11 Bits of Wisdom from Chicago Pros

Alinea's Kokonas, Achatz dish on doing business right in a Reddit AMA
Two men on a couch.
Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas of Chicago’s Alinea, The Aviary, Next and Roister work as a pair to evoke creativity and continue pushing boundaries.

Risk-taking, daring, boundary-pushing — these adjectives tend to pop up anywhere Nick Kokonas or Grant Achatz are mentioned, and for good reason. The dynamic duo behind Alinea, Next and the Aviary have challenged diners’ preconceptions of what fine food and drink can be, while shaking up the industry in the process.

Recently, Kokonas and Achatz hung out on Reddit for a two-hour AMA (Ask Me Anything) that encompassed everything from management advice to fine dining philosophy to secret guilty pleasure foods (Achatz, apparently, had a soft spot for American Airlines’ onboard pizza). Anyone working in the food and beverage industry should probably read the whole thing top to bottom, but we sifted through and picked out some salient wisdom that’s applicable to those working in the bar industry, from multi-property venue owners to general managers to barbacks with ambitions of one day opening the next Aviary.

Patience pays off

You don’t earn accolades like a James Beard Award by rushing to cobble a project together. Kokonas explains that when they purchased the space previously occupied by Moto, it was partly because they expected the adjacent space to become available in the future. Eight months later, that happened, and now, they have a combined space that will serve their needs for their next concept. “Designing what we have in our heads has been a challenge but we're being patient,” he says. “The one thing we try to do, regardless of the cost, is not to run too quickly towards a build without fully understanding what we want our guests to experience. I think we're getting close.”

Guest experience is up to you to shape, not the guest

The food and beverage industry likes to spend a lot of time thinking about hospitality and answering to customers — but ultimately, when it comes to offering a truly memorable, creative experience, the responsibility is on the restaurant (or bar) team to deliver. “We try to create experiences that we find amazing ... and then we present them to our guests,” Kokonas writes. “So far so good. If we asked them what they want ... I doubt we'd ever do anything terribly creative.”

Visionaries are never really "done"

With Alinea recognized as one of the greatest dining institutions in the world, you’d think these two would be content to sit back and let the magic happen. But genius is always a work in progress. “[Alinea] is beyond what we envisioned but I have a lot of things I want to do with it — some of which we cannot yet figure out how to achieve,” says Achatz.

Aviary Cocktail Book The Aviary Cocktail Book is being funded through Kickstarter and is due out in 2018. (Photo: Kickstarter)

On tipping

Tipping has been at the forefront of industry conversations for a few years, with prominent institutions (like Danny Meyers’ Union Square Hospitality Group) doing away with the traditional model entirely. On the idea of flipping the tip model on its head in favor of a better system, Kokonas says, “it's a long complicated answer, but totally doable and in my opinion will happen for every restaurant in the US with over about a $30 per person check average.” He adds that restaurants who have returned to the old way probably just didn’t execute the transition properly, in terms of communicating the changes to both staff and clientele.

Find the “why”

If Kokonas could sum up the Alinea Group’s management philosophy in one fell swoop? “Question everything,” he says. “That's the most basic process with us.” He adds that, of course, that doesn’t mean a line cook can push back on orders from the chef de cuisine (“you say, ‘yes, chef,’” he adds). “But management wise, we try to constantly ask what can be done differently and better. Then we try it once ... figure it out ... then figure out how to scale it up. This goes for everything from a particular dish, to a service style, to accounting practices. Early on, I heard too often, ‘That's the way we've always done it.’ That's grounds for firing these days. I never ask someone how they are doing something ... I ask them 'why' are they doing it in that manner.”

Educate yourself with reading outside the realm of management

Kokonas isn’t into food industry books. He isn’t really into management books, either (they irk him, he says). It’s “much better to read innovative biz books and 'primary source materials' about human emotion and experience,” he says. He gravitates instead toward philosophy, statistics, human behavior, and occasional culinary books, citing “Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “Language, Truth, and Logic” by Alfred Ayer, “Option Volatility and Pricing: Advanced Trading Strategies” by Sheldon Natenberg, “Krapp's Last Tape” by Samuel Beckett, and “Blue Trout and Black Truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure” by Joseph Wechsberg. “Much better to study art history and movements than study culinary movements if you are trying to be a chef ... and visa versa,” he says.

Create an environment where talent will thrive (and stay)

Retaining your staff is a challenge in any industry, but it’s especially tough in food and beverage — and new hires represent time and money in onboarding and training. How does Alinea Group keep its team engaged and motivated? “We've worked really hard on creating incentives, both creative and financial, to retain talent across the restaurant group, and create new opportunities for chefs, FOH, and biz side to grow professionally,” Kokonas writes. “We are in a much better position to do that now than we were 5 years ago.”

Find a partner who complements your expertise

Kokonas and Achatz work well together because they complement each other, and Kokonas says that kind of yin and yang is essential to a good, productive, balanced working relationship. “I'm about an inch deep and miles wide. Lots of diverse interests, only a few things I'm 'expert' in,” he says, while Achatz has a much narrower, deeper focus. “Having both on your team -- whether the restaurant or software -- is critical. That said, we are both involved in each other's kitchens ... but don't hold veto power there. I've come up with a few culinary concepts that have seen the light of day ... Grant definitely is involved in biz development and operations.”

Look outside the bar/kitchen for inspiration

Rather than just looking to your peers for inspiration, think outside the realm of food and beverage and take cues from other genres. Kokonas says he looks to theater for ideas on experience design and creating tension; movies for dialogue and scene-setting; and magicians for “setting the expectations of guests [and] focusing attention where you want it.” (He cites UK mentalist Derren Brown as a particular source of inspiration.)

Learn to use tech to your advantage

As the creator of reservation system Tock, Kokonas has seen firsthand the way technology can drastically change a restaurant’s operations for the better. He says that, no matter what kind of resources you have, a restaurant can and should embrace new technology to evolve. “I think a lot of times people say, ‘well sure, you can do that because you're Alinea.’ I try to flip that around and say, no, we became Alinea because we embrace asking simple, basic 'why' questions all the time. Right now we just built a cool module for Google Data Studio to visualize our daily sales, costs, contribution margin, etc. in near real time. The software is free to use. We set up all of our teams with Slack and Google Docs as well.” (Both of these services offer free versions as well.) “In short — you are limited only by your ability to think shit up and go do it! And of course, the laws of physics.”

If you think you want to get into business, you better know your stuff (or hire someone who does)

“The biggest mistake I see chefs make when they start a biz plan is that [they] don't educate themselves on the biz structure, investor rights, accounting, etc., or find a trustworthy and smart biz partner instead to handle [it],” Kokonas says. “The decisions you make early on affect everything for years to come.”

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