Bring on the Airports: Unapologetically Expanding an Empire

Bring on the Airports: Unapologetically Expanding an Empire

And maintaining the soul of a spot as it multiplies.

March 22, 2016

By Richie Nakano | Photo by Blake Smith for ChefsFeed



BJ Smith is a twenty-year kitchen vet, and one of the most respected chefs in Portland. 


He's also a fucking madman, and happens to be one of my best friends. We've traveled all over North America cooking together, advised each other, and he once made me laugh so hard I puked on the sidewalk. He recently signed a lease on his third restaurant, the biggest and most ambitious to date. I sat down with him to find out why.


Why expand? Why not just be happy with just one restaurant?

I think if you're going to have one restaurant it needs to speak to you and your passion. It has to be something that you want to dedicate your time to stand there for 18 hours a day, which I did for a long time. Expanding your brand is kind of the 180 of that, right? It's very rewarding on some levels. You get to be really creative.

What’s the end goal for you?

Hopefully I'm doing something that I feel as passionate about. Instead of spending 18 or 16 hours a day in the same space, you can spread that time out to multiple spaces and hopefully make a lot of people happy. Something that's more fueled by making the masses happy...[which] then hopefully turns into dollars.

You get to feed more people, basically.

Yeah, but how do I answer that question in a real way without sounding like a dick? The real answer is ego-fueled food doesn't translate to dollars in your pocket. We're all getting older and we want to make some money. Retirement becomes a real thing, and maybe you want to have a family you can support. Unfortunately, tasting menu restaurants, a lot of times they won't support you. Hopefully expanding your brand does.

Right.

If I were to have one little restaurant like Smokehouse 21, that wouldn't fulfill me as a chef. That's not the thing that the end of the day that would keep me motivated and keep me happy and make me feel like I'm pushing. If I have like five or six of these little restaurants that might not push me necessarily in the culinary level, it pushes me as a business owner. Now that's my challenge, instead of constantly pushing to be new and progressive.

What scares you about expanding your brand? 

I think the biggest thing is how do you keep not only your food consistent, but feeling like your soul is a part of the restaurant. We all know those restaurants we walk into and have that feeling of, who's in charge, who's the soul of this place, what makes this place tick? If that doesn't exist, the restaurant does very poorly. That’s my biggest fear. As you expand, stretching yourself so thin over multiple locations, how do you know you're eating Chef BJ's food? That's the really hard part.

Right. How do you maintain the quality and how do you maintain the brand across multiple locations? Is the answer to that just people?

The answer is people of course, and then also time. But in terms of people, you can't identify someone that is worth putting everything into in the first couple of weeks. Luckily with my first location, I had a person who was with me for a long time. It was a no-brainer. I just put him in there. Then I'll be taking a person from my second location to open the third location, like a sourdough starter. Hopefully that chain just keeps going.

That's a very good analogy.

You are using your previous business as your starter for your next business.

It gets more and more sour and gross. I get you.

Oh please. It gets more and more rich and will blossom. That's the hope that each place, you have the person that stays with you long enough to really understand your vision.

Aside from opening a new location, what are other ways to expand your business? What advice would you give someone looking to expand?

The best advice I could give someone is pay attention to what people are asking for.

Listen to the customer.

Listen to everyone, not just the customer. Listen to your meat guy, listen to the produce guy, listen to the farmers, listen to your fellow chefs. If you're involved with your community where you live, you know what your community is looking for, you know which restaurants are busy, you know what people are buying, you know what's lacking. Listen, and give people what they want. Don't let your ego get in the way.

Stepping away from creating and moving into more of the administrative role, being the restaurateur and the boss...does that bother you at all?

No. Yes. The short answer is yes. It bothers me but I don't understand why. I think it's because I'm not standing on the line for 14 hours a day cooking. I have this weird guilt because for 20 years I did that; it makes me feel like I'm a slacker. I still work insane hours. The food is very important to me and I have lost some connection with that. So yeah. It's hard.

You're going to Vancouver, Washington to open your next restaurant. Do you think the future is in the smaller markets, rather than major cities?

I don't think it's the future, but I do think it's absolutely necessary. We've seen a bunch of people open their own restaurants. Then, the people that worked for them opened their own restaurants. Then we opened our own restaurants, and then the people that work for us are now opening their own restaurants. These markets are saturated with people that are very talented.

When you and I got ahead back then, it was because you and I were the ones that went home and read cookbooks and tried learning new techniques on our days off, stopping at other restaurants on our vacations — but now that's the norm. That's no longer something that's impressive. It's expected. 

Do you worry that these smaller markets won't be able to sustain the level of business that you need?

I don't, I don't. It's more a fear of mine to be in the big city. I think in these smaller markets, the best place in town is actually going to the busiest. There's so few places to choose from. If you're giving people just as good a product as the guy down the street at the same price point, you're going to be busy. Maybe your media hype and your TV and your James Beard Awards won't matter as much in these small markets.

Right.

Because these people know you're there. If they're going to choose you or the guy down the street...in a roundabout way, I guess I'm saying they're going to keep us more honest. If you're in these small markets, if you're giving people a really good product that's affordable and a price point that seems worth the product you're giving them, then you're doing better by leaps and bounds better than you would in the city, because you're not going to get lost in the hype. They know they can go there for a good quality drink, meal, experience and maybe they'll come see you two, three times a week.

Is barbecue is going to be the final frontier for you or do you ever think about opening something else?

This whole thing started at Smokehouse 21 because I had very little money to open a restaurant. I looked at it and was like, I could put a smoker outside and I could do barbecue here, or, I could put a fish case in the restaurant and I could do sushi. I knew very little about either, but whatever I get into, I obsess about it and make sure it's good. Now, less than five years later, I'm opening my third restaurant, but barbecue is not necessarily my life's passion. Barbecue's a business decision that turned into a love affair. It's definitely not the last thing I'll do as a chef.

In a perfect world, with limitless time and energy and resources you could pour into something, how far and wide would you expand Smokehouse? Would you fucking put it in Dubai and in airports? How far would you take it?

Yeah, I can be totally honest, that's a great question, something I've been thinking about. If I could turn the Smokehouse brand — and we already have three versions of the business — if I could turn it into something that was in airports and like, downtown Chicago, I would absolutely jump at the chance to do that. If I could have 50 of these stores in the variations, I would love to do that.

If you had to pick one factor that you view as most important in terms of expanding successfully?

It's definitely the people. People say this kind of shit all the time, but I very literally could not do it without this core team that I have. If one of them was gone, it would be a huge missing piece. It's all about people and you've got to treat them well. Make them feel appreciated and give people ownership. You can't do it by yourself, and you can't get greedy.