Restaurateur Drew Nieporent owns and operates a veritable dining empire and shows no signs of abdicating his throne.
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Undeterred, Nieporent worked most holidays and summers on cruise liners. One summer, he worked as a manager at Maxwell's Plum in New York, which became his first job after he graduated in 1977. Subsequently, owner Warner LeRoy hired him as restaurant director at his other establishment, Tavern on the Green. Both experiences influenced the young Nieporent enormously.
"Maxwell's captured both interior excitement and culinary excitement like Spago," he says. "Warner wanted to do [legendary Swiss chef] Freddie Girardet food for 1,000." While the food wasn't quite up to those standards, Maxwell's Plum did receive a three-star review from The New York Times. It convinced Nieporent that he could serve good food to a lot of people.
At Tavern on the Green, the number of diners served was even more impressive. "The volume was relentless. We'd feed fifteen hundred people at dinner on Saturday night, then turn around and do the same number for brunch the next day," he says.
By managing more than 200 employees, and with sales that increased from $10 million to $24 million at Tavern on the Green during his five-year stint (he left in 1982), Nieporent learned what he calls "efficiencies." He broke down that invisible but all too real wall between the kitchen and dining room and worked closely with chefs. He encouraged busboys to become waiters and waiters to become captains, thus instilling a sense of upward mobility and ownership in employees. "When waiters become captains, it's like they now own their own little restaurant," he says.
This sense of empowerment has carried over to his senior staff, which includes Daniel Johnnes, the chief Myriad sommelier and partner in Montrachet; Michael Bonadies, who handles Myriad's consulting arm; and Shapiro. "Drew is a peer," says Shapiro. "He has such a thorough knowledge of the business from every end that he understands what you're going through on a day-to-day basis. He just lays back and lets you do what you have to do. He's not always second-guessing you."
Even with the security of having a loyal and well-trained staff, Nieporent oversees a restaurant empire that would make most people's heads spin. But it is this intense activity and constant stimulation that turns him on. "People criticize me for traveling--I try to go somewhere once a month--but for me it's a learning process. I want to learn something every day, whether it's a wine, a food or a cigar. That's what I learn from travel," he says.
Besides, Nieporent says, there is always "reportability." He's in touch with his restaurants almost daily, making sure they are running smoothly. But he doesn't concentrate solely on sales. "I used to work at places where they asked, 'How much money did we make?' " he says. "I ask, 'Did the food come out hot? Was there a minimum of confrontation? Was the morale good?' When things are going well, the dollars will fall into place."
And indeed they have. Tribeca Grill and Nobu are almost neck-and-neck in annual revenues at about $8 million each. In addition to treating his people well, Nieporent attributes his restaurants' success to a very conservative approach. "We don't shoot our bolt in the beginning and try to get back our investment in the first six months," he says. A new restaurant builds the old-fashioned way: gradually. First it opens only for dinner, then lunch, then seven days a week.
"A huge majority of restaurateurs lack the discipline the craft requires," say Café des Artistes' Lang. "Drew is one of the few in this age of star restaurateurs and star chefs who are much better than the older restaurateurs of my generation."
Only one Myriad restaurant, Zeppole, a casual Neapolitan eatery located at the TriBakery, has been unsuccessful. But even this restaurant isn't a failure, according to Nieporent. "Zeppole was really 'retired,' not closed," he says. "It wasn't working as well as we would have liked, even though we got two stars from The Times. But even if you consider it a failure, don't judge me on only one effort; judge me by my body of work, like an actor."
Sam Gugino is a food and wine writer based in New York City.
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