling real estate company that developed Hudson Yards, and an owner of Equinox. In fact, it was a person whose name didn’t show up in the opening press for the splashy new restaurant at all: Steven Kamali.
A polite, 38-year-old man living on the Upper East Side, Kamali also happens to put together some of the restaurant industry’s most lucrative real estate and hotel deals.
“Steven, to me, is a dealmaker,” Starr says. “He brought myself and Related together for this project, and he brokered that deal.”
Kamali is the founder of Hospitality House and the Chef Agency, a consulting firm and executive search business that have worked on over 350 hotel restaurants and bars across the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East — and he’s just one of the growing number of people who work in real estate, human resources, and other fields that touch on the business of dining and describe themselves with the ambiguous job title “restaurant consultant.”
Despite the unremarkable job description, consultants hold some of the most powerful positions in the restaurant industry. The work they do involves access to the household names and brands that even the most casual dining enthusiast would recognize. What’s more, they hold influence over how power itself is distributed, placing top-level executives and recommending restaurants for high-profile locations at hotels and new developments. Often, they have say over how millions of dollars are distributed across the restaurant world — and, for better or for worse, who has access to it. Their work, though often under the radar, is integral to shaping both the New York City dining scene and the industry at large.
“We’re in the underground,” says Alice Elliot, who’s helped place executives at companies like Shake Shack and fried chicken chain Bojangles’. “We’re the power brokers behind the scenes.”
That behind-the-scenes work comes in different forms. Keith Durst, a consultant who helps developers choose restaurants for their properties, has a client list that includes mall stalwart Westfield, Battery Park development Brookfield Place, and private equity behemoth Blackstone. Andrew Moger of BCD helps big chains like Five Guys navigate the perils of expansion in the New York real estate market and advises private equity on which restaurants to invest in. Austin Publicover, a former operations manager for Union Square Hospitality Group, now runs a consultancy that focuses on complying with food safety laws. Scott Landers and Alexa Sarmanian’s Figure 8 Logistics advises on delivery programs, while the Foodprint Group works on zero-waste protocols.
Elliot’s expertise is in recruiting top executives, and getting into her good graces could mean a shot at becoming the CEO of a multimillion-dollar business. After growing up in Queens around her father’s employment agency, she launched her current executive search firm, the Elliot Group, in 1984. Today, restaurants across the country turn to her for hiring advice.
When the CEO of Red Robin, a national burger chain that does over $1 billion in annual sales, stepped down in 2019, the chain enlisted the Elliot Group to find a new leader and to appoint fresh voices to its board of directors. When popular chicken chain Bojangles’, which has more than 750 locations, needed a new chief marketing officer last March, it also called Elliot.
Though the hiring situations at companies vary, they’re always highly sensitive: Investors may be ready to turn a restaurant into a bigger chain, but they believe the founder is not the right person to lead it, or a public company could be ousting a CEO and need a new one — they’re not exactly the type of job opening that can be posted on LinkedIn.
In New York, restaurants from Shake Shack to Momofuku to Corner Table Restaurants — the parent company of local chainlet the Smith — have all hired Elliot. Her company played a role in finding a U.S. director for the Danish bakery chain import Ole & Steen, a CEO for Danny Meyer-invested fast-casual chain Tender Greens, and a COO for City Winery. Stephen Starr works with her, too, despite having his own in-house talent-recruiting team. “She’s the Yankees,” he says. “She’s the best.”
Outside of stacking C-suites, Elliot has built a reputation as a networker and a mentor, a natural progression of her work, which is built on intimate relationships with potential executives. The Elliot Group recently hosted a closed-door retreat for female CEOs and presidents in the industry that featured a private dinner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and the firm also plans an annual New York City food tour — a 24-hour, invite-only affair attended by executives from all over the country. “When Alice Elliot calls you and asks you to do something, the answer should be ‘yes,’” says Lauren Bailey, the CEO and co-founder of Phoenix-based restaurant group Upward Projects, in a video recapping a recent food tour. “You don’t have to ask any other questions.”
The power of the consultant also comes in making restaurant recommendations to real estate tycoons and high-profile hoteliers, such as RFR Holding co-founder Aby Rosen, whose company owns millions in square footage of commercial real estate in New York City, and Lightstone president Mitchell Hochberg, who oversees $6.5 billion worth of real estate across the country and brought Marriott’s millennial-friendly hotel Moxy to the United States.
Hospitality House’s Steven Kamali was instrumental in placing the late chef Joël Robuchon inside RFR Holding’s luxury Midtown East building, pairing Wolfgang Puck with the Four Seasons’s downtown hotel, and negotiating Boqueria’s deal with the AC Hotel in Times Square. “Without Steven’s involvement, that deal probably wouldn’t have happened,” says Boqueria owner Yann de Rochefort. The restaurant went on to be nominated for a James Beard award for design in 2019.
For developers, restaurants are powerful marketing tools that let them charge higher rents for the office or residential space upstairs, according to Kamali, and when there’s a glut of hotel options, guests will make decisions on where to stay based on the food and beverage program. Rosen, Hochberg, and countless others who understand the role that restaurants play in the success of their real estate business have turned to Kamali and his 27-person firm, Hospitality House.
“The hotel business is tough enough — we don’t need to spend our time trying to become experts in food and beverage, too,” says Hochberg, who hired Kamali to consult on what would eventually become the Tao Group’s deal to run restaurants inside New York City’s Moxy hotels. RFR’s Rosen — who owns some of the city’s most prime real estate, including the Seagram Building, Gramercy Park Hotel, and 11 Howard Hotel, where the Grill, Maialino, and Le Coucou are housed, respectively — credits Kamali’s team as “a significant contributing resource” to building Rosen’s lineup of acclaimed restaurants inside his properties.
Connecting a hotel or developer client with a restaurateur who is right for the space is the product of a selection process that takes three to six months and involves figuring out exactly what a client needs, gauging interest with 35 to 50 restaurant groups, and whittling that down to “serious conversations” with five to eight groups, according to Kamali.
His business has evolved dramatically from fifteen years ago, when his work focused entirely on brokering retail leases. During that time, he also acquired a not-always-stellar reputation for providing regular fodder for Eater’s infamous (retired) Deathwatch series, which tracked dying restaurants. The site would work with Kamali to post his latest soon-to-be-available retail spaces, which were often restaurants about to go under. “It was the wild, wild west,” Kamali says. “The rules were a bit different for not only the blogs in the media, but also people in the business. I think that’s changed dramatically.”
Now, the scope of Kamali’s work is different. He has used his restaurant knowledge and real estate expertise to capitalize on the rise of “experiential real estate,” or the art of creating destination food offerings at the base of office buildings or hotels. And while Kamali has geared the majority of his business toward advising hotels, he sees a lot of opportunity for expansion into working with luxury department stores, airports, and casinos.
“There’s a lot of folks out there who can tell you what the tabletops should look like; a lot of folks are going to be willing to tell you what the food should taste like. That’s not our business,” Kamali says. “We’re helping them make decisions to improve the financial makeup of their business, and to help them make decisions to ensure that they don’t lose money.”
For those building standalone restaurants, bringing on an expert consultant might be most crucial when navigating the labyrinth of real estate and construction barriers to opening a restaurant in New York. Picking the right location and keeping construction costs from ballooning can mark the difference between closing up shop and getting regular customers in the door — or securing that next round of funding from investors on the path to national chaindom.
Moger, of the firm BCD, is one of the best-known consultants in this arena, advising food halls, developers, and chains including Bareburger, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Panera, Five Guys, Union Square Hospitality Group’s Daily Provisions, and the Meatball Shop. He’s a co-founder of sandwich chain Melt Shop and worked in restaurant operations jobs for chains like Morton’s the Steakhouse for years before starting BCD. Now, he does everything from brokering real estate leases to planning budgets and construction timelines to handling conversations with landlords and coordinating building permits with the city.
“New York is a very unique animal in terms of the real estate market,” says Steve Heeley, the CEO of fast-casual vegan chain Veggie Grill, which hired BCD to help open its first New York City location in December despite having already opened more than 30 locations in five states. Here, landlords expect tenants to start paying rent on spaces immediately, long before the restaurant is open for business, and any issues with, say, equipment fitting correctly, or the placement of gas hookups, usually don’t surface until after the lease is signed. “You might have planned to spend $1 million on building a restaurant and you find out you spent $2 million, which is not a good thing,” Heeley says.
Moger says his team works off a checklist that he calls BCD’s “secret sauce.” “It’s a list of, ‘We know what you don’t know that you don’t know,’” he says. He declined to share details of his consulting fees, but admits that new clients sometimes balk at his prices — at first. “Our best clients are the ones who have done it once themselves and they never want to do it again,” Moger says.
Not surprisingly, working in restaurant construction has its downfalls. Moger worked with former fine dining super-duo Daniel Humm and Will Guidara on their planned events space on the Lower East Side. When the duo pulled out due to delays, it was a crushing blow; BCD didn’t earn its full commission, and Moger didn’t have a tangible product to show for years of work with extremely high-profile clients. (Moger declined to comment on whether or not he is working with Humm and Guidara on their new, separate projects.)
Because of the risky nature of construction projects, Moger takes on new clients “almost entirely” based on referrals, often from private equity shops. BCD mostly works with restaurants owned by institutional investors — people who have the luxuries of time and money to pay someone to guide them in avoiding real estate and construction mistakes, he says.
The relationship goes both ways — private equity investors listen to Moger when deciding whether or not to put money into a restaurant. Moger’s “an expert” at things like real estate, build-out, and leases that are necessary to prevent “an absolute disaster,” says Elan Schultz, a founding partner of TriSpan, a new private equity firm based in New York that’s focused on investing in smaller restaurant chains with the potential for Sweetgreen-esque explosion.
Without the right help, it’s possible to end up paying 150 percent more on the build-out than the estimated budget, and potentially in the wrong location, Schultz says. Then, “You just dropped millions of dollars into something that you need to write off,” Schultz says. “I’ve seen that happen.”
But for an unknown restaurateur without many connections, it’s not easy to get a meeting with a top consultant. The Elliot Group also primarily only works on referrals, and only restaurants and private equity shops can hire the firm, not individuals looking to be placed into choice jobs. When Kamali and his team are sourcing potential restaurateurs for plum hotel gigs — where the restaurant might not have to pay rent, or doesn’t have to cover construction costs — they aren’t eager to take risks on new operators, either. His team primarily looks at restaurant groups that have been around for a long time already, that “have capital,” and that have multiple successful locations already, he says.
“Longevity plays a huge factor,” Kamali says. “Our relationships with the hotel companies which we work on behalf of wouldn’t be productive if restaurants went out of business.” If one of Kamali’s recommendations isn’t performing well, Hospitality House will come back to figure out what went wrong and fix the issues, right down to retraining restaurant staff if necessary.
Along with the power that comes from sitting in intimate advisory positions, some consultants are also investors in the projects that they are recommending for real estate deals or hotel partnerships. Ten years ago, Jeff Lefcourt, founder and CEO of the Smith, tapped Moger to lead one of the chain’s early construction projects, and in exchange for the work, Moger took equity in the business. He’s since helped the brand expand across the city and in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Moger has also invested in Mexicue, Noma, Metro Donuts Holdings (the fourth largest Dunkin’ franchisee in the world), ghost kitchen startup Zuul, and restaurant tech company Sevenrooms, among others. Hospitality House’s Kamali recently cashed in on an investment in Resy, and has provided loans to small restaurant brands looking to grow.
But since restaurant consultants are dealmakers, networkers, and, in some cases, investors who can influence life-altering decisions for restaurateurs, there are potential pitfalls to so much power being concentrated among a small number of people. Many of the equity issues that plague the rest of society impact the restaurant business, too.
For investors, being in a position to recommend restaurants to developers could present a conflict of interest. Kamali says his businesses rarely overlap with his recommendations for hotel partnerships, and if they do, he notes it in his contracts with developers. Moger, too, discloses his investments when necessary. Elliot acknowledged that restaurant brands have offered her equity, but the firm doesn’t accept it.
Perhaps more troubling is the fact that in the world of restaurant consultancy, only certain restaurateurs get the opportunity to succeed, perpetuating systemic issues around who gets power in new York. Plenty of restaurateurs would have benefited from being Equinox’s restaurant partner, but the gig went to an already well-capitalized group that regularly fields these sorts of opportunities. In the nearby Hudson Yards mall, nearly all of the high-profile spaces went to restaurants with monied owners, nearly all of them male. It’s a circular problem: Consultants have to make recommendations based on the criteria that their clients have put in place, but clients are also shaping their criteria based on consultants’ expert opinions.
The homogeneity is especially noticeable in executive roles. According to McKinsey & Company’s annual report tracking the representation of women in the workplace, women held just 18 percent of C-suite roles in the food industry in 2018, down from 23 percent in 2017. A different study found that in 2014, just 8 percent of corporate executives in the industry were people of color. Those are dismal numbers, and Elliot admits that discrimination and gender inequity still exist in the highest reaches of restaurant executive leadership.
She says that it’s led to a new aspect of her business, however: Companies have increasingly sought out her firm to consult on how to build more diverse C-suites. “It doesn’t mean that there’s not still discrimination and there’s not a glass ceiling, but we’re finding at Elliot that there’s much more enlightenment around being more inclusive,” Elliot says. “But what people don’t want is to feel embarrassed because they don’t know how to do it.” She sees the rise of the “chief people officer” role on executive boards as indicative of company leadership being open to scrutiny, and, ultimately, making their hiring practices more inclusive.
Widening the circle also requires investing in more diverse leaders early on, whether they are climbing executive ranks or opening a new restaurant, a fact that these consultants have acknowledged. Elliot was an early board member of the Women’s Foodservice Forum, which advocates for female leaders in the industry by partnering with companies including McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Chick-fil-A to promote gender-balanced executive teams, and is a co-founder of the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance, which offers training to restaurant teams on how to recognize unconscious bias and build culturally diverse staff. Moger is the real estate and development adviser for the New York City Hospitality Alliance, providing monthly pro bono support to members in need of restaurant development guidance, and Kamali just received a grant to break ground on a new culinary training program on the Upper East Side.
“There’s more work to be done,” Elliot says. “Let’s be very clear. I do not want to make this, you know, cotton candy. A lot of it has to do with companies willing to invest the money to do internal training and education.”
And, despite its reputation for chewing up underfunded and unprepared restaurateurs, New York City can be more open to new opportunities when compared to the larger restaurant industry, they say. “You have to earn the right for the repeat business,” Elliot says. “But I think everyone in New York is always eager to see something new and will flock to give that a chance.”