We thought we knew Brian Lesser — a smart businessman who always had a good exit strategy. He brought California-style wraps and smoothies to Boston and sold his Wrap Culture locations to Boloco at exactly the right moment. Then he carved out a niche in upscale nightspots with Minibar and Saint, transforming the latter into Storyville when it was time for a refresh. (Next up on the nightlife front is Tunnel, coming soon to W Boston.) But now the Speakeasy Group founder and president is morphing into a sort of hard-nosed fairy godmother for chefs with passion, dreams, and potential. He's the business and operations partner behind Tiffani Faison's Sweet Cheeks and the DiBiccari brothers' brand-new Tavern Road; next he's opening Alden & Harlow with Michael Scelfo and a café chain named Bread & Butter with legendary local pastry chef Lee Napoli. Is Lesser now on every Boston chef's speed dial?
What are you up to? You'd be pretty surprised about all the things I'm involved in. I wanted to take a different path in the next part of my professional life. I didn't want to be married to the work. So I've made a conscious decision to grow a new kind of restaurant company devoted to chefs' "passion projects" — the ideas they've been kicking around for years. I understand entrepreneurs in the hospitality world. I've been one ever since I left Leona Helmsley's Palace in New York. I know what makes chefs tick.
Why help other chefs instead of continuing to do your own thing? I've watched so many young, talented chefs fail. It kills me. To me, it's about karma. Good karma comes back to you.
So how does it work? Are you the investor? An owner? A partner? The operator? Deal by deal. Each one is different. The common thread is the admin. I am a backer and an operator. I bring in the investors, negotiate the lease, work with the lawyers, manage the construction, and take care of all the things chefs don't want to deal with — permits, payroll, taxes, G&A, getting bills paid, marketing, and making sure the numbers work. I want to give chefs room for passion in the kitchen and with the diners without having to worry about the back-office functions. For example, most chefs have never built a restaurant, worked with an architect or a contractor. I've built 18 and worked for decades with people in all the relevant functions. I can make things happen for a chef in real time and on budget.
So, Sweet Cheeks was the first? Tiffani had an idea for an urban, chef-driven BBQ concept with well-sourced meats and buying produce from farmers' markets. My job was to help her focus on creating a viable restaurant. What Tiffani — or Louis, or Michael, or Lee-- — has to do is provide great food, great service, and I don't get too involved in those concept functions. For example, I consult on menu development but don't have the final say. Where I am really helpful is all the invisible stuff — using my experience and Speakeasy's combined purchasing power to get the best prices from vendors, credit-card companies, banking relationships. How many chefs know how to set up a human-resources department, or manage IT, or figure out the best point-of-sale system? Or get the opening and training right the first time?