Ever since Spike Mendelsohn appeared on the fourth season of Top Chef in 2008, he’s been raking in win after win. But long before he became a popular food media personality, he was spending his childhood days among the French bistros of Montreal and Paris, learning all about the business of restaurants and hospitality from his parents. Today, he and his family own several popular Washington D.C. spots — Good Stuff Eatery, Béarnaise and We, The Pizza.
Each is expanding across the nation and overseas. He’s also an active member of his community and currently serves as Chairman of the D.C. Food Policy Council, Chef Ambassador to CARE International and Chef Contributor to D.C. Central Kitchen. The amiable chef makes regular TV appearances and counts the Obamas as regulars (FLOTUS even has a burger named after her, the “Michelle Melt”). We caught up with him recently on how restaurateurs can best market their businesses and one of the biggest changes he’d like to see in the industry.
What about your childhood inspired you to pursue a life of cooking?
The biggest thing was being involved, having free range to take the holidays you want, the family trips you want to do. I mean, it does come at a price. You work many hours, most holidays. But food was always this magical thing, that one time of day when we all sat down to have a meal. And that was real special.
Many restaurants are closing due to rising operational costs. From a business perspective, what are some of the things you think people should be considering in order to develop a restaurant concept that will succeed?
Keeping an eye out for an opportunity to fill a need is always good. My family and I were inspired by the lack of food in the Capitol Hill area. My sister had been living here for years before we actually opened anything. We knew that there was very little for food, that it was slim pickings. There was one Greek taverna and one Italian restaurant and a card shop named PULP. But that was really it. So when PULP was up for rent, my sister flagged it and said, “We do something there?” Right around then, I had just gotten off of Top Chef. She saw the neighborhood and the opportunity, and it just kind of happened. Once we had our first success, then we really started building concepts that revolved around the idea of what would work in this neighborhood, another void that needed filling. It was obvious: pizza was second to burgers.
You studied at the Culinary Institute of America, but it seems like a lot of people are learning on the job these days, picking up skills by working in restaurant kitchens and then eventually becoming chefs. How important do you think formal training is today?
Formal training did a lot for my future, because it is something I was able to build upon. It gives you the basic skills to be a chef in any type of cuisine, whereas a lot of on-the-job training is really specific to that restaurant. You’ll learn the basic like knife skills, how to handle yourself in a kitchen etc, but cuisines are really different. And culinary school taught me a lot of different cuisines with the basic and most popular being French technique. At the same time, culinary school is not for everybody, some people can’t afford it. At the end of the day, it’s really what you put into it. The passion, working hard — those things will repay you dividends, big time.
How big of an influence did being on Top Chef have on your career and the success of your restaurants?
Well, being on Top Chef kind of made my career. So there’s no question about that. The opportunity brought me national attention and many other opportunities followed because of that. After a while though it wears off and you go back to being a regular chef, running your restaurants. Ultimately, it’s about the product that you serve at your restaurant. You can garner press in a lot of different ways, whether it’s going on TV or winning a competition. But then it’s all about what your restaurant does afterward — the hospitality, how you take care of people.
In terms of marketing, if people don’t have big PR opportunities — like TV appearances or interviews in big magazines — what’s the best thing they can do to promote their restaurant and get people to discover it?
First: I’ve never paid for one dollar of PR. I’ve never hired a PR company like a lot of other restaurants. But I was very lucky, because I had a platform to do a lot of marketing. For those that don’t have that platform, the most honest and most successful way of generating PR for your restaurant is really old school tactics — staying local. Get involved with a couple things that are happening in your neighborhood — gardens that relate to sourcing food, local schools where you can do demos and where parents can see you and then come to your restaurant. All that grassroots kind of PR chefs can really just do themselves, especially now that there are huge platforms for food advocacy. Doing the right thing, practicing the right way of farming, sourcing local ingredients, and working extra hard to feed off of that effort can drive a lot of attention to chefs and to restaurants.
How influential do you think social media is in driving foot traffic to your restaurants?
I think it’s all relative to the type of person you are and what you’re striving to do. Last night I went to an amazing restaurant in NYC. I’d never heard about it before last night. They have no Twitter, no social media, no handles. When I walked in the chef was sitting at the bar eating a pork shop. He took care of us, gave us the most unbelievable meal and had no clue who the hell we were (I was there with a couple other big chefs). It’s a father-son-and-mother operation. They’ve been open for 15 years, and they were packed. So it just depends. If you’re a young, active chef — especially with all the fast-casual and QSRs [quick service restaurants] coming out these days. Those rely a lot on social media, because people are very excited to see what they post there. It takes time and money to actually do it right, so if you are dedicated to social media, you’re going to have put dollars toward it to do it properly. Nowadays, you can’t really get away with just doing it every once in awhile, you need someone doing it throughout the day. The whole point of it is that there’s instant interaction between guests and restaurants, a lot of back and forth. So it’s a full-time job.
If you could change one thing about the restaurant industry, what would it be?
Most restaurateurs lease spaces from landlords, and landlords seem to pass the buck on a lot of things that are in restaurants. So I would make landlords a little more responsible for the expenses that go into running a small business in a location that they’re just collecting rent on. It costs us a lot to run a small business, and a lot of times we’re stuck making improvements on someone else’s building. But when our lease ends, there’s actually no value to us. So systematically, there’s a problem the way it’s all set up.