A few things come to mind when you think about the hospitality industry: Long hours, highly stressed environments, and family-oriented. The thing is, while working in the hospitality industry (whether you’re a server, bartender, manager, etc) you’re supposed to feel taken care of; embraced by fellow employees as you all work together to conquer a common goal: making the guest have a kick-ass experience. But sometimes that’s not always the case. With corporations and bosses who only have financial gain on their mind, they tend to lose focus on what’s really important: their employees. So it was refreshing to hear that the owner of not one but six restaurants in the West Village has revolutionized what it means to take care of his staff; basically treating them like family.
Gabe Stulman is no stranger when it comes to the hospitality world. Ever since he was in high school, he was working in restaurants; immersing himself in the environment. Stulman, now 34 years old, owns Happy Cooking Hospitality where he works with his wife, Gina. Under Happy Cooking, they own six restaurants (Jeffrey’s Grocery, Joseph Leonard, and Perla Cafe… you know, just to name a few). If you’ve never been inside of one of Stulman’s restaurant, you’ve probably still heard about them. Each place makes you feels welcomed from the minute you’re greeted by the host to the final course of your meal. And while Gabe might be a little famous due to his incredible TED talk, his passion and aspirations should give you a peek on where his heart lies when it comes to his restaurants. And that’s why you need to check them out (of course, minus the fact that each place serves delicious food, but we could write a whole another post on that another day).
We had the pleasure of hanging with Gabe at one of his restaurants, Perla Cafe, where we chatted about what he could eat for the rest of his life, how he got into the hospitality industry, and where he sees himself in 10 years. Meet one of the coolest restaurant owners in the West Village, if not in all of NYC, Gabe Stulman.
Go-to bar for a nightcap:
What are you craving right now?
A beautiful omelet with a perfect smooth surface (where the eggs are that rich yellow, almost orange color) with little bit of gruyere, fine herbs, maldon salt and wheat toast heavily buttered.
Name one dish you could eat for the rest of your life:
Ultimate dream vacation:
One of those remote huts on stilts, looking out over teal water. Wherever those are, I want to go there — some place like Fiji, the Maldives or Seychelles.
Biggest pet peeve when it comes to hospitality/service (from a customer standpoint):
When people ask how is your food without observing that you haven’t yet taken a bite.
I have an obsessive eye for detail so I’m great at finding editing errors in movies and TV shows.
First thought when you woke up this morning?
“How did the restaurants do last night?”
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with the hospitality industry:
I grew up in Fairfax, VA. My parents loved entertaining, and were very serious about hospitality, so my siblings and I were taught from an early age how important it is to make guests feel welcome when they come to your home. I started working in restaurants when I went to college at UW Madison. I ended up taking a year off to work in local restaurants and save money, and that’s when I really fell in love with the industry. After graduation I moved to New York to continue working in restaurants, and held many positions at different types of places before I started opening my own.
Your favorite dish at any of the HCH restaurants?
All the restaurants are located in the West Village. What’s the strategy behind that? Do you plan on expanding on to other neighborhoods on the city?
It didn’t start off as a strategy to have all the restaurants in the West Village. It started off as a coincidence. But with the relocation of Perla to across the street from Bar Sardine, it evolved in to strategy.
The close proximity allows me to physically touch base with all of them with greater frequency. It also allows each of the individual teams to find support at each of the other restaurants, and our guests have a greater chance of being accommodated at one of our spots.
I absolutely do want to open something outside the neighborhood someday if I’m fortunate enough.
What are your thoughts on the culinary state of the restaurant scene in NYC?
Dining out can feel too expensive to diners but at the same time menu prices are too low for the actual cost of running a restaurant. That’s a messed up intersection where restaurants should and need to be charging a healthy amount more to make just acceptable margins, and diners don’t have the financial resources to afford much more. This is all connected to the cost of residential and commercial real estate and how that has a negative impact on the city. Retail rents are too high, so everyone needs to charge more. Residential rates are too high so everyone needs to make more to live here. And there’s no more money to go around.
What chef/restauranteur do you look up to?
Danny Meyer, David Chang, Keith McNally.
What do you think is the key to thrive in such a competitive industry?
A talented and loyal team.
Best advice you’ve ever gotten pertaining to work:
Not sure this is the best, but I think this is key: Be decisive. Make decisions. Don’t over-analyze. Don’t under analyze either, but don’t leave for tomorrow what you can get done today.
What’s your philosophy when it comes to managing such a large staff?
Do your best to give as many people a voice. Give people an opportunity to generate their own ideas and the freedom and support to run with them. Simultaneously know when to be firm, when it’s the time to take the reigns and follow your own instincts and intuition. There will be times when those two missions contradict each other. And you need to decide when to give up your position and let others have theirs, and at other times to hold firm.
The hospitality biz is a stressful one. How do you deal with the criticism (bad reviews, customer complaints, etc) and furthermore, how do you decompress?
I’ll be honest, I don’t deal with the criticism that well. It bothers me and gets under my skin. I can get fired up. But I deal with the stress through watching movies at home and boxing. One relaxes me, the other drains me physically and both have the same calming effect.
In a dream world, what will you be doing 10 years from now?
I’ll still be managing this company.
Words for wisdom for future culinary entrepreneurs?
Learn your job as best as you can before you try to go do it yourself.
If you want to grab a bite and hang with Gabe (of course, you do… why wouldn’t you?), then make sure you head on over to Perla Cafe at 234 West 4th Street, New York, NY 10014.