Today I would like to introduce you all to Jennifer Vitagliano. She is a partner at The Musket Room, the gorgeous restaurant you saw photos of last week. The Musket Room is not only beautiful, but delicious as well. It even earned its first Michelin Star this year.
The reason why I think Jennifer is perfect for a career interview is because she has a very “behind the scenes” job that not a lot of people are familiar with, which makes it particularly interesting. Unlike the other interviews we’ve done on food in this segment, the focal point of her work isn’t the cuisine – it’s everything that goes into the total dining experience.
You are a partner at the Musket Room, but what exactly is your job?
I’m a restaurateur.
How would you describe what you do?
I am very honest about what my strong suits are, basically anything business development. So I would say I create a restaurant from inception of the concept to the opening and the parties and more fun stuff. 99% of it is tedious; the development stuff, construction stuff, crunching numbers. And then the fun little 1% is being able to host people here, bringing people together.
When you were a kid, what was your dream job?
I either wanted to be a lawyer or a chef.
I can argue my way out of anything, and it is something I really enjoy doing. I am not a very confrontational person but I get a kick out of fixing my own mistakes.
And a chef, because that’s what I grew up around. Growing up in a big Italian household, I was told whoever was in the position of creating or cooking a meal was in a position of power, and the most respected.
It sounds like food played a big part in your childhood.
We didn’t just eat meals. I grew up in New York, but we would go to Pennsylvania where my grandparents lived. My grandfather would literally drop me off at the side of the road and I would go pick berries or whatever was in season, we really worked for our meals. The end result was this big elaborate production.
I used to import food, that’s where I started, and now, to be able to bring people together to enjoy food is all very full circle for me. To see it through the whole spectrum, from finding the product to creating the whole experience.
So what did you study in school?
After 9/11 my Mom was kind of paranoid about Nicole and I, my twin sister, separating. We both studied at a liberal arts college called Rollins down in South Florida.
I studied International Business, and moved to Spain for about a year, which is when I really got back into food. At college you don’t really care about what you’re eating, but I moved to a rural town called Oviedo, and it was a city surrounded by farms so I became really interested in food again and the actual products.
I wound up studying Spanish as a language and culture and I loved it. The goal has always been to immerse myself in different cultures. I love traveling, and I love different business cultures. Even still, my end goal is to get back on the road, I want to start traveling again and learn more.
When I opened my first restaurant, it was after a trip to Australia. I had quit my job as an importer because I had stopped believing in the importing system, everything was getting localized. So I went to Australia for a month, I didn’t know what to do, I came back really inspired by the Southeast Asian cuisine there.
How did you get into importing?
I got an opportunity from a friend of mine who owned an import company. She liked me because I knew a lot about ingredients and I could talk to some of the biggest chefs in the world and know what I was talking about, or I could go to Gristedes and tell them why they should be buying organic. She thought it was cool I could talk to all different kinds of people.
So we started this import company and we worked in every different kind of hotel and restaurant in the city and around the country, and I took a trip to Vermont, a gift from a client, and that’s when I stopped believing in the whole Euro-based importing. There they wouldn’t even buy products from Maine, it was so localized. I don’t know if I was as much inspired by that, as I was scared that there was no future in that business for me. Also it was kind of not what I wanted to be doing anyways.
So I stopped doing that, I quit my job after two years and went to Australia. I came back really inspired and started working really hard.
And that’s when you opened your first restaurant, Betel?
It was kind of a disaster honestly. I opened it with a few Australians. Our idea was to open the Nobu of Thai restaurants. The person I was partnered up with at the time had already opened a restaurant before, not in New York, but in Australia. So I started helping him. For me, that was my real learning experience. I was kind of blind going into it, I didn’t know how to raise money. I had never built a restaurant before. We did it really quickly, and I had no help, and I still have no help, so I guess nothing has changed! [Laughs]
My team is much better now, I am much closer to having a really great team, but it was crazy. Looking back I don’t know why or how we did that, we were just three crazy kids wanting to open a restaurant, and we went and did it. It was good, we just sold it about two months ago. It was successful for a while, probably the most fun restaurant I ever had. I remember a very glamorous period when everyone was coming in and trying out everything, and that was very exciting, but I very much walked away from that after we opened. I wanted to open more restaurants, I had the itch, I knew that I was good and I wanted to do this.
So after Betel, what was your next step?
We opened a franchise called The Counter. I worked with the same partners, but with a much bigger capitol range [money to open the restaurant], and there were two things that made us want to do that. My partner had opened burger restaurants in Australia, but the first thing is that I wanted to know how other people opened restaurants; I wanted to have that experience.
The second thing is that we really thought it would be our cash card, and fund all of our other creative endeavors. And it could have, it still funds some stuff, but we broke up as a restaurant group.
We were very different people. I come from a very honest New York family, where people are successful in a very conventional way. You go to school, you get a job at the bank, or you’re a lawyer or a doctor, you get married and eventually retire and go to Florida or something. So me being here and having all of my family and my support group is very different to someone who comes here from a different country and is trying to make it, however they can. Not that it is a bad thing. We were fundamentally different people. So that didn’t work out but it was a great experience and obviously a great thing to have on my resume.
Your job feels very different from the traditional restaurant owner. How would you differentiate what you do versus that more traditional notion?
I am very early on in my career and I am very proud of what I have accomplished so far. I can’t believe that I own a Michelin Star restaurant, but I am still starting out and that is reflected in how I do my job. I will write the business plan and I will raise the money myself, which is a horrible thing to do, and I am here during construction every day, forming and negotiating different trade contracts.
It’s really just coming out of necessity because I taught myself how to do this. It is the only way I know how. And it might be a bit naïve on my part, I just don’t have my full restaurant group team yet so I do everything myself because that’s the only way I know how to do it.
With the team I’m about 90% there. I’ve spent a lot of time in my career figuring out who my partners, investors, contractors, employees, vendors are. I try to work with people who I like and respect and are passionate about whatever it is they do.
So where did the idea of the Musket Room come from?
Barbara, one of my partners here and the chef’s wife, was a manager at Betel. She opened my eyes to some things that were going on there in a very honest way; I really started to trust her.
I knew that she always wanted to open a restaurant with her husband. I knew he was a great chef, I had seen him on the Food Network [Matt was on Chopped]. Finally when she was really serious about them starting a restaurant together, I looked at their business plan and it wasn’t right for me. I was just going to consult for them and help them and take a fee and walk away.
But she had expressed that this, here, was her dream property. They had been planning on doing it in Bryant Park originally. I happened to walk by one day and noticed that I knew the broker that was marketing this property. So once I knew that I could get it, it sort of changed the whole plan.
And I was inspired by the whole New Zealand thing because that didn’t really exist in New York. I had been to private dinners that Matt had done; he has a very honest and playful approach. The level of cuisine, we call it casual fine dining, but it is the same quality and presentation you can get uptown but there is not pretension in it. One thing he did that really inspired me was a squid ink oreo, a savory oreo, and I just thought that was so cool, he was such a great chef and there was no pretension to what he did. And that was so important to me; I had already worked with a lot of divas.
So Barbara introduced me to Matt and the three of us got working on it, but it is really hard working with people who have never opened a restaurant before. I don’t have all the experience in the world, but I know that if you have $5 million, $1 million, half a million, it never gets any easier.
It took me a year of working on my own, and people don’t understand what’s taking so long, they don’t understand what the obstacles are, so it is hard to do, especially with people who haven’t done it before. You can have all of your ducks in a row, but you can’t control for instance: your International shipment getting stuck in customs, or the factory dropping your $20,000 oven down the stairs, or the Department of Buildings getting backlogged due to a super-storm. But they trusted me, and I trust both Matt and Barbara. We were just really honest with each other.
Can you explain your work dynamic now? How do you all work together?
In the beginning it was tough, we were behind schedule and over budget, so in the beginning it was all me, all my responsibility, just the whole burden absolutely fell on me completely. And then once we opened I started to let a few things go, let the payroll go, just little tasks I started to delegate. I really had to learn to trust them, and I did trust them, I got into business with them. With them being a couple, I was nervous they would gang up on me.
It is tough working with a couple, but they are very honest with each other and are very honest people, which I respect. My family is always here and their family is here, I guess it is nice for me because I grew up in a corporate environment but my Dad knew everyone working for him at his bank, knew their families, knew their mothers. So for me, I really respect them as a family and what they are trying to do here.
Speaking of family, your sister Nicole also works with you in addition to the work she does as a stylist. What does she do with the Musket Room?
I wish I could pay her. Honestly, she is so good. Her schedule is crazy sometimes, she can work like an 80 hour week, and then also help us.
She is there to do whatever we want her to do. She runs our Instagram, but she promotes everything we are doing through her Instagram. She has brought in so many great people. She’s a great writer so I have her check whatever I write. She’s got a great eye so she helps with design. Her and our friends and my parents built the garden out back. She did a cool collaboration at the beginning with the artist Baron von Fancy.
When I am here at 8am and want to leave at 5pm, sometimes I don’t feel like coming back here at night so I will bring her along. We play really nicely off one another, a good rapport, and she energizes me I guess.
And being in the restaurant business, I’m sure the hours are really crazy.
That’s a big part of trusting my partners. Barbara runs the floor and Matt the kitchen, and I have to trust that they are doing a great job. But the thing that’s hard for me is that I would hate for someone to come in here and not see me even though there are two owners here at all times. It is tough, it is almost like FOMO. I don’t feel like I am missing out on the party or anything, I just feel terrible when someone comes in and I am not here. It’s part of letting go.
What’s an average day like for you?
Early in the morning, I have my coffee or make a tea. Check the bank, see how much money we have, see who we owe money to, read the manager’s notes from the night before, especially if I wasn’t here, just to see who was here, any issues, anything like that.
Then I do my work, none of the other staff get in until about 2pm. So I play the role of day host, the phone will ring and I will take reservations, I am receiving deliveries, chatting with the guys down in the kitchen, talking to suppliers. Then everyone comes in and we talk about different staff issues, maintenance issues.
I have a family meal with everyone at 5pm, then I go home and hang out with my dogs, try to relax for about an hour, and come back for dinner service. I am usually here until about midnight. Day is admin, and then at night I don’t really have a role. When Barbara isn’t here I run the floor and just try to keep people calm in many different situations. But mainly I am just touching tables and pointing out who people are. I watch the bar, not that I don’t trust them, just to see how long it takes to make a cocktail. There are cameras everywhere so even if I am not here I am obsessively checking.
So you guys did a Kickstarter campaign to raise some money for the restaurant. Can you tell me a little about that decision?
For a long time we weren’t sure if we were going to be able to use the garden [which is located just behind the restaurant and visible through large windows in the back dining room], and then once we got the approval to do the garden we were sort of out of money. It was something really important to me to have the windows because the landlord wanted to board them up. So windows were the first step and the second step was the garden.
We had no idea what was going to grow back there it was very much a gamble. We wanted to get people involved, we pictured it as more of a community garden; we didn’t plan on using it as much as we did this summer. We used everything we grew, we made hot sauce, we grew some concord grapes and made a vinegar-based syrup for cocktails, tons of herbs, a lot of the garnishes on the plate. So we took that money and put it into the garden. And it was so fun having people come in that supported us. Everyone who donated to the Kickstarter really believed in us before the Michelin Star.
And how did you look for funding outside of the Kickstarter?
I have raised a lot of money in the last four years with my restaurants. It takes a few years to pay investors back, so it was hard. But it is all private investments, I didn’t want to take any loans or work with any venture capitalists that would essentially own our business. I wanted to own this business, especially for Matt and Barbara; this is their future. So it was all private investment.
You pour your heart into these business models, business plans, and researching the demographic and things, and in the end people just invested in my ability and Matt’s ability and Barbara’s ability to pull this off. A lot of them are financial guys who are like “this looks great, this makes sense, that said we don’t know anything about restaurants, we don’t know if this is feasible or not so we are investing in you guys.” And a lot of people invested in the fact that this is a new restaurant group, it isn’t just the Musket Room.
But I like to think that the Musket Room was our chance to get our accolades and for Matt to get his stars. I don’t know what we will do from here but I hope to open many more restaurants.
As a restaurateur, what do you think is the best way to get that funding? Is it having a good business plan, is it the food you are planning on putting out? What do you think that key is?
It is the business plan but I think it is more your approach. I have gone into meetings really confident and blew it, I guess being a little overzealous. I think it is different for each different person, but it is about being confident in yourself and your business model.
As a partner did you invest any of your own money when you were starting? Do you have equity in the company now as a partner?
I do, I am fortunate enough to have equity in all of my businesses. I have brought most of the investment to the table, so it is literally my sweat equity. But I didn’t have to invest any of my own money in the beginning.
Currently The Musket Room is only open for dinner. Are you planning to open for brunch and lunch?
Yeah, that wasn’t the initial plan. We really thought brunch was going to pay the bills honestly and dinner would be just an added bonus on top of that. Dinner menu was always the focus because chefs don’t like to even cook brunch.
I thought this was a brunch neighborhood but brunch was an epic fail. We did not plan on opening at the end of May, we planned on opening at the end of February, so when we piloted brunch this summer it was a really bad time to pilot brunch because a lot of people leave the city on the weekends. Everyone says it takes sort of six months to a year to build that business. We just didn’t have the time or money to do that, so we very quickly realized that it wasn’t working [and stopped]. I thought it was great, I loved it.
Brunch is tough, we want to go back to brunch but dinner is where we are at now and what we want to focus on. It is nice to be able to focus on one thing.
Do you feel like you are missing out on business for only doing dinner for now?
Not really, I think people are still finding out about us.
So how involved are you with the menu, and those kinds of decisions?
I am not. I try to be really honest about my strong suits, and while I think I know a lot about food and have a great palate, I would never tell Matt what to do. He really laid off during construction, I think he wasn’t sure about a lot of things like the lighting that we designed, and the plaster on the walls, but he trusted me.
What has been your greatest achievement?
Not that it has so much to do with me, but the Michelin Star. Like I said, it is stupidity, it is this naivety on my part that I have done this the way I’ve done this, but I essentially opened this with no help. To have it be so successful, and it is Matt’s success really, but I am just incredibly proud of what I have built.
How important is the star to your business?
The star is something Matt has been dreaming of since he was about 12 or 13. Incredibly important for him. For me, I could still cry thinking about it. It didn’t make my life any easier, it made my days a little busier, but that day was like “oh my god this is working, people actually like what we are doing.”
How do you control that you have the right crowd at your restaurant? Is it controlling press?
For us, we have a traditional PR company for the specific reason that we want foodie press. We think we are pretty good at getting the crowd here that we want, Nicole has been fantastic at getting the fashion crowd here, which is important to me because for some reason, I don’t know if this is true or not, but I feel like the fashion crowd is very loyal.
It was really important for us to just get food people in here. Right from the get go, because you are either going to get it or you are not. But I have been surprised. I am not surprised by the fashion crowd, I am not surprised by all the international guests we’ve gotten because of the Michelin and everything, but I am surprised by the amount of young people that have been here. I think it is so cool when you get a group of just four young girls coming in and having a really nice dinner.
What about your wait staff? They’re career waiters.
From the beginning we knew we wanted to train them in ballet [dance] so they know how to move around. It is really important for me that they are cool, nice people, that they remember people, and that they want to be doing this. If you want to be a playwright and you are working here, that is absolutely fine, and if they want to learn we can offer a lot of education. You make more money the more tests you pass. If you pass the food test you get a point, and if you pass the wine test you get a point. I think it is a nice thing to do for people.
If you want to be in this business we will teach you how to be a really great server. You may not have been the best server when you walked in here but you will be. It is important for me that they can talk to the guests and they can be cool and respectful. It is important to be that they want to learn because we are all very much still learning. It is important that they get along too.
Speaking of learning, do you feel like you have a mentor?
In business, it is my father. He comes from a very corporate background—he was an investment banker and started his own bank—but he is pretty realistic. I get upset about things, and I could take this personally because it is personal, but he really is my sounding board for all of this. He helps me realize what is actually important, and what I should be focusing on.
Who in the industry do you admire?
I’m really inspired by Andre Balazs and his ability to activate neighborhoods. Keith McNally as well. If you go into a McNally restaurant, or a Balazs property for that matter, everything about it is intentional and oozes the brand without feeling forced.
What’s the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
Mom always used to tell me “don’t expect a thank you” and I guess I just do what I do for myself and to better myself and my career, not for anyone to pat me on the back. Whatever accolades come our way is always nice but I just want to be able to live with myself, knowing that I am doing the right thing and that I am a good person.
What about money? How much can you really make as a partner, and is it difficult in the beginning when you’re getting up and running?
It is definitely hard. You go into a business wanting to make money, the goal is always to build a scalable model that you can one day sell but this is not a get rich quick business. As the first restaurant of our new group, you have to pay everyone back before you start making money. We will be successful, it is a very good business and we are doing it well but I am sure if I just went and got a job somewhere I would be making a lot more money.
What is next for The Musket Room?
For the Musket Room, we are still trying to figure out what we are good at. Chef loves to cook meat and he is great at cooking meat so maybe he will open a butcher shop. But I have no idea. We have had so many opportunities come our way, and I am not just going to do something because I think it is a great opportunity. I really want to sit back and think about it, we’ve only been open for six months now. So I definitely have the itch to open another one and people have approached us from different cities and different parts of New York. We are just not ready yet.
What is next for you? What’s your dream for your career?
I really like to bring people together and I get a kick out of bringing people to the same room that wouldn’t have normally got together. I want to open more restaurants, maybe do something more casual.
What would your advice be to someone who wants to do what you’ve done and open restaurants?
Get an intern, only work with people who you trust and like and be honest with yourself and your partners.
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