Cobi Levy + Will Makris
When COVID hit, Lola Taverna in New York’s SoHo neighborhood had only been open for a few months. The world had stopped, and Cobi Levy and Will Makris, the duo behind Prince Street Hospitality, had to pivot. They turned Lola Taverna into a communal gathering spot, offering takeout food with chairs to rent (the money went to first responders). Utilizing the park next door, they served up to 250 people a day. It helped them survive those uncertain pandemic days, and when restaurants were finally able to reopen, Lola Taverna was on everyone’s mind, with a waitlist on the weekends that numbered up to 4,000. Today, their portfolio boasts seven restaurants in New York and Miami, with Alba on the boards in Los Angeles, the pair’s first foray to the West Coast.
Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I am here with Will Makris and Cobi Levy. Thanks so much for joining me today. How are you both?
Cobi Levy: Well, thanks. Yeah, Stacy.
Will Makris: Doing well. Nice to see you.
SSR: Good to see you, too. All right, so let’s start at the beginning. Will, where did you grow up?
WM: I grew up in the mean streets of Deer Park, Long Island.
SSR: And what were you like as a kid? Were you creative? Were you entrepreneurial? Did you see something that might have a hint of where you ended up today?
WM: I love playing sports. I was definitely a little bit of a hustler when I was younger. But I loved playing sports. I was pretty active when I was younger but was always interested in doing things and being around people. I was always a people person even at a young age, so I think that played a lot into my future for sure.
SSR: Did you have an early love of hospitality? Did you guys travel at all or eat out?
WM: No, I think my love for hospitality probably came later in life and as I got older. I’d say 18-plus when I got to explore and actually had enough money to go to a restaurant that wasn’t a Wendy’s or McDonald’s. I don’t think those things happened when I was younger. We ate a lot at home, and if we didn’t, it was pizza and burgers and things. So I think that stuff transitioned as I got older. But I I love to be around people. I love to be active, and be out and about, so I think those things kind of all played into my future in that way.
SSR: Yeah. All right. Cobi, your turn. Where did you grow up?
CL: San Francisco.
SSR: And what were you like as a kid? Were you creative? Were you a hustler as well?
CL: Seems more like a question for my therapist, but.
SSR: We do some therapy here on this podcast. Don’t worry.
CL: Hopefully you’re cheaper than my therapist. I think to answer what you just asked Will, I grew up, I was lucky enough to travel a lot when I was a kid. I was lucky enough to eat at some of the best restaurants in San Francisco, which was a great food city. I don’t know that I tied that all together until much later, but certainly subconsciously that created a love of hospitality and travel that would later find its way back into my life. But certainly that base was there from a young age, even if I didn’t understand it at the time.
SSR: So you grew up in San Francisco, you got to eat a lot in these amazing restaurants, but you went into the fashion world right, first?
CL: Well college, after college I got a degree in finance and I worked for KPG Consulting. The fashion thing happened a bit on the lark, which is also how I got into the hospitality world. I’d written a business plan for a company based on defunct sports leagues. And I translated that into clothing companies, and I did that first. But I think the true impetus for hospitality was that I ran nightclubs in college. So I was hosting and creating events and creating experiences. So it’s what I did from 18 until I graduated and that was a pretty firm base from which to pick from when we opened Charles.
SSR: Awesome. So wait, where did you go to college?
CL: Boston University.
SSR: And so were you the one that got everyone there when you say running nightclubs?
CL: There has been a pretty consistent thread if you were to look at from having similar life experience around that time of being affluent Jewish kids, hustling into nightclubs and trying to make some side money and run around with a bunch of girls and something like that.
SSR: Will, did you do any of that?
WM: Yeah, I did. I had a guy I met when I was about 18 years old in Long Island where he did the Hofstra colleges, so he would pay me per person to bring people. It’s funny enough, you just brought that up because I forgot I did that, but now that you’ve said it, so long ago. But yeah, there’s this guy, per person I would get paid and I did that. I didn’t last long for that because I wasn’t kind of a mass marketer type of person. I just had a group and I would like to take them out and people that were around me, but I did dabble in that a little bit, yeah.
SSR: I love it. And it’s just so funny thinking about back how you did that, right? You left messages, you actually called people, you sent out flyers, right?
WM: Still have some of the original flyers for my college days.
SSR: Okay, so Cobi, you went into finance, oh you got a major in finance and then you went into consulting. How did you get into fashion?
CL: Yeah, fashion might be a little bit of a liberal term. I launched a line at Barney’s when I was in my early 20s that was T-shirts and things like that. I would use fashion very liberally. I guess I could say it was fashion, but truthfully it was really just better. I did actually design a men’s line for Barney’s much later, but that was basically, that was really just a hobby that certainly didn’t make any money and it didn’t really go anywhere. But it was cute. It was good that I could tell people I did it.
SSR: Yeah, that’s awesome. So how did you two meet?
CL: In those very nightclubs that we were just discussing.
WM: Yeah, I think the first time I met Cobi, I had gotten a job at a club called Provocateur. This is probably around 2008, 2009. And Cobi was very close and partners with the landlord of that nightclub and he would come all the time and support and I was kind of the host manager guy that would work there. And we met there originally and then we were always in contact. We’d always see each other. We had some mutual friends, but that was the beginning of us was when he would come in with different groups and I was the host of that venue.
SSR: Awesome. And when did you decide to partner? How did you two decide to come together business-wise?
CL: Here, I’ll give credit to Scott Sartiano. Scott was an old friend of mine and Scott had worked with Will before at the Darby. I had worked with Scott. I’d run Butter for them in Midtown. And so we’d all kind of been swirling around together a bit. And when we went to go do Broken Coconut in 2017, I guess ’16, ’17, something like that, Scott was like, ‘Hey, we should bring Will in.’ That was sort of the first time that we had a chance to start to work together. And then I was opening Lola at the time, and I brought Will in with me on that. And as we started working more and more together, we enjoyed that experience and I thought that there was a good symbiosis.
Whereas Scott and I cannot work together even though we are the best of friends and we will do, I will help Scott with whatever he needs and Scott will do the same for me and we’re great friends, but the two of us could not see eye to eye on anything. It was basically an argument about if we had to buy a pencil, we would somehow figure out how to turn that into an argument. And that was not interesting for anybody, ourselves and us, our partners, anyone else. And so Will and I, we do different things. And so this worked out. And then next thing you know we kind of had something going and we said, ‘Hey, let’s see where we can take this.’
WM: Yeah, it’s funny. Scott’s my partner still on Zero Bond but it’s because things work very well with Cobi and I because we really don’t clash in each other’s worlds. He’s very good at what he does, and I’m very good at what I do. And I will not get in his way unless I think it’s absolutely ridiculous, which doesn’t really happen much. So it’s kind of a good synergy between the two. If we both did the same things, if I was a really good operator and he was a really good operator, I think we’d fight more, but I don’t know how to operate anything so it’s much better to do the stuff I’m good at. And I think that’s a big part of why this works so well and why we’d enjoyed our time together and it’s been great ever since.
SSR: Yeah. So what do you find is your strength, Will?
WM: It kind of comes back to the people thing. I worked in so many different venues and they all happen to be some of the best venues for the last 10 or 12 years in New York City. So I got to have a network that you can’t compare it to too many people. So I got to work with some of the best people in the business, get all their contacts, be around them, learn from them, then move on to the next place. Not burn that bridge with them, stay friends with them, build an even bigger group with the next group, then move on, then stay friends with those guys. I kind of have something very unique where most of the time when people leave different companies or different groups, they kind of burn bridges or the people are mad at them and they don’t really have those contacts anymore, they’re taken away from them. I always kept things in a really nice way altogether. I’m a pretty good marketer when it comes to those things. And I have a lot of relationships and stuff, and I can fill a place and I know how to get the right people to the right places. So that’s really what I’m good at. I have pretty good taste in food, so does Cobi. We generally agree on the same thing. So I think both of us, our strength is in food as well. And I have a pretty good eye with what looks good and what makes a room flow well, where I think people should be, where they should sit, how things should work, how things should flow.
CL: If I may, I think what Will’s power is, even when you’ll talk about hospitality and especially in this context, we’re usually talking about restaurants. And the truth is that restaurants are almost all too often worried about the rules of how things should be done. I think Will brings a raw sense of hospitality, which is ‘I am here to take care of my guests first and foremost and whatever that takes,’ which very much comes from a nightlife side. Where you’re just like, ‘I got to show this guy a good time tonight. I’m going to do what it takes to get that done’ and that’s very much where his soul is and he does that over and over and over again, which is what makes him impactful and which is also why he has stickiness beyond where a lot of these other people don’t, right? Because there’s a lot of places you can get pasta, right? It’s about how you make someone feel when they’re eating that pasta that’s going to be more important. Especially now, there’s more noise and whether it’s how the impact of social media that real relationships is what will be the determining factor of bringing people in. And if Will can get them there, I can keep them there.
SSR: Got it. Love it. Wait, and you guys mentioned some of the most iconic clubs that happened in New York, Provocateur, Butter. You guys worked with TAO, right? Or at one of the TAOs?
WM: I did, I did.
SSR: Yeah, what did you learn from those places? Will you said you learned and you moved on. What were some of the key takeaways from your earlier days that you both took away that now you hope to evolve into what you’re doing with your own company?
CL: Just to finish, I was it’s that devotion to client, right? When you look at it in terms of if you think about Will Guidara talked about in Unreasonable Hospitality and that approach to how one tries to really shape an experience for a guest, painted with a very different brush, but that’s exactly what Will’s been doing his whole life, is making sure people have great nights out and really taking care of people and going that extra mile for them, whatever it takes in that context. I think that has been massive. And also there’s an idea of just, you just say yes and you figure out how you’re going to get it done. And so there’s a little bit of that chaos that comes into it that really does resonate with just how you’re like, “I don’t care how many we have on the books. If someone needs a four top we’re going to figure it out right now.”
WM: Yeah, I think working with so many different groups and so many different great groups in their time and what they did, I took a lot of positive but I also took the negative. I saw a lot of things that I knew if I owned my own place, I probably wouldn’t do or I thought that kind of didn’t work or might’ve been a little bit prehistoric in the way they looked at things. So I got to see so many different people that really were the pillars in the business and learn from them but also learn the things that I kind of thought that I could curate better and do better when I got to do my own thing. So it was really awesome to see those things kind of all come together in one where you take the good and the bad and then you can really formulate your own place into what exactly you think will work and what people want to see because I think that’s really what it’s all about.
CL: I think in full circle the kind of experiences that we try to bring in our restaurants is that it is more experiential than ever and you have to have good food, you have to have a great room, you have to be able to bring this amalgam has to be beyond just… Unless you’re, just some Omakase place that has five seats and all that matters is that piece of fish in front of you. Almost all of the restaurants that are most impactful in New York are something so far beyond just the food that they put on the plate. It’s that experience, it’s the memories that it creates.
SSR: Right. And all the details in between. So what was your first project that the two of you did together?
WM: The first one was, we did with our friend and my partner, Scott. So we did Broken Coconut together. We did-
CL: A forgettable foray into fast casual.
WM: It was a little hard to keep going when this funny thing called COVID hit as well. So it got really tricky, but that was the first thing we did together. It was experimental in the sense of it wasn’t something that was huge. It was a pretty small little space and we worked together to see how it went. And then when Cobi came to me with the idea of doing Lola Taverna, I really had never been a partner or an owner in a restaurant before. I was a little bit hesitant in the sense of I just kind of never did it. So I didn’t know what my expectations would be other than I’d come and have dinner there. So I think it kind of started off that way and then I wanted to learn more. I started to really enjoy it. I learned a lot from Cobi in the sense of, especially given the fact of the timing of the world we were living in when we opened how to survive in a time when no one could leave your house and we were only allowed outside and everyone was wearing masks and then it was 25%, then it was 50% and it was 0%. So it was a really, really great learning experience for me and watching Cobi, who’s done this for so many years, figure out ways to keep business going. Not only keep business going, make money during this time and do things that literally no one else in the city was doing. And also probably save the restaurant because I don’t know what would’ve happened if he didn’t do that. So I think all those things combined really were a great learning experience in getting to learn about the restaurant side of hospitality.
SSR: Yeah. And then from there, I mean now how many properties do you all have? You have the Cali, you have Little Prince.
CL: Lola. We have Cucina Alba, Accanto. Soon we’ll be opening Alba in LA and another project in Los Angeles as well.
SSR: Very cool. So it’s been a lot of growth in a short amount of time.
CL: Well luckily I think going back to what we were talking about before is we are blessed to be amongst friends of ours who are compatriots but also are leading the way in the business. So it’s pretty… When you’re looking around and all your friends are crushing, it just gives you a little extra kick in the ass to get up every morning and push on. And we’ve seen our friends have just such tremendous success in the last few years that I think success begets success and we’re blessed to be amongst great leaders in the business.
SSR: Yeah. As you said, there’s a lot of noise, there’s a lot of different venues out there. How are you trying to carve out your own niche? Is there an ethos that you try to do in each place or each place can be a new concept? Talk to me about how do you come up with the concept and is there something you want Prince Street to represent?
CL: So if you looked at our restaurants you would see that there is a bit of… You could see growth from Little Prince was something, I started 10 years ago, and I was still working with Jeffrey Chadorow and some other friends of mine. But if you look at what we did from Lola into Alba, you see a bit of an ascension and I think Alba will be the cornerstone of what we do going forward, which is our idea about new luxury. And that is people wanting the best time and the best of all worlds, especially even on the food side but they don’t want it done in that very traditional uptown way, which is a bit stuffy. They want all the fun but they also want everything that they could have gotten uptown, which is where all the best meals used to be, right? So now that’s where I think we are… And if you look at the restaurants, I think they are a good a reflection of where Will and I sit together in terms of these ideas. We’re like, “Well is it more casual or more formal?” But we find this nice middle ground where everyone can have a really good time and our restaurants are transportive and we do talk about, we do like to take people in that journey with us. We travel a lot and we think it’s really important for people to feel like they can get lost in their restaurants, right? Life in New York could be daunting and it’s nice to have a bit of a release when you get out at night and you’re like, “Oh I don’t need, it isn’t Disneyland.” But you could certainly feel like you’re not just living your normal life for a couple hours a night.
WM: I would also, literally Cobi said exactly what I was going to say, watching the transition from Little Prince and then you would probably go further and then to our last one that we just opened with Cochina Alba, you can see the progress and what we’ve done. We’ve gotten a bit more serious with how we do things, our designs, the food, things are getting a little more intense, not intense like stuffy, but just more serious about what we’re doing. I think when we open LA in a few months, I think we were going to see another level, another step of things and where we want to be with the next venue we’re going to do. So the progress has been pretty fun to do and cool to watch. And I think as we’ve worked together and especially now because Alba was really us working together with this one, you see that coming out in the projects and I think even more so coming up in the future, you’ll see that as well.
SSR: Yeah. And this new one, talk a little bit about it. How did you want to evolve the concept and what did you hope to create with it?
CL: We looked at the landscape and saw we thought was a hole in the Italian market, which is to say that in terms of international brands, Cipriana, Ciccones, maybe Casa Tua, but there wasn’t the restaurant that we wanted exactly, which we thought was holiday Italian. And we think about all these times there, we spent these phenomenal trips throughout Italy, whether it be in the north or south. And we didn’t want to be necessarily, it wasn’t supposed to be regionalized. Now you just set a bunch of new rules for yourself that most people will not know the difference. And the one asshole who does know that we don’t use butter here, we use this instead is great now you’ve got that asshole opining to how your restaurant should be. And our approach was more about a celebration of Italy.
SSR: And is the idea too to keep expanding outside of New York?
WM: Yeah, definitely. We’re constantly looking at different cities and offer different projects. I think Cobi and I are trying to learn to not expand too fast so that we get a little ahead of ourselves, but we’re trying to find that happy medium. But yeah, the idea is definitely to expand the brand into other cities, even a little bit out of our comfort zone and continue building that and continue building the brand all over.
SSR: Yeah, totally. Talk to me about how you guys are, as leaders with your growing team, after working in all these amazing places how are you trying to share that knowledge with them and how do you lead your teams to make these experiences what they are?
CL: We have taken an approach that is very cooperative. A lot of our, what we really want, we created a place for all of our team to be entrepreneurial and to have a real path forward with us. So a lot of our general managers and chefs are either have profit participation or something from a financial standpoint, they feel very much tied to what we’re doing. And I think even stepping up even back before that when you asked how we do the concepts, two years before we did Alba, Will and I took what would be the team like the general manager, our chef, our director of ops, and we started working on it together and we even went to Italy together to explore and to create that vision.
One, I think the results are better when people have a vested interest in it. Two, when they are part of the actual creative process, they will remember like, “Oh remember that time I gave that suggestion about that?” That there’s certainly a great sense of ownership there. And then that actually leads to real potential ownership. So this is a business that has largely been about people racing around trying to find the next smaller raise or whatever, slight bump we’re building with great people for the future and we’re going to keep them so they’re part of something far bigger. And I think the ability to grow faster is purely, we have money and we have deals, but it’s just about how the quality of the team around us.
And so we have taken, I think because I was Jeffrey Chodorow’s junior partner, Will was a junior partner and some of these other deals that we know what that feels like when you’re growing, when you’re building something. And so incentivizing people to be a part of that has been very important to us and the people have left us, it’s not like this is I’m not going to hold you too tight. People will leave, that do. But for the most part our core team has been together for a while and it’s very happy to see them help us grow and be excited to bring their friends into the family so that we have just more, and sorry, we have better access to talent that way.
SSR: What did you learn from Chodorow during your days there?
CL: Jeffrey was an enigma and I learned so much from him, good and bad. I started with him after I closed Nico and I realized that I couldn’t do it on my own. At the time I had failed and I failed because I was able to come with good concepts, but I didn’t have the infrastructure to really sustain a good business and I needed that. And so when he offered me an opportunity to have a platform to put my ideas forth and also learn from him, I took it up and it was fantastic. We had a great run together. I learned so much from him about from deal making to certainly when it came to deal making structure, the guy was a genius. I shouldn’t say was, is. And look, when it came to concepts, they were all over the place. Some are great, some absolutely ridiculous, but he certainly had a passion for it and he had the courage of his convictions. Unlike most people, he always uses his own money. And so as much as anyone might want to, people will give him a hard time for some of his goofier concepts but he put his money where his mouth is. You got to respect that. So when you go and write a check for caviar and bananas, it’s your money, good on you. That’s a real concept he did.
SSR: I remember that. That’s amazing.
CL: English is Italian, come on, there were some good ones. And then look, we did amazing things together too. And that was whether it was small things like Little Prince and when we did Bobba G and when I helped him open Komodo, the guy just, he had that passion every day and he could have retired anytime he wanted, but he kept wanting to grow and I loved that about him. It’s like he was excited to be in the restaurants. He used to love to go to tastings and wanted to be involved in every aspect of it. And that was something that was, I would look at him sometimes, “Why don’t you retire?” He was like, “Why would I want to do that?”
SSR: Yeah. And tell us about, I forgot about Nico, was that the first restaurant you opened on your own?
CL: I did Charles first, but then I did Nico, yeah.
SSR: Okay. And I guess the question for both of you is starting with you Cobi, what made you decide to take that leap, right? Opening a restaurant on your own, as you just said is no easy task. What made you decide to take that leap and give yourself a chance?
CL: Well, I mean either really fearless or really stupid or some combination therein. And opening was something I wanted to do, so I was like, “I could do this.” The same way that when I opened a clothing company, I had no prior knowledge of how to do that either. But I think that what you find, and Will’s a little too humble to say this about himself, but what I said about him earlier is that hustler mentality. It’s just like, “You know what, if you’re scrappy and you know what? You know how to make some moves, you’ll figure it out.” And he’s done that his whole career, whatever he did, he might want to delve into some of that. But he is a scrapper and you have a little, if you have some access to some capitalism and friends of yours, some friends who want to get behind you and you could get going, you know what you could give a shot at making it and that’s kind how… The first one, I think the first one was kind of a joke, got a little more serious as we went. Now we’re in a much better place, but it’s desire and a willingness to fight plus a bit of scrappiness.
SSR: Yeah. Will, you want to talk about that scrappiness?
WM: Yeah, I mean I don’t have the same fearlessness as Cobi did. I probably would not have done it without him. I don’t have any desire to do a restaurant by myself. I don’t think anybody, I think it would’ve been a complete and total wreck if it was just me. So I had a little more bravery with it knowing that I would have someone that was experienced with operations talent and those kinds of things. Again, I’m not a traditional hospitality restaurant person, but I do, like I said, I do know what works and as long as I got surrounded by the people that I thought would be great with Cobi, I felt like we had a shot. And I will say, I mean I can get anyone anywhere, so that I’m never worried about and I have a lot of friends that support that and support me wherever I go and were kind of excited to see me do my own thing and continue to watch this process grow. So yeah, I felt a little more comfortable knowing that I had a partner in this that knows what the hell he is doing.
SSR: Always helps surround yourself with others that know more. And can you talk a little bit about Zero Bond and that partnership with Scott?
WM: Yeah, sure. So about this has got to be now six years ago, Scott kind of came to me and was like, “Look, I’m looking for this space. I want to do a members club in New York.” And I said, “Okay.” I mean there’s only been one thing that’s really survived members clubs is Soho House, but at the time I’m saying. Now there’s a thousand opening up. And I said, “Look, you find the space, you tell me what you want to do and I’ll take a look at it and if I think it’s going to work, I’ll do it with you.” So he really is the founder and came up with the idea, found the space. I came to see the space. I was amazed by it, thought it was a great location, thought it was a great concept, and basically started working on it together.
We didn’t really have a membership team. It was really him and I in a small little office calling our friends and them asking us why they’re giving us money and this kind of thing. So it was a really interesting process to start. But yeah, that’s kind of how it happened. And again, relatively the same time where we had to open and COVID was hitting. So it was kind of another rough patch of time to be opening something, especially this much of a large venue on top of the fact that our landlord started rent no matter what. So we kind had to figure it out on the swing of things.
But yeah, that’s how it kind of started and we were kind of first to market in New York besides obviously, Soho House and things grew very, very fast, very quickly and really just complimented everything that also Cobi and I were working on because anything that we were doing, we would compliment Zero Bond or Zero Bond was going to compliment us and it just kind of all played off each other. So it was a really good time to see both businesses on both sides growing much quicker than we really thought it could actually happen. So it was pretty special to see.
SSR: And not to harp on COVID because hopefully we’re moving far, far away from it, but you’ve mentioned that, well that Cobi did some things for Lola’s that made it survive. And you just mentioned Zero Bond. What were some of those things? How did you guys get through it all? Because it was not an easy time, especially for restaurants as everyone knows, one of the hardest hit.
WM: So I was under the impression when COVID, I was like, “We’re done. It’s over. That was fun. I thank you Cobi for the opportunity.” And Cobi looked at me and he is like, “No, we’re going to figure this out. We’re going to figure this out.” So basically he came up with this idea where we were going to do takeout food, we had the park across the street of Lola Taverna and he said, “What we’re going to do is you’re going to be able to come, you’re going to be able to order, you’re going to be able to get takeout and you’re going to be able to rent some of our chairs for $2 and we’re going to give the $2 to the first responders and you can eat in the park.” And this idea became so big, so fast that there were days, I mean I think we had a SWAT team come up one day, right Cobi and shut us down.
CL: Every government agency tried to shut it down for that though they could never figure out what we were exactly doing wrong.
WM: Yeah, we had 400 people in the park, I think one day, coming to they’d order food at Lola, go grab some chairs and a table, sit in the park and eat. And we kind of created something that did not exist in New York at the time and people were flocking from uptown, downtown, Brooklyn everywhere because it was really, really, you got to see your friends, you got out of your house and it really, really sparked the interest in the restaurant as a whole and the food was excellent. So it kind of just pushed us right through that. And then when we got to open at 25%, then 50% and then we got to open our outdoors and we built this beautiful deck. I mean there were times where we had 3 or 4,000 people on the wait list on a Friday and Saturday night to get tables for a small little restaurant on the corner of Prince and Sixth. So Cobi coming through and propelling the business through all of that and me thinking he was out of his mind and then watching the process happen was pretty cool to see. And that still really propels the business to this point because it got so well known. It became probably at that time the most popular restaurant in the city. I don’t think I’m exaggerating in saying that. Everyone was coming and really pushed the brand and pushed that space and then also allowed us, it got us enough attention where we were like, “Wait, we can expand on this, we can move forward even further.”
SSR: That’s amazing. Cobi, anything to add?
CL: Yeah, look, I was sitting in a house I’d rented in Sag Harbor thinking about what we need to do and I’d written a manifesto. I was listening to Bob Dylan’s Shelter from the Storm on repeat thinking about how in all of this negativity, restaurants were that shelter and that we needed to bring people some fucking happiness because all you heard at that time was just unprecedented death. Everything was negative and you could only hear so many people talk about watching Tiger King. So it seemed obvious to me people are going to want to, especially young people are going to want to go out again and they’re going to want to go out and they’re going to want to enjoy themselves. They’re going to need a beacon of some hope and just a place to say, “Fuck it, I just want to get a couple hours away from hearing how terrible the world is and who died today.” And that was kind of our guide. And look, we were constantly pushing the envelope. My belief is if you’re waiting for the government to save you, you might as well just lay down and die now and you got to go save yourself. And we pushed and we faced every pushback from some people, as I think Will said, a lot of people really embraced what we were doing. There were some real haters around and every government agency was up our ass at all times. But at the end of the day, it was worth it. And I remember reading all these articles, these people was like, “Woe is me.” Articles about how terrible everything was and what’s her name? You never made it this business because things were easy and I don’t know when people lost that fight because this is not a business for the timid. Especially a chef who busted their ass in kitchens for that many years, it’s tough. So why was this any different? Get up, get to it.
SSR: Yeah, amazing. And do you think, I mean I feel like restaurants and hospitality and everything is having a renaissance again and just in terms of that exact desire of people wanting to get out, wanting to be with others, not having that freedom taken away. Do you guys see that now? I mean obviously you all are growing with who’s coming to your restaurants and-
CL: You’re going to see a map, the changes, this is just a continuation. There is food as a commodity, I need to eat that will be there’s that side of the market. And then there is food or there’s, sorry I shouldn’t say food, there’s dining as entertainment and dining as entertainment is more important now than ever. And we’re amongst the leaders that are pushing that you see it from and it’s not just one. And when I say entertainment that doesn’t need to be like nightclub restaurant, it’s not just Tao, there’s entertainment of all kinds. People as brilliant as chefs as Mario and Rich are, you’re not just going to Carbone to eat a veal parm, right? There’s a magic that they’ve woven that makes you want to go there. And that’s the biggest thing, you can buy veal parm just about anywhere you want in the city. These guys really, sorry, that scene of dining as entertainment is what is taking off and pushing and it comes from New York and that’s why all these brands proliferate from New York.
You see Major, Patch, Tao, all these groups that are growing, growing and growing. Where did they come from? They started right here and all kind of making these nights that are for, I think, we take for granted is to how special it is to be out in New York sometimes. The people you see, whether it’s the most powerful people, the best looking people, the best chefs, the best, it’s all right here. And so when you can really make it here, you can make it anywhere. And I think it comes, right? But it does feel like there is a verv to the city right now again.
SSR: Yeah, I totally agree. Was there one night that you guys remember as, I mean I don’t even know if you can pinpoint one night, but that was one-
CL: Will’s life is a movie. You’re asking the wrong person.
SSR: Is there one night that you of your best night-life experience or best night out in New York?
WM: I’ve had a lot. There are certain nights I can’t really pinpoint offhand right now. There’s just been certain nights where you’re like, “How the heck did we get this person and that person?” All these people together and I didn’t even know half of them were in the city or I didn’t even invite some of these people and you look around the room and you just can’t believe that these kind of things happen. And then there’s other times where you work your ass off to get those things and then it comes together and you’re like, “Okay this all paid off, that was really worth it. Let’s see how we can improve it and do it again.”
I’m fortunate enough to be involved in something that a friend of mine does in the Hamptons every year and I helped start it with them and watching that progress into a worldwide phenomenon and having a crazy press and something I’ve never seen before in the history of any party at all happen and get that much attention, it’s pretty cool to see. So I’ve definitely had some moments where I was like, this is pretty special and getting all these people in one room in one place. And I think that’s something that we’ve been really focused on doing.
I do it at Zero Bond, I do it with Cobi. We kind of just bring worlds together that you just don’t expect. If Meek Mill’s sitting next to Barry Stern, look it’s pretty cool in the restaurant. If the Chainsmokers are there and some VC fund guy who just sold his business for $3 billion and a table of models is there, it’s a big mix. And we all have these weird networks that all kind of come together in our places so it’s pretty special to do that stuff and it happens pretty often now. So we kind of look around the room sometimes and laugh in awe of how things come together.
CL: Certainly during COVID there were some of those nights where it just, you look around and because I think the dichotomy of worlds of seeing being in the middle of a universe that was in shut down and then being able to create this little bubble of insanity made you feel like, “Wow, we really could do this.”
SSR: Where do you see Prince Street heading? What do you hope this company becomes or evolves to?
CL: I think to Will’s point earlier, we are navigating growth intelligently by being thoughtful about the deals that we take next. And certainly LA is going to be a big step for us, but we do see this LA and New York didn’t quite, I think in the last 10 years certainly the connectivity has gotten more and more and so it’s gotten stronger. So it doesn’t seem like a giant leap. A lot of our friends are there, a lot of our friends have already gone there and done very well with their businesses so. That will be a big move for us in establishing something on the West Coast. We will know then if we have what it takes to grow this thing into an international brand.
SSR: Yeah. Do you ever see yourself in smaller markets too or?
WM: Yeah, for sure.
CL: I was going to say if we’re in smaller markets, it’s either someone paid really well or we failed and we can’t make it in LA anymore, so now we’re in Fresno, but depends on how small you mean.
WM: There are definitely some cities that I think that we’d want to expand in that we’ve been offered already quite a few times. We just are a little hesitant. We want to test the market. I think LA is a big step for us, especially given the times because LA, I don’t think is fully still recovered from COVID times. So I think they’re still in a little transition period. So I think it is not going to be easy. I don’t think it’s just going to be handed to us. So nothing’s been handed to us since we started and started the company and became partners, so why would they do start being easy now? So that part is really going to test us and then yeah look like to Cobi’s point, if you’re going into these smaller markets, they’re putting up all the money and they’re paying you to be there. So we’re happy to do that. But the ones we really want to expand to the cities that we want to challenge ourselves in and really test the waters and see how big this can be and how far we can go with it.
SSR: Yeah. And to that point, is it the place that speaks to you or is it the part, how do you figure out which are the right projects and which aren’t?
CL: I was going to say, look, I mean right now we’re in a place where in our brands where, look we’re not so, Nobu can open anywhere, they’ve just got that brand power. First question for us is when we looked at LA, I was like, “Will, do you want to spend time in LA?” Because both of us have to get our asses out to LA. So I think that’s the first criteria for anything is our personal life choices as to what do we want to do because we’re not in a place yet where you can just say, “I’m opening Cipriani on Mars and somehow Martians will figure it out.” We actually need to go and do it.
WM: Yeah, I think that’s a big part of it. I feel like right now, especially in our business, it is really centered on Cobi and myself being there and showing our faces and people seeing us. So unfortunately they haven’t figured out how to clone us yet and we’ve tried to find junior versions of ourselves. It’s been pretty tough finding. So until those things happen we have to be, I feel a need that I have to be there. He feels a need where he has to be there. So again, that goes also to the point where we don’t want to expand too fast. But I do think there will be a point where things will kind of run on their own and we will have guys in place that we do have great staff and good people that work with us, but we don’t want to spend our entire lives on airplanes. So we’re trying to balance those things as a whole and take time and be at the places we can be.
SSR: What do you guys love most about what you do? What part of the process?
WM: I think mine will be much different than Cobi’s. Cobi is partially insane. He will sit in front of a computer and go through 400 fabrics at midnight to find the right fabric for a chair. Might even be one chair. He might not even do all the chairs that way, just might be one chair that he likes and that’ll be a special chair. But he does things like this where I have no patience for that, I don’t have time. He loves the intricacies of the small little details and things. I look at a room and I’m like, “Great, this looks awesome. Maybe change that, I’m good.” Whereas he’ll be like, “This isn’t flowing right.” Or he’s much more particular. So I think he’s very good at the design and working with our designers and the process of doing that stuff. I really enjoy the part where when we open and I get to really push everybody to get there and show off what we got and really put on the song and dance and continue to show that we can do this and we can come up with new concepts. We can open new restaurants, we can do things and they’re all going to be successful. At least we hope. So I think Cobi enjoys that too. But I think, Cobi speak for yourself, but I think you love this stuff. I mean you love the process of finding these things.
CL: Yeah, look, I think every time we get a chance to create and it’s evolving, right? We were at a wonderful event last night which gave us yet another opportunity to create within the context of that evening. So I make these, we have to work with a great artist friend of ours and make a really cool menu on a mirror. I’m constantly inspired by what I see by those around us. And I feel like we have this great opportunity and Will’s really helped, Will has provided this opportunity to go and he drives me to, he pushes me to want to see how far we can take this, right? Because when you can literally get anyone to come and those people have a choice to go anywhere in the world, you have to bring it.
And I don’t really care if those people get the details or not. I know that they’re there, whether it’s good or bad. So I’ll see the scratch on the floor or the nick on a plate and I know it’s there, so it’s got to get fixed. But I also, when it comes together in the ways that it’s seemingly coming together well for us now, it feels fantastic. And it is truly, I think the best part, most rewarding part of what we do is not when our friends tell us how good things are but when you meet someone who doesn’t know you and tells you how great an experience they had in your restaurant. Or you’re over here, someone like you’re literally walking around and it could be anywhere in the world so it’s like, “Oh, there’s this restaurant I went to. I had the best time there.” You’re like, “Oh cool.”
SSR: Great. Yeah, when I interviewed Ian Schrager, he said, “You never know which detail is the one that matters,” which I always keep in mind. So I don’t know if that’s something for you too. Just finding all the right details that kind of seemingly mix together in the right way.
CL: There’s a quote that his old partner had about that a great, they said when they were doing Studio 54, their great party was causing a little bit everything to make it perfect and it’s something that we reference a lot. And so I think there’s this idea that especially in New York, these special nights, you bring a little bit of everyone together, you look around the room you’re like, “All right, pretty cool.”
SSR: Yeah. All right, so we always end the podcast with the question that is the podcast, so what has been or is your greatest lesson learned along the way? Will, I’ll let you go first.
WM: I didn’t see this question in the pre one, I got to think for a second. I think one thing is know yourself and who you are and be confident in yourself, but also know your limits and know what you’re good at, know what you’re bad at. I think it really, and I keep harping on this a lot, but it’s really true, know what you can do and know what you can’t do. Know when it’s time to have somebody else come into your life and help you do this stuff like Cobi is to me and the people that we’re around. It’s a big part of it. I think some people try to take too many things on themselves and think they can do everything and some probably can. There are people that can do everything. I know what I’m good at and knowing who I am and that takes years of learning and knowing what I can do, what I can’t do is a big part of growing in business as a whole and anything I’m doing. So I think that’s probably the number one key for me.
SSR: Awesome. Cobi?
CL: Mine is very much about humility and hunger. I think you have any business, you have to constantly be vigilant and be hungry. But I think one thing that New York certainly teaches you, what I learned from Charles especially, was there was a moment with Charles when we were the hottest restaurant in New York for an hour and a half and you start to believe your own bullshit. You drink your own Koolaid and you really think that these days will never end and they end and suddenly like, “Oh wow.” And New York has that way of doing it to you. So there’s a part of me that is, I think that I’m driven by, I’m driven sort of half the time by this belief that I’m the greatest man alive and half the time I’m in total abject fear of the fact that I’m not nearly as good as I think I am. I think that you need to have that push and pull at all times where you drive to push forward, confident that you could get there but also remembering that there’s a lot of great people out there and you know what? You only as good as you’re last hit and you just got to keep going. And I have a good list of failures to remind me of that all the time.
SSR: Yeah, well you learn more from your failures than your successes, right?
CL: You should be learning from everything you do. You don’t need to fail to learn. You can certainly, but you do have to be present and you have to be thoughtful on a daily basis about constantly looking at yourself and your team and what you can be doing better. And we are certainly blessed to be in a place now where we have a great team, where we’re around great people, and every day feels like it’s been exciting and we are moving forward.
SSR: Awesome, awesome. Well thank you both for spending the last hour with me. Really appreciate it, love learning your stories and can’t wait to see the next opening.