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Lessons from 20 years in the New York restaurant and bar scene

As a 20-year veteran of the Manhattan restaurant and bar scene, Darin Rubell has seen it all, from the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks to the financial crisis of 2008 to the current Coronavirus pandemic. Throughout it all, in one of the world’s most competitive hospitality markets, he managed to start not one or two, but eight establishments including Drexler’s, Pretty Ricky’s, and Boulton & Watt.

Darin Rubell

In episode two of the Full Comp podcast, Darin talks with host Josh Kopel about how he got started in the industry and what he’s learned. The two restaurateurs discuss what makes Darin’s restaurants and bars stand out and the importance of doing what you love.

They also talk about the future of the restaurant industry, including what Darin recommends restaurants do right now to get through and what it is about restaurant workers that makes them uniquely suited to claw their way back from the crisis created by the pandemic (hint: it involves vampires). 

Listen to the episode two below, or listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.

Ready for more? Check out more episodes of Full Comp:

Episode 1: Building a Restaurant Empire in a Recession: Tender Greens’ Erik Oberholtzer

Episode 3: Redefining Cocktail Culture: Death & Co’s Alex Day

Episode 4: The Art of the Pivot: Iron Chef Eric Greenfield

Episode 14: The Benefits of Community Building: Chef Nina Compton, Chef/Owner of Compère Lapin

Episode 26: The Future of Restaurants: Dean Alex Susskind, Cornell University


Full Comp, episode 2 transcript
Creating Opportunity from Tragedy: Serial Restaurateur Darin Rubell

[Josh Kopel]
Today’s episode is brought to you by Yelp, whose mission is to connect people with great local businesses. They’re also helping me connect with you, which is totally awesome. Now here. We. Go.

[Darin Rubell]
We are as a whole entire industry, the most crafty—street smart. Like, give me a penny, and I’ll make it a dollar. You know what I mean? We all can do it.

[Josh Kopel]
Welcome to Full Comp, the show offering insight into the future of the hospitality industry featuring restaurateurs, thought leaders, and innovators served up on the house.

I’m Josh Kopel. And on today’s show Darin Rubell shares how 9/11 inspired his return to hospitality, and how this global pandemic can spark a renaissance within our industry.

[Darin Rubell]
Hospitality for me has always been a means to an end. I didn’t grow up with a family with a lot of money that I had like an allowance or a trust fund. If I wanted to do anything, I had to pay for it. And I had to do it. And I understood that at a really young age. 

My first job in general was at a place called Antique Boutique selling leather jackets. It’s this really cool vintage store on Broadway in Greenwich Village. And it was such an amazing job. And what I found amazing about the job was the friends that you made outside of what your normal life would be. And it was so interesting. And it really made me realize early on how cool it was to work with other people outside of whatever your normal world already was. And so moving into hospitality, I worked at a bunch of retail stores—Banana Republic. Folding clothes on a folding board.

[Josh Kopel]
What year was this?

[Darin Rubell]
This must’ve been in the early to mid-nineties. This was like in ’91 probably.

[Josh Kopel]
Okay. You were in high school?

[Darin Rubell]
I was in high school. I graduated in ’93.

[Josh Kopel]
Right on.

[Darin Rubell]
And I was doing that. And then I went off to… and then that summer before college I was like, I’d always worked in retail, but there was a friend of mine who worked in Rockefeller Center. And he calls me up and he’s like, “Darin, I’m working at this place. And they turn the ice skating rink into a restaurant. And I’m making a fortune.” I was like, “No.” “And they’re looking for people.” I was like, “Done.” I was like, “I’ll take it.” 

I took this job, and it was the most high volume insanity that I had ever experienced. Restaurant associates owned it. And everything was auto-grated, it was way before all these laws, and all the foreigners that you would auto-grat tipped anyway. And everyone was just making a ton of money, like a ridiculous amount. I had this drawer actually at home. And the drawer was stuffed with cash, literally the whole thing was stuffed with cash. And my mother used to come in and take it too. It was just like the community drawer, pretty funny and true. 

So at the end of that summer, no, we worked for like a month and a half and there was like a month and a half left of summer, and I had gotten my brother a job there. And we looked at each other, my stepbrother, Justin, and we looked at each other and we said, “We have so much money, we don’t need it anymore. So let’s go to Europe. Let’s just like quit tomorrow, get on the next plane to Europe and see where it takes us.” So we did that off of the restaurant waiter money.

[Josh Kopel]
Oh my God.

[Darin Rubell]
So did that for about a month and a half. And then came back, went to college. And then when I went to college I also had to work. I worked at, my first job was Planet Hollywood at the time. Very, very cool.

[Josh Kopel]
Oh, the coolest.

[Darin Rubell]
The coolest. Stallone came in all the time. Schwarzenegger came in all the time. I was bartending. I again had another amazing set of like family there, real family outside of my school family. So it was always that sense of family that kept bringing me back to the restaurants, I feel, and that sense of community. So I worked after that, I worked at Planet Hollywood. I worked at a couple of Cheesecake Factories for a little bit as a server. I was a host at an Italian chain, I forget the name now. But it was also really good. And all of it were great experiences, every single one of them I enjoyed outside of what I was really trying to do, go to school and then get a quote-unquote “real job.”

So then I graduate. After school, I started looking for jobs, real jobs, while working in the restaurant industry as a server. I worked with Scott Conant actually while I was in college at this restaurant. I finished at Marymount in Manhattan actually. And Scott and I still laugh about this place called Chianti that we worked at. He was the sous chef, I was a server, pretty funny. And so then I think Chianti actually might’ve been my last restaurant job before going into the quote-unquote “real world.” So then I took a job at TheStreet.com. And I started working for internet companies.

And every day was miserable man, literally I hated it. There wasn’t a day, I think, working what I call the “real world” that I enjoyed. Happy hour makes me nauseous still. And the thought of it back then, I never liked. The subway ride to work was always miserable. And I did this for about three years. I worked for DoubleClick, I worked for TheStreet.com, and my last job I was working for Yahoo. And then September 11th happened. And my three years of being miserable became even more daunting and miserable. I started applying for other real jobs again. And every time I’d walk into these offices, I actually just felt sick. I was like, “I don’t think I can do it. I don’t think it’s possible. I just don’t think I can take a job.”

I just knew I couldn’t take a job in an office. I knew it wasn’t even a possibility. And I remember sitting on Chelsea Piers, literally, I think I was 26 or 27 years old at the time, hysterical crying to my mother, ready to move to an island anywhere because I just knew the way that I was being asked to, or the way I was making money couldn’t be what life was all about. It couldn’t possibly be that this was life, and you punch in and you punch out, and decades go by so quickly, you turn around and you’re like, “What did I just do?” I was so positive that that wasn’t an option for me. 

Then my brother said, “Darin, you love working in restaurants. You always have a good time.” And then I was like, “That’s not a job.” I was like, “You can’t do that. That’s what you do during school or in between jobs.” He’s like, “No, really it could be a career.” I was like “Wow. What an exciting thought. Maybe you’re right. I’ll definitely start talking to people. Let me explore this.” 

I had worked for some amazing people throughout the years and kept those relationships. So I had meetings with them and sat down with them. And they were like, they gave me great advice at the time, “Work, understand what the industry is, and then jump right in, don’t think about it, just do it. Just do it.” 

So I was reading the help wanted’s one day and there was an ad for a manager at this restaurant that was on Park Avenue South that was yet to open. So I was like, “Let me go see what this is.” Go in for the job interview at this place Duke’s, right next to City Crab. And I instantly got along with these guys, like incredibly well, they felt like old friends. And we opened up a Mexican place called Chango on Park Avenue South. And I was there for the entire process. I got to work and help build the place out. I got to get all the opening permits, the opening health permits, everything that you do to open your own business, which was an invaluable experience for me. And got to hire the whole staff, like really saw an opening through and through. 

And that time of my life, there wasn’t one day that felt like work, although it was probably the most I had actually worked, I was probably there 100-plus hours a week. There wasn’t one day where I was like, “I got to go to work.” Every day I’d go to sleep, and I’d wake up, and it was like, “I can’t wait to fucking get to the restaurant.” And I think, in life, that’s an important place to be. An important place… I know a lot of people that wake up that are miserable, and I think maybe now is a calling to be like, “What really does make you happy?” And then don’t go back to work if that’s how you’re feeling, and try to reinvent yourself.

[Josh Kopel]
This would be the moment.

[Darin Rubell]
This is definitely the moment. So I did Chango for about 24 months. And during that time I met an incredibly talented, one of the sous chefs there was this guy Patricio Sandoval. And he’s a brother of Richard Sandoval, who’s an incredibly famous chef, owns like 35 restaurants, maybe more. And he was so talented. And I was so excited by his cooking, we’d be bored, and during staff meal, he would create the most insane things. And I was like, “You have to, you need to bring this to the people. This is amazing.” So at the time I found a restaurant, it wasn’t a restaurant at the time, it was in the East Village, it was on 12th Street and Avenue B. And I found this space through a family friend, and it was called The Pantry. It was 1,100 square feet. It was a to-go spot. There was like a backyard. And the rent was $2,100 at the time.

[Josh Kopel]
Sweet.

[Darin Rubell]
So I was like, “This is insane. How are we going to raise”… So I was like, “Listen Ian, I want to take the place from you.” So we did some key money, I forget what it was. And he was like, “$50,000” back then. And we went into money-raising mode. And at the time there were still grants available for 9/11, and loans and grants. So we each put a little money in. I went to the SBA, and we sat down with the SBA, and they hooked me up with all these grants, all these loans, and we started our first restaurant Mercadito—another, again, really exciting time in my life. And then it rarely felt like work. 

So that was my first restaurant. And I just feel that every couple of years, at that point, every year I would get another itch like that, “Let’s do this again.” What if this shuts, and I’m going to have to go back and look for a job. Let me make sure that doesn’t happen. Let me open one more up. And every year I kept doing that, and I kept doing it. I’m like, “Okay, if three fail, I now have four. So I’m not going to have to look for a job.

[Josh Kopel]
And that’s how you landed on eight right?

[Darin Rubell]
That’s how we landed on eight businesses, which are now eight problems. Big problems at the moment.

[Josh Kopel]
And solutions.

[Darin Rubell]
And solutions. And time to really, again, use our brains on how we can get through this.

[Josh Kopel]
We’ll talk about the eight. So New York is an incredibly competitive market. The failure rate, regardless of cities, incredibly high. You grew to eight locations, and you did it during obviously difficult times, whether we’re talking about the rebound from September 11th or the financial crisis in 2008. What do you think separated you from the pack? What ensured your success?

[Darin Rubell]
I’ve always thought it was two things. It was always important for me to design a space, a really nice space, right? Because a lot of restaurants are like, you walk in, and you can almost forget them, right? So you don’t… Design is incredibly important. Making people feel good while they’re in this space is one of the key elements. And that’s one element and that’s not going to just do it alone. 

The other element that’s incredibly important to my whole team, and all my partners, is southern hospitality, being so nice to everybody in a city that people don’t expect it. We don’t live in North Carolina and people don’t say hi to each other on the street here in New York. They just don’t. They’re going from point A to point B, and they’ll think you’re a little weird if you say hi to them. So I always say, “It feels weird, and we want to be a little weird. Say hi when it doesn’t feel right, say goodbye. Say thank you. Ask somebody how they’re doing today.” All the things that they’re not used to getting walking around New York that they might’ve gotten if they grew up somewhere else or if they went to another city. I really try to provide that and I think that goes an incredibly long way.

[Josh Kopel]
Oh, I would… being southern and running a southern restaurant myself, I would agree with you wholeheartedly.

[Darin Rubell]
Yeah. So that’s I think one of the key differentiators. And obviously making sure you have good food, and people that care, and all that good stuff, and great cocktails, and working with talented people doesn’t hurt. But at the end of the day, I think if you’re really nice to people, it’s almost enough.

[Josh Kopel]
I agree with you wholeheartedly. Now, let me ask you something else. So a concept that’s been rolling through my mind since the day we shut down Preux & Proper, has been work-life balance. I’ve worked 80 to 100 hours a week since I can remember. I joke with people when they say they work 40 to 50 hours a week, and I say, “Oh, I remember my first part-time job.” And now that I’m not working those hours because the restaurant is closed, I’m reevaluating. I’ve gotten the opportunity to spend time reconnecting with family and friends, and spend more time with my daughter, and my dog, and my wife, not necessarily in that order. And I’m now wondering what it’s going to look like when I go back to work, right? Am I as likely to work those hours and commit that much of my time and attention to something that is so fragile? Have you had those thoughts?

[Darin Rubell]
I have. But I’ve had, this is funny, this has been an ongoing theme through my life. And the work-life balance, especially in this restaurant business where we just had this whole conversation, how I’m telling you how it never felt like work. So I don’t mind, I never minded being there that many hours. But something really important, if I lived in a bubble, and I had no other people in my life, that might work. But when you have A, a family like you’re saying, B, a dog, I have a wife and a dog also, that doesn’t work. You can’t do that. That’s really not an option if you want a rich, fulfilled life that everybody benefits from, right? There’s nothing healthy about a father being at work 100 hours, period.

[Josh Kopel]
Right.

[Darin Rubell]
And not seeing their child and not seeing them grow up. So maybe this time will make us realize that. And I realized it because I went through a lot of relationships. I’m not 20 years old. I’ve been through my share of relationships and seen why they don’t work. And “hospitality partner” isn’t for everybody. But that being said, you still have to find that balance because it’s not for anybody for the partner not to be there at all. You know what I mean?

[Josh Kopel]
Right, exactly.

[Darin Rubell]
So really finding that balance is important. I evaluate that all the time. And at this point though, I’m sure next week if you told me I could work 100 hours, I’d be excited because I’ve been home for so long.

[Josh Kopel]
Yeah, right.

[Darin Rubell]
But it’s something I constantly think about and I’m constantly adjusting. And it’s not easy in our industry.

[Josh Kopel]
Certainly not. But again, we have the opportunity to think about so many things. Most of the restaurants in America are shut down right now. And if we use this time, I ask myself all the time, “What are the changes I would like to see?” It’s obvious. And I think we’ll see it with the reopen rate, or the low reopen rate of restaurants. I think we’ll see that no one was really set up for success from the beginning, right? We always start over time, over budget, and highly leveraged. And when we look at the foundational elements—whether it be the razor-thin margins or the way leases are structured when it comes to a landlord-tenant relationships—are there any foundational things that you would like to see changed, or that you intend to change within the dynamics of your own restaurants?

[Darin Rubell]
It’s a great question, and it’s something that I struggle with. That we all struggle with I should say. The restaurant industry to me has felt doomed for the last couple of years. I’ve seen the profits dwindle away, I’ve seen the competition only get stronger. I’ve seen delivery platforms take away business. I’ve seen really important… one of the biggest changes that I’ve seen in this industry is the way people socialize, right? So prior to online dating becoming like the primary way to meet somebody, you actually had to come to our places to socialize.

[Josh Kopel]
Right.

[Darin Rubell]
No, you did. The only way you were going to meet a girl is if you were at a bar. You’re not meeting a girl anywhere else. You’d always joke like, “Where am I supposed to meet a girl? The library?” They’re really good places to meet women, the supermarket, the library. That’s not true anymore. The only place to meet somebody, you have a better successful chance of meeting somebody sitting on your couch in your underwear on an app. So that really changed our industry. So I really think I want to take this opportunity to think about how people use our spaces, how they’re going to use our spaces, how that’s changing, how that’s changing more, how people are going to use them less now with the Coronavirus.

Because there was that recent article of restaurants opening in China, although they might say they’re fully operational, they’re only 30 percent capacity, nobody’s gathering in large groups anymore. So I think, I don’t have an answer, but I’m definitely thinking that fundamentally a lot has to change. Landlords are going to have to definitely work with us. I think there has to be an enormous rescue package. Not in the form of loans, because the last thing we need is loans right now.

[Josh Kopel]
For sure.

[Darin Rubell]
I have a ton of debt on a lot of these places already and adding more to that, that’s not going to help me. There needs to be grants. Maybe there’s federal relief. Amazon doesn’t pay federal taxes. If you look at our industry as a whole, it’s pretty large, and maybe there’s a movement for the next two years there’s no federal taxes in F&B, I don’t know. But something that grand, I think is what it’s going to take to change the way we operate and give all of us a reason to keep, A, this many people employed, B, keep going and staying in this industry. It scares me. It scares me to, again, have to look for a job because the model doesn’t work anymore. So a lot has to change. And I hope that maybe this was the moment, it was going to break anyway and this broke it. So let’s take this time to really think about how we are going to rebuild it in a more sound way, not it not a broken boat.

[Josh Kopel]
I couldn’t agree with you more. There’s also been an opportunity for me for self reflection. Something interesting that I discovered about myself through this process. I always wonder like, what’s my key differentiating factor, right? What’s my superpower? And for years I always thought that it was, I was successful because I was smart, right? And I always felt like I was smarter than the other people in the room, as obnoxious as that sounds. But obviously I didn’t see this coming, and the more I’ve thought about it the more I’ve realized through personal discovery that it’s not that I’m smarter than everyone else. That my super power, and I’m sure it’s true for a lot of restaurateurs, is they’re more resilient than those, they’re more resilient than anyone I know. I am able to stare into the abyss and go, “It doesn’t look that deep. It’ll be fine.”

[Darin Rubell]
That’s all of our gifts, honestly. We are as a whole entire industry the most crafty street smart, give me a penny and I’ll make it a dollar. You know what I mean? We all can do it, and we’ll scrounge, and we’ll change, and we’ll turn left, and we’ll turn right, and we’ll jump, and we’ll grind it out. We’re all grinders. We really are.

[Josh Kopel]
That’s what I was going to say is, there have been few industries that have been as hard hit as ours. But having said that, I think that you’d be hard pressed to find a group of people more likely to claw their way out of it, right?

[Darin Rubell]
No doubt, like vampires. We’re going to come out like vampires. We used to joke when we’d leave and the sun was coming up. It’s like [hissing]. It’s like, “Ahh!” We are, we’re a bunch of vampires. And we will: I know we’ll come out of this, and I know we’re so resourceful, much more so than, it’s almost a joke when you like go to an office, and you feel like they’re four steps behind you for some reason. Because they’re like in this cog, we’re definitely not in the cog. We’re out of the cog. And we just see it all, and that’s going to help us a lot.

[Josh Kopel]
I think we have the opportunity to reimagine our own futures. And I think that that is a powerful place to be despite the hardship.

[Darin Rubell]
It is hardship. But you know what? It wasn’t working.

[Josh Kopel]
Right.

[Darin Rubell]
So we just pulled the bandaid off is all we really just did.

[Josh Kopel]
I couldn’t agree with you more.

[Darin Rubell]
There was never anything sound about what was going on.

[Josh Kopel]
No. It was all propped up on Amex loans and borrowing from future profits through rewards network and we were…

[Darin Rubell]
Not paying this guy to do a split there, and who do we not pay this week, who’s really mad? God, I’ve got to give the concrete guy a couple of dollars, that’s what we do.

[Josh Kopel]
Oh, yeah, for sure. What’s the best part of quarantine? Have you enjoyed any of it?

[Darin Rubell]
Oh, God. Not yet. Not a lot of it. There’s been, the best part might be the fact that I always had this dark secret, like I wanted to get a PlayStation and be a gamer. But I always knew that if I did that I’d get sucked in for hours, and it would be pretty pathetic to be a 45-year-old dude gaming. So right before all this went down, I got one, and it’s been fun.

[Josh Kopel]
There you go.

[Darin Rubell]
That might be the best part.

[Josh Kopel]
Right on. And then for everybody listening, let’s imagine a scenario where you are a restaurateur with only one restaurant, you’re currently shut down, you’ve got a limited amount of cash in the bank. Walk me through your plan to get open and to stay open.

[Darin Rubell]
100 percent: It’s a great question. And I think that the most important and valuable thing we have right now is your capital, assuming you have any. And whatever you might have, I don’t care if it’s $5,000, hold onto it. Don’t pay anybody, hold onto it. Transfer it into another account if you have to. Stop all ACH payments, everything. So step one is hold tight. Step two is start to get ready for filling out a lot of applications, a lot of loans, get your tax returns together if you’re bored and don’t have them already. Get all documents needed to apply for assistance.

And then I think it’s a wait and see. And then when it’s time to strike, and the government allows us to open, hopefully at that point you would’ve gotten loans. And then negotiate with everybody, everybody. Trust me you’re not going to have to pay the full liquor bill. You’re not going to be put on the ABC or the SLA’s website. They’ll work with you. You don’t have to pay. Every bill you have I really believe is going to be negotiable right now. And use that as a tool and negotiate. And I think that’s going to be key to trying to get open.

[Josh Kopel]
That’s great advice. You and I are completely aligned there.

[Darin Rubell]
You have to.

[Josh Kopel]
Yeah, yeah. I know you don’t have a child, but if you did, would you want them to get into the industry?

[Darin Rubell]
My mother gave me the best advice when I was young, and she said, “Just make sure you do something that makes you happy.” And I explained to you how miserable I was, and how life sucking and daunting work seemed. And I would never ask my child to do something that made them feel like that. And anything that didn’t make them feel like that is the right thing for them, right?

[Josh Kopel]
Right.

[Darin Rubell]
It might not be right for you, but it’s definitely right for them. Why? Because they feel good. And that’s all we want in life. We’re trying to feel good, we want to be happy. So I’d be ecstatic if my kid wanted to be a garbage man, and every day he came home and was like, “Honestly, I had the best day Darin.” That would make me happy. I don’t think it’s important what they do. And yes, this industry, if it made them happy, I would fully support it.

[Josh Kopel]
Right on, man. You’ve got thousands of restaurateurs listening to you right now. What would you like to tell them?

[Darin Rubell]
Guys, we’re going to get through this, we really are a rare breed. And we were definitely, like we just talked about, we were built for this. And we just have to band together and fight the government for every dollar we can because that’s really going to be the key to the rescue. It’s not takeout, it’s not trying to survive during this. It’s really just about coming together, holding tight, and we’re going to do it, I’m confident.

[Josh Kopel]
That’s Darin Rubell, proprietor of New York’s Drexler’s, Pretty Ricky’s, and much more. For more on Darin and his businesses go to ParadiseHospitality.nyc, or search Rubell Management.

If you want to tell us your story, hear previous episodes, check out our video content, or read our weekly blog, go to JoshKopel.com, that’s J-O-S-H, K-O-P-E-L.com.

Thank you so much for listening to this show. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And while you’re there, please leave us a review. A special thanks to Yelp for helping us spread the word to the whole hospitality community. I’m Josh Kopel. You’ve been listening to Full Comp.