CAMBRIDGE -- Harvard Business School students got a lesson in empire building last week, when three nationally known New York-based restaurateurs talked about the philosophy, commitment, and money it takes to turn a chef into a ''brand."
At a panel discussion sponsored by the online magazine StarChefs, Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich, and Drew Nieporent told about 150 students and industry representatives that the crucial ingredients for such success are integrity, creativity, and, of course, savvy business decisions. The panel, called ''The Branding of a Chef," was part of the New England Foodservice and Lodging Exposition and Convention.
''Have a philosophy that is admired, beyond just making money," said Bastianich, whose restaurants include Felidia and Becco in New York and Lidia's in Pittsburgh and Kansas City. ''You are all business majors, but you need to think about how you can give space for artisanship to develop, and only then to channel it into making money."
When it comes to business sensibility, she said, ''if you do not have that strength, you surround yourself with people who do."
Nieporent, whose Myriad Restaurant Group includes Manhattan's Nobu, Tribeca Grill, and Montrachet, likened such team building to choosing actors for a film, a fitting metaphor for someone who has partnered with Robert De Niro. ''When you cast a restaurant, what's the most important role?" he asked. ''If you think it's you, and you're not a chef, you've got a big ego but nothing else."
Nieporent should know. In 1985, he hired David Bouley to run the kitchen at Montrachet, which Nieporent opened for $150,000. ''Within seven weeks, we got three out of four stars from The New York Times," he said, while charging only $16 for dinner. ''That's like winning the lottery without getting any cash."
The panelists' monetary disclosures prompted the biggest applause. Batali told of opening Po in 1993 for $30,000, an investment that brought annual sales of $2 million to the 35-seat restaurant within three years. He said some of his restaurants, which he owns with Lidia's son, Joseph, approach a 25 percent profit margin. Bastianich volunteered fewer specifics about the income side but said her first restaurant, the 37-seat Felidia, cost $67,000 to open in Queens in 1971. It doubled in size within a few years, and tripled within a few more.
When Nieporent partnered with De Niro and chef Nobu Matsuhisa to open the first Nobu in the ''low rent, high return" TriBeCa in 1994, the space cost $5,000 a month. Last year, the restaurant did $17 million in business. ''You're going to go crazy about this next figure, but my rent is only 0.85 percent of my gross sales," he said, grinning. ''No tablecloths, no butter, no silverware. That's the way you make money in the restaurant business."
When he said that his philosophy at Nobu was to ''tear down the facade and create a place where all of New York could get in," Batali interrupted him.
''Wait a minute. Nobu doesn't let anybody in," said Batali, whose restaurants include Babbo, Lupa, and Esca.
''Well, that's a reservation thing," Nieporent replied, smiling.
The panelists' empires also include cookbooks, merchandise, and, in the case of Batali and Bastianich, TV shows. The restaurants are the biggest moneymakers, they said, but Batali and Bastianich praised the ability of television to drive customers to their other ventures. And they gave entertainingly different accounts of the finances involved in their respective TV shows.
Bastianich says ''Lidia's Family Table," her new PBS series that premieres locally on April 30, rang up $1 million in production costs, which she covered through sponsors. Each of the 26 28-minute shows required six hours of filming and a staff of 40. ''It doesn't directly make money, but it gives you tremendous exposure, credibility, and it drives people to your restaurants, and it sells books," she said.
''The PBS shows have a much higher production value," Batali said. At the Food Network, each 22-minute segment costs $5,000 and takes 45 minutes and a handful of staff to make. Bastianich's own production company sold the series to PBS, while Batali is paid a fee by the Food Network.
Antoinette Bruno, the CEO of StarChefs.com and a graduate of HBS, asked the restaurateurs how they would look upon a job applicant with a Harvard MBA. The pedigree is impressive, panelists agreed, but anyone would still need to learn the field, and to be willing to do anything the lowest-paid employee does. ''If you want to run a bakery, you need to learn how to bake bread," Batali said. ''An MBA is not the shoehorn into upper management in any field."
The message left a mixed impression among students. After all, most restaurateurs do not enjoy the level of success of the star-studded panel, and the failure rate is notoriously high. Tracey Thomm, a second-year student who comes from a family of Chinese chefs in Toronto, said after the panel that she thinks she would go into the business only ''if I had a lot of money to lose. Given the investment we've made in our education so far, I don't know that it makes sense to go into something that would require so much more investment."
Suchit Majmudar, after posing for photos with Batali, said he was happy to hear from people ''at the absolute top of their profession." He's considering pursuing a restaurant career, possibly by opening a ''high-end ethnic" place in his hometown of Chicago, said Majmudar, a first-year student. ''If you really want it, you'll do what you have to do -- wait tables, whatever, even if you're just out of Harvard."
Joe Yonan can be reached at email@example.com.