Craig Samuel and Ben Grossman are well on their way to becoming restaurant moguls. The pair has launched a handful of eateries, including Peaches, The Hothouse, The Smoke Joint, Marietta’s, and Little Brother BBQ. And in the process, they have been bringing Southern food to Brooklyn, New York, since 2006, with such seasonal items as Watermelon Salad, Fried Green Tomatoes, Fresh Peach Cobbler along with Black Eyed Pea and Kale Soup, 12-hour Smoked Beef Short Ribs, and Caramelized Pear Upside-Down Cake which have become local favorites.
Samuel, who hails originally from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, honed his chef skills in Manhattan before venturing out on his own.
Samuel tells TNJ his story.
TNJ: How did you first get into the restaurant business?
Craig Samuel: I started in the restaurant business more than two decades ago in Philadelphia as a cook in fine French restaurants. I worked at Le Bec Fin, at the time listed as one of the world’s 20 best restaurants. I then came back to my hometown of New York and worked at Le Perigordon the Upper East Side and Picholine on the Upper West Side. I later became the Executive Chef of Cub Room in Soho and City Hall Restaurant in Tribeca. In 2001, I traveled to France and Spain and had the great opportunity to work a stage in the two Michelin shows starring Michel Rostang in Paris and L’Esguard outside of Barcelona.
TNJ: How many restaurants do you and your partner have?
CS: My partner and I own four restaurants. The Smoke Joint, Peaches, Peaches HotHouse, and Marietta. We also operate a full-service catering and events company, Peaches Events.
TNJ: How did you meet your partner?
CS: In 1997, I was working at Picholine Restaurant as the Executive Sous Chef when a serious and dedicated cook came in. The way he worked in the kitchen reminded me of myself as a young cook and we became fast friends. We worked together there for two years and we went our separate ways. Two years later, we worked together again at a restaurant in Soho and then at another in Tribeca, before opening our first restaurant, The Smoke Joint.
TNJ: Why restaurants, since it is a tough industry?
CS: I chose the restaurant business before I was aware about its reputation as a “tough industry.” I had loved cooking since I was a child helping my mother with Sunday dinner–picking peas, rolling biscuits, cutting onions, and stirring the rice and peas. As a child, I would eagerly watch cooking shows on PBS, from Jeff Smith and Julia Childs all the way up to Great Chefs while I was in college. I took a part-time job in a gourmet food store while at Temple University and while there I first saw the heat and energy of the kitchen. I was immediately hooked and a year later I enrolled at The Restaurant School (now Walnut Hill College).
TNJ: How did you fund the startup of your first restaurant?
CS: Our first restaurant was fully self-funded. I purchased a vacant city lot directly behind my house at a city auction approximately a year before The Smoke Joint space became available. I had planned to hold it for years, but when the storefront of my dreams became available I immediately knew that the term location, location, location was true. This was during the real estate boom in Brooklyn and I sold the plot of land one year later for six times what I paid for it. At the same time, my partner took out a home equity line of credit to cover his half of the start-up expenses. We were able to pay ourselves back in two years, and have never had to take out a business loan or deal with outside investors for any of our ventures. We own 100 percent of our business and have never been in credit or loan debt. We have used the profits from each restaurant to fund the next.
TNJ: How do you juggle it all?
CS: Juggling five businesses would be impossible without a strong leadership team. We have a financial controller who provides us with corporate data very swiftly so that by the end of the week we can spot issues in the health of the company. We offer profit sharing to our general managers, which links the success of the restaurant that they oversee to their own financial success; the better the business does, the better they do. We try not to micro-manage, but I can’t say that we are always successful with that.
TNJ: Goals for this year?
CS: This year, we are recasting one of our current concepts as a growth brand. Not top secret, but a work in progress. This is both my goal for the year and the foundation of my long term goals. My longest term goal is to enjoy my golden years on an island paradise.
TNJ: What do you like most about what you do?
CS: My favorite thing about what I do is when I am able to connect with an employee who chose to work at one of our restaurants; it demonstrate the career opportunities in this industry. We have launched the careers of many people who were just trying to make a couple of dollars after school or on weekends, who are now in executive positions in the industry, or owners themselves.