Restaurateur Kevin Boehm and chef Stephanie Izard clearly get on very well, and seem to have a great understanding about how to get the best out of one another.
— Patrick Whyte
The partnership has since developed and two more restaurants followed (Little Goat and Duck Duck Goat). The two parties are about to take their business outside Chicago for the first time with a new opening in Los Angeles.
The key to such a fruitful working relationship, according to Boehm and Izard, is trust.
“We trust that we’re both having the best interest at heart for the restaurants we have,” Boehm said at Skift Restaurants Forum on Monday.
The working relationship will be tested in the coming months as Boehm and Izard prepare to open in Los Angeles next June. “We always wanted to do something outside Chicago at one point. We were looking for the perfect city, the perfect time,” Boehm said.
Izard said: “To make that big leap… had to feel just right, [it] had to be the right neighborhood.”
Boehm and Izard both have extensive experience in the Chicago market but Los Angeles will be totally different, especially because of the tightly regulated labor market. California has mandatory overtime pay and tips cannot be credited to employees’ wages.
“I always get excited about new projects but then remember you have to operate them for years to come,” Izard said.
“We’re all trying to learn these things at the same time.”
Boehm and Izard looked at a number of locations for their first opening outside of Chicago before settling on Los Angeles’ Arts District. “I think gut instinct plays a huge part after you have had some successes,” Boehm said.
He added that it was important to “show respect” to any new city.
“You’ve just got to go in and be humble and let your work speak for you,” he said.
[Updated with full transcript]
Full Transcript of Discussion With Izard and Boehm
Skift Table: Hello again. That you so much to Stephanie and Kevin for joining us. We’re very happy to have you.
Boehm: Happy to be here.
Skift Table: If you haven’t spent a lot of time in Chicago, you might not be familiar with all of the amazing Boka Group restaurants, so I highly recommend them.
Since becoming the first female Top Chef nearly a decade ago, Chef Stephanie Izard has also added the title Iron Chef to her biography. She currently runs three restaurants in Chicago, including Little Goat Diner, which I have to say is a Skift Table staff favorite. We were just there a couple months ago.
Boehm: For the record, don’t compete against Stephanie Izard on TV in a cooking competition. You will lose.
Skift Table: Kevin and his partner, Rob Katz, founded Boka almost 15 years ago. It’s about to turn 15?
Boehm: You know what, 17 years ago actually. Boka’s been open for 15, but it took us a while, so yeah.
Skift Table: Got it. You opened your first restaurant together eight years ago: Girl and the Goat. It was your first restaurant, Stephanie, and Boka’s fourth restaurant?
Boehm: That’s right, yeah.
Skift Table: Now Boka has 19 and you have three, Stephanie, in Chicago, with another on the way that I’ll talk about in a minute.
But I want to start by asking both of you what is different in the beginning of a partnership like yours, and after so many years of working together, how does the day to day change?
Izard: Do you want to go first?
Boehm: I’ll go first, sure.
Izard: Let’s hear what he says and I’ll comment on it.
Boehm: See if you agree with me or not. Well, first of all, going back to that time, I think it was probably 10 years ago when we started the journey of looking. Stephanie literally, she won on TV, and I think the next morning we met for coffee.
Izard: Yeah, I met Rob and Kevin at Boka after I had done well in the beginning of the season, but we hadn’t filmed the finale yet so I didn’t even know if I was going to win or not. I met them at Boka, and they’re both … I mean look at Kevin, very well dressed. These gentlemen who came over to the table, it was like, “Who are these guys?” They’re like, “Do you want to go have a drink next door.” And I was like, “Well, yes, I do.”
Boehm: That’s accurate.
Izard: So we all went next door and had a drink and that’s when the conversation got started. But I didn’t know if I wanted to be part of a restaurant group because I actually had owned my first, my own restaurant by myself prior to that for a few years. So I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do that or not. I kind of said, “No.” And then after I won, then I came back to you guys. I was like this would be a much smarter way to go.
Boehm: Yeah, so it’s interesting. The landscape at that point, and she won and so we kind of want to carry that momentum, but it actually took a while. It took …
Izard: It took two years.
Boehm: If you remember what happening at that point, the world was collapsing. We were trying to raise money, and back in those days we had four investors. Two of those investors worked at Bear Stearns. We had to go out, and this was a much bigger project. I remember the first 10 people that we asked to invest in Girl and the Goat said no. I run into a lot of those ten people these days. Girl and the Goat is one of the great restaurant investments of all time. So they come now, and they’re, “God I was an idiot!”
That point in time I think for Stephanie’s mindset and both mine, there was a tremendous amount of pressure on both of us. I think Stephanie was, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, was out to prove, yes I was on a reality show and I won it, but the foundation of me is, I’m a great chef. I’m not just somebody won a TV show. She was wanting to open to quickly erase that. Wen people came in and tasted her food, TV wouldn’t be the first line you’d see in her bio anymore. First line would be, Stephanie Izard, Chef/Owner of this restaurant.
For us, we were a young company, and it just felt like there was so much pre-press to the restaurant that there wasn’t a lot of room for error. We were like all pretty nervous.
Izard: This is a story that I always tell. Maybe I made it up in my head, but that you said to me, “We don’t want the headline in the newspaper to be ‘Top Chef?’ after we open.” I was like, “Well, I don’t want that to be either.”
To get back to your question of how it was then and how it is now, back then I remember the day that our first review came out. I was inside the restaurant reading and Kevin pulled up in his car really quickly, ran into the restaurant, we read it together and literally we were both crying. It was such a very well written … we had done it. When you get that first review and people actually get what you were going for …
Now it’s like our lives. Kevin has so … how many restaurants?
Izard: 19. And I’m busy enough with three, so I don’t know. I don’t understand this.
But I think that we both have so many different projects going on. We trusted each other very much then to be able to get into a relationship. Trusting your partners is the most important step in choosing partners. They always say its like you’re getting in bed with someone. It’s even beyond that.
I think that now our level of trust is just as strong, if not stronger, but in a different way. Where we trust that we’re both having best interest at heart for the restaurants that we have, without having to necessarily meet every day and talk about it. Even with new projects that we’re working on, we know that we both are working on them simultaneously. I think the trust level has to increase over time.
Skift Table: Trust is the foundation of a solid partnership?
Izard: I think so.
Boehm: I think it starts with that. I think one of the other things though, it’s much different than a romantic relationship. You know in a romantic relationship they say that opposites attract. It doesn’t work with business partnerships. You have to agree most of the time. I think a lot of times, when you put two people together and there’s someone who’s more on the creative side, and there’s someone who’s more on the business side, if anyone is too far to one side, that doesn’t work.
My goal as a restaurateur is to meet at this perfect intersection of financial responsibility and artistry. The way I started in this business was when I opened my first little six-table restaurant with my girlfriend 26 years ago, all I cared about was putting out a great product. I was 99 percent artist and one percent businessman.
I think these relationships only work when it’s not someone who’s too much of a businessman. That they still have to approach it from an artistry side too. I think that’s why we get along.
Skift Table: Your next project together is Girl and the Goat in Los Angles. Congratulations. It will open next summer.
Izard: Yeah, next June.
Skift Table: Great. That’s super exciting. It’s your first restaurant outside of Chicago, both of you?
Boehm: Not my first outside of Chicago. Four with Boka.
Skift Table: That was clearly a decision you made together, deciding to go to L.A. Who came to who with that idea?
Izard: Rob and Kevin and I get approached all the time about doing restaurants outside of Chicago. I might get approached about doing restaurants separately, with other groups and such. It was until Rob and Kevin found an idea that I think that they thought was a good fit and then brought it to me. We had actually gone to a couple of other markets and looked first and it just didn’t feel exactly right.
I think to make a leap, because we’re so hands on in the restaurants, that making that first step to going outside of the city had to feel just right and feel like the right neighborhood. It took us over a year to find the Girl and the Goat space in Chicago, so finding that right city was adding on another layer of it, just feeling like the right fit.
Boehm: We’ve looked at a lot of cities over the years. We always wanted to do something outside of Chicago, at some point. We were looking for perfect city, perfect time, and preferable somewhere warmer than Chicago.
Skift Table: I was going to ask about that. The proximity to …
Boehm: It was a small factor became more important as time went on.
Izard: My two-year old looks like he lives on the beach so I was like, we need to move him to California for at least part of the year.
Skift Table: Is that your plan then, to spend a significant amount of time?
Izard: Yeah. I never want the restaurants to feel like I’m abandoning them, and going to the beach, and being like, “going surfing.” But I also am not going to open a restaurant outside of the city and not spend a lot of time there. We’re looking at apartments right now, and we’ll definitely do a two-city thing. Hopefully it will make Ernie a better person for all of that. We’ll see.
Boehm: I think part of going to L.A., some it makes me feel like a little kid again because you’re going into a market that you don’t know. A lot of it will be me, and Steph and Rob going out there together, learning a new city together, kind of brings it back to the beginning, which I’m pretty excited about. When you go to another city I think it’s really important to show that city a lot of respect when you go in there. And learn the city before you start talking about it. Right now that’s just getting to know Los Angles and showing it it’s proper respect. I think we’re both going to be in L.A. a lot next year.
Skift Table: What does “proper respect” mean? Can you just elaborate on some of the specific things that you’re doing?
Boehm: Well, I’ll give you and example of how people have not done well in Chicago. If you go to a city, and you immediately say, “Hey, I’m going to show this town how to do Sushi.” People have done and said these kind of things before. I think you just got to go in, be humble, and let your work speak for you. Understand the culture. Get to know the people in the town. Go eat at other restaurants. Try to be part of the community before you start saying I’m awesome.
Skift Table: And what does it mean for a chef to become part of a new city, a new community?
Izard: It was important to me to go to a city where I do have a number of chef friends already. Through some of the TV things, I’ve met a lot of people all over the country. It is just a really close group of people that are happy to share where do they get their meats from.
How do I connect with the farmer’s market there, which is so huge in California. Where do we get our linens from? How do you decide how much you’re going to pay your cooks here? So I think that luckily the chef friends that I have there, I’ve already reached out. I’m going to take them all to their favorite restaurant there so I can get to know more restaurants there, and dig out as much info from them as possible. Give them some drinks and see what they’ll share.
I think it’s really important to have a support staff, because in Chicago right now, if I run out of onions one day, I can text Paul Kahan, down the street, in his restaurant, and go borrow some onions. I need to have that feeling of support in another city, so I don’t feel like this little scapegoat. Oh, scape “goat” ….
Boehm: Hey …
Izard: Goats everywhere.
Boehm: But you’re right. We will be on a little bit of an island. It’s hard to go that far away. There’s 19 Boka Group restaurants in Chicago, and there’s only one of these in Los Angles. It’ll be interesting.
Skift Table: How is your process for opening the new restaurant different than opening your first restaurant together. I heard you a little bit in the green room talking serious logistics. California is a very different labor market than Chicago, just because of laws and regulations and things that are different.
I’m sure that it feels a little bit nostalgic to open a brand new place in a brand new city, as you did 10 years ago, or eight years ago. But how’s it different than the first time?
Izard: I mean I think every time you open a restaurant, I think the reason that now so many people do open multiples, is there is this huge excitement in trying to find out all these things and solve all these problems. I always get excited about new projects, then I forget that then you have to actually operate that for many years to come. It’s not just the excitement of, “Yes! We did a new restaurant.” You have to figure out how the longevity is going to be there.
Kevin and Rob are still learning some of the things that they’re going to share with me on numbers and how it works in California. Whereas when we open in Chicago, they already had restaurants there and I had had my own restaurant there, so we understood the lay of the land. So that’s the biggest part of it. We’re all trying to learn these things at the same time, rather than me just strictly learning just from you guys. You’re still learning too.
Boehm: The really good news is over the course of being in Chicago for 17 years, we’ve built a ton of infrastructure. After we opened up Girl and the Goat, we opened up seven restaurants in three years, and our corporate office three people. I remember at the end of that process, right before we opened up Little Goat I was, basically, I was right on the edge of having a nervous breakdown. I remember putting my hands on Rob’s shoulders and saying, “What are we doing to ourselves?”
Since then, now the corporate team is about 40 people. So, we have this incredible infrastructure. We’ve understood the model. We understand Chicago so well and we said, “I’ve got a great idea. Let’s go someplace where we completely don’t understand, that has totally different labor laws and start over again.” That’s basically what’s happening because who has the hardest labor laws in the entire country? California.
There’s no tip credit out there, which means instead of servers making $5.95 an hour like they do in Chicago, they make $16.25 an hour. Overtime is compiled daily. If you work more than eight hours, then overtime. So there’s all these tricky little laws that you have to navigate, and we obviously love a challenge, so we’re like, “Great. Bring it on. Let’s do it.”
It’s going to be interesting. I think we have a lot more infrastructure so I think we can execute a plan faster. We have this critical path that is the 750 things you have to do to open up a restaurant. We go down this list, very systematically, and assign those to people …
Izard: Would you say our meeting was systematic going through that list? When we had our first meeting we had this list in front of us, and two of us started talking about this part of the list, and the other two people are excited to talk about the other part of the list, and then we’re like, all right, “Where are we on this list? Are we on number 630? Okay lets all get back together.”
Everybody has their different parts that they’re so excited to start exploring and solving these problems, which is great because you have to divide and concur a little bit while still being on the same team.
Boehm: That’s right.
Skift Table: Is it really 750 points?
Boehm: It’s something like that, yeah.
Izard: I got lost after 680 I think.
Skift Table: That’s a long way to make it.
Boehm: It’s very granular. So the smallest of things to open up a restaurant, but …
Izard: What forks are we going to have?
Boehm: Yes. That’s right
Izard: Which is the best part is picking out all that stuff.
Skift Table: It’s your favorite?
Izard: Yes. It’s so fun. I love picking out the flatware and the plates and all that stuff. We’ve learned from Girl and the Goat that where we break way too many plates every month from the hustle and bustle, that those decisions have a huge impact. Every little decision. Everyone of those 700 points makes a huge impact.
Boehm: Certain chefs have worse china addictions than others.
Izard: Lucky for you I don’t usually go very expensive.
Boehm: It’s not Stephanie. It’s not Stephanie. I wish I could say the same for Lee Wolen and Jimmy Papadopoulos.
Skift Table: I was going to ask you to name names, so thanks for volunteering that. Your restaurant’s been open for eight years, as I’ve said. Do you change the plates and the flatware. How often do have to change something like that?
Izard: We’ve actually had the same flatware the whole time. I feel like we should an update. But when you look at the P&L [profit and loss statement] and you think, all right now we’re going to get all new flatware for this restaurant that does X number … like how much flatware that is. Well, this stuff is great.
Boehm: That question just cost us like $10,000.00. Thanks a lot.
Izard: Yeah, I’ve implanted that in my head. I’m …
Boehm: We should change the flatware. That’s a great idea Kristen.
Izard: I think that Girl and the Goat, the way that it’s set up it’s not precious in the plates style. It’s all sort of a hodge-podge so we can kind of change our mind every week and be like, “Lets try these.” It just fits into the mold. That’s sort of the fun of having a restaurant that’s a little bit more fine dining, but is definitely still casual and kind of eclectic, so we can just do whatever we want with the plates.
Boehm: One of Stephanie’s special skills is that she never gets complacent about anything and she really loves change. She’s constantly trying to improve on things in the restaurants, which is one of the reasons, and we were saying this back stage, Girl and the Goat has gone up in sales every year for eight straight years. This is a restaurant that, the day that it opened was booked three months in advance, and it’s been that way the whole time.
I think a lot of that is because Steph, A. never rests on here laurels but B. she’s also the hardest working girl in show business. If you ever go to Chicago sometime and drive around the West Loop, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to see her with something over her head walking across the street like Frogger, to try to get from Girl and the Goat to Little Goat, which has gotten harder over the years.
Izard: It has gotten harder. There’s too much traffic there now, it’s very dangerous.
Skift Table: Careful.
You’re both obviously very down to earth people. You have a great working relationship, but you’re also two pretty big names in your field. You both have a lot of responsibility. I’m curious how that, I guess we’ll call it, ego management works when you’re collaborating on a new project with so much external responsibility for all the other projects that you each have going on. Hw do you find the time for each other and for your combined projects, and still honor your external responsibilities?
Boehm: You know what, Steph, I would say that when her and I have to sit down and talk about something, when we’ve not been able to navigate it through other channels, it’s something that’s really important. I think what’s changed is that spirited conversations are fine. I have a lot of spirited conversations, some people might call them arguments, with people sitting at a table because we take this so seriously. I think when we were first opening up the restaurant, because we were feeling that pressure, sometimes we would sit at a table and the conversations would get really spirited.
I think we still have that same sort of emotion and passion, but I think we can sit across from each other now and navigate our way through our problem in a much more meated sense, don’t you think?
Izard: When we opened Girl and the Goat, I remember the walk-in was broken down one day, and I screamed, I was like, “You expect me to have one of the most successful restaurants in Chicago, I can’t have an F-ing walk-in that works!” I was like freaking out. I can definitely remember that day.
Boehm: Yes. How was I … did I yell back?
Izard: No, you’re like, “We’ll get it fixed. It’ll be great.” No, just kidding. I will say, sometimes when you call I think to myself, “Oh God, did I do something? I don’t know if I did something.” But nowadays it’s usually … it’s always positive.
I think I’ve learned over the years, and I feel like you might have said something to me once that made me think, you have to choose your battles and the things that you’re really going to push for. If we’re going L.A. and they really want this specific glass for this specific drink, and I just don’t like that glass, am I going to pick that?
I’d rather win the war over the plates than over this one glass, so just choosing which part. We’re doing the design process right now, I brought up the one thing: We just need more bathrooms and luckily we were all on the same page. But the designer was like, “There’s no room for more bathrooms.” We’re like, “I really don’t want to have a line. There has to be more than three women’s bathrooms.”
Boehm: Yes. Let’s annex more space.
Izard: Yeah. So I think we’re happily we’re more on the same side of the argument more often than not. But also, II try my best to think about it a little bit more before getting heated and just think, what is the most important thing to really push for? What’s really going to make me more proud of the restaurant or really the way that I want it to be? Choose my battles and then just try not to make it a fun conversation as opposed to losing it.
Boehm: Rob and I had one rule when we started our partnership. We sat down 17 years ago and said, “Nobody ever digs their heals in.” We can give a spirited argument for what you want. You could say, “I really appreciate if you let me have this one, I’ll let you have the next one.” But it’s never line in the sand, this is what we’re doing or else. We’ve never had that conversation. I think that’s the key to longevity.
Skift Table: I’m going to go to a couple of audience questions. I like this one because we were just talking about this. What is the story behind the Girl and the Goat’s name?
Izard: So my last name in French is E-zard, and it’s a mountain goat that lives in the Pyrenees mountains. I found that out just a few years before we opened Girl and the Goat. My first restaurant was called Scylla, and nobody pronounced it right, and it turned out it was this super evil sea monster that the word is synonymous with “bitch,” which I had no idea. So, when I found out my last name was a type of good, I was like what a fun name that would be, and everybody can pronounce goat, I hope.
Originally it was going to be the Drunken Goat, because back in my early 30s I still acted like I was in my 20s, and I kind of was the drunken goat. Then the woman that owns the Drunken Goat Cheese, at first she was like, “Oh that’s cool.” And then her lawyers were like, “That’s not cool.” I don’t know what other word to describe myself. How we going to call it the blank goat?
A friend of mine did a painting. Now there’s a bigger version in the dining room. The smaller one’s in our underground Goat, which is our private dining room. But, of a girl and a goat and these dancing beer cans. Eventually, after we saw that painting for a while it was like, “What about Girl and the Goat?”
Sometimes we still get deliveries from certain fish companies where it says “girl on the goat.” That’s a completely different concept. I don’t know if we’re going to go there.
Boehm: There’s a long thread of tacks between Stephanie … I could probably find them from way back when to where every morning we were all waking up, because we couldn’t use the Drunken Goat, it would be like, “Toasted Goat?”
Skift Table: In choosing where to land, new city, new culinary, new design risk, how much does gut instinct play a part?
Boehm: I think gut instinct plays a huge part after you have actually had some successes. I think you question yourself to death when you start out in this business. I think once you start trusting your gut, which I think we’re both pretty good at this point, if it just feels right or it doesn’t feel right.
I went to a couple cities when we were looking at other cities, and to me there just wasn’t enough of a culture of hospitality in those cities. I think that was just a gut instinct thing where I felt, I don’t think hospitality is valued enough in X city for us to go there.
Los Angles, in the last five, six, seven years has had a huge proliferation of great chefs, great restaurants opening up, and it just feels good there right now. I think it was a gut thing.
Izard: I’ve always just gone with my gut, and I think it was since getting with Rob and Kevin, that I learned that you should actually think about things and look at the finances first.
When we were looking for restaurant spaces, I remember we looked at one in Logan, and I was like, “I love it. Let’s do it. This is great.” Then Rob’s like, “Maybe we should ask about the electric and see if it has enough to actually sustain a restaurant. I was like, “Oh yeah, okay, good questions.”
I’ve always just gone a little bit more of a gut instinct in life in general and luckily these guys are a little bit smarter to trust that but also look into it a little more.
Skift Table: It sounds like a great partnership. I mean, it must be behind a lot of the success I would say, is one person being able to think and anticipate what the other person might not necessarily see.
All right. Last question. How will you maintain the culture of what makes you great in Chicago when you open in Los Angles?
Boehm: We train a little bit differently, I think than most people do. One of my favorite things that we do is we do mock service for a week. We do a table. The table … usually sitting at that table is myself, Stephanie, maybe the GM, Director of Operations sitting at a table.
Every single person in the front of the house has to get up and wait on us in their theater voice, while everybody sits around and wait on us. This goes on for a week. We build the language of the restaurant, and the culture of the restaurant and no, don’t say signature, that’s stupid. That sounds like Applebee’s. Whatever. All those little things.
In that training, which is about 30 days, we’re going to approach it in L.A. the same way we approached it in Chicago. I think we spend enough time with those people, eight hours a day for 30 days, to figure out who they are. So, when we open we’ve got the right people around us. To me, hiring is not about technical skill, it’s about do I like you and do I think you’re smart.
I do weird interviews. Stephanie will tell you. I’ll be like, “Hey, what did you have for breakfast today, Winston?” And he’ll be like, “Oatmeal.” I’m like, “Well did you make it? Did you buy it somewhere? I just want to have a conversation with somebody and say, “Hey can you keep up with me?” Through that conversation, who are you? Are you charming? Are you smart? How are you going to be with someone? All the other stuff, I can teach you how to hold a plate, but I can’t teach you how to be a good person.
We’re going to look for great people who are passionate about what we do, and we’re going to believe in our own teaching skill. We’re going to try to build a team up that what’s to jump in a foxhole with us, because that the mentality when you open up a restaurant. This is going to be really difficult.
I tell a speech at the opening of all the restaurants, I’m like, “This is going to be really hard. If you’re looking for the easy road, it’s a whole bunch of restaurants that you can make a whole lot of money at down the street. This is the hard road. But I promise you on the other side of it, they’ll be redemption and they’ll be greatness and you’ll appreciate it.”
We lose people throughout that, because they don’t want that. There’s attrition with that. But the people that stick around, are the people that we want to go into battle with. I think that’s how we find a culture.
Izard: I think in the kitchen side of things, and the front of the house, I think bringing some people from Chicago, but then finding great people in L.A. that are going to teach us the ways of L.A. is going to be key. I have a few members of the team in Chicago that already want to — I mean, who doesn’t want to move to L.A. and get the sunshine? They’re really excited about becoming a part of the team. But if we brought all Chicago there, then we just wouldn’t fit in. We wouldn’t be able to figure it out.
We have to have this nice marriage of L.A. based folks and Chicago based folks so that we can all learn from each other and have all the L.A. managers, and even some of maybe even a small portion of the cooks come out to Chicago and spend a few months, and see what’s happened in Chicago and how Girl and the Goat works. Then they can come back and say “I don’t know if that’s going to work in L.A.” That way when we’re all in L.A. together we can reference things that we’ve done in the past and all have an understanding of it.
Skift Table: Thank you so much, both of you for being here.
Izard: Thank you.
Boehm: Thank you.