As part of our fall 2014 Men’s Shop Catalog, we profiled 4 real men of style and substance. Here, prolific Chicago restaurateur Donnie Madia.
If you’ve had the pleasure of dining at Chicago restaurants like Blackbird, Avec, The Publican, Big Star, The Violet Hour or Nico Osteria, you know that Donnie Madia (the man behind them and co-owner of One Off Hospitality Group) has achieved a sizable portion of success in the Windy City restaurant biz.
Not bad for a guy who claims his first foray into hospitality was a trial by fire. Keep reading for insights on creating atmosphere, collaborating effectively, and learning the ropes while on-the-job—from the visionary behind multiple James Beard Award-winning watering holes.
[Donnie wears a suit by Todd Snyder White Label.]
Donnie Madia, on his personal mantra:
“One sound bite that I live by: Make people happy. That’s what it’s all about—touching people in a way that they feel comfortable in a space that they’ve never been in before. And sometimes it’s all-white, or encased in wood—so it may feel odd to someone to sit in a white box with a white tablecloth, but the idea is that the interaction with the guest is really important—guiding them through a dining experience and making them happy at the end of their meal. That’s my goal.”
On defining his job description:
“A restaurateur has to wear many hats. More than just directly making guests happy, it’s the beginning of the project, where you go out and look for a location. And then you speak to a landlord; maybe instead of leasing a space, you might have the opportunity to buy it, which will build more equity to the business and give you more assurance that you’ll have something long-term. So there’s the guest experience and how to make the guests happy, but it’s also about how to make the deal work financially, and then fund it—go out and get money, take your own money, borrow money, banks, investors, and bring all those elements together, before the conceptual idea comes into play.”
[He may wear a suit to work, but Donnie is no slouch after hours—as the street clothes he showed up in clearly indicated.]
On creating a complete experience:
“Tangible items, things that people can look at and touch, are as important as what they taste or what they smell. And also what you hear in a restaurant—that’s why all of ours have open kitchens, because there’s a voyeuristic point of view from the guest’s perspective. ‘Someone is making food for me.’ They want to have that interaction. If the chef himself comes to the table, that’s just an added cherry for that guest to really feel comfortable and welcome.”
On building a happy team:
“What drives my energy is putting the right deal together for all my partners, being fair, and giving opportunities for other staff members to grow with our company. We don’t use the word ’employee’; we use the word ‘staff’. He or she doesn’t work for us or me—we work together. We’re creating a great dining experience, but we’re also creating opportunities for young cooks to become sous chefs or supervisors or chefs de cuisine. They grow with our company, and a lot of them have gone out on their own and opened their own restaurants.”
On working smarter, not harder:
“Before my marriage and before my son, Bronson, it would be normal for me to work seven days a week. In retrospect, there has to be some type of balance. No man is an island. You can’t work 100 hours a week. I’ve scaled it back since then, and it’s been really beautiful to start my day making a waffle or eggs for my son, and then my wife will make two incredible cappuccinos. I’m giving away my trade secrets here…[laughs].”
On trying a new approach:
“Our first restaurant, Blackbird, was all about white tablecloth, clean, everything is white and polished and impeccably tasteful—but then, when we opened The Publican, we thought, ‘OK, modern beer hall. Let’s do mismatched, antique kinds of patterns. And let’s not do white. Let’s do florals, and some kind of centerpiece on the table, and mix things up a little.’ It taught us about not being so perfect—and about taking chances. Now, other restaurants do the same thing in Chicago. We try to set the trend; we don’t try to follow one.”
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