Food Arts presents its December 1992 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Alan Stillman, intrepid entrepreneur.
Stillman does what all great marketers do best: HE finds a niche and fills it. Each of his restaurants, Smith & Wollensky, The Manhattan Ocean Club, The Post House, Cité and Park Avenue Café, fills a different niche. Collectively known as The New York Restaurant Group, the restaurants gross close to $50 Million annually.
Stillman was not to the business born. He was bitten by the restaurant bug more than 25 years ago when living on New York City’s Upper East Side, where he was earning his keep selling perfume and flavorings. (“I sold chocolate, strawberry and vanilla,” he recalls.) Although the era would come to be known as the age of swinging singles, there were not yet any singles bars. So in 1965 Stillman took his $8,000 savings, borrowed another $5,000 from his mother and opened the first T.G.I—Thank God It’s—Friday’s.
By 1976 he had parlayed Friday’s into an 11-unit chain, which he sold for a handsome profit, retaining the rights to the New York metropolitan area Friday’s, which he sold in 1986; he still receives royalties of about two percent of those Friday’s sales. Stillman expanded his concept to include restaurants named for other days, Tuesday’s, Wednesday’s, and Thursday’s, and sold those off as well when he decided to shift his focus to the upper end of the market.
Bored with the chain formula, Stillman started looking for other niches to fill. “At the time, no one had opened a major steakhouse for 25 years,” Stillman recalls. “And none of them had a great wine list or good pastry or even an artichoke. Not one served anything but steak. I saw a need for a steakhouse that provided a fine dining experience.” So in 1977 he opened Smith & Wollensky, followed in 1980 by The Post House, which adhered to the same upper rung red meat scheme.
Casting about for empty niches yet again, he perceived a need for an upscale fish house. So in 1984 he opened the Manhattan Ocean Club, decking the walls with his museum-quality collection of Picasso ceramics. In 1989 Stillman saw a need for a big French-style brasserie and created Citè. This year he saw a place for an upscale American restaurant on the Upper East Side and teamed up with young rising-star chef David Burke to open the Park Avenue Café, which has been playing to S.R.O crowds in spite of the shaky economy.
There were those who though Stillman was taking a risk opening in 1992, but he didn’t see it that way. “Fear did not strike our hearts, because during the last three years we’ve done the best business ever. The time to get involved in a new restaurant is when everybody else is running the other way,” Stillman says. Besides, there was this niche thing: “if you really look at all the restaurants on the Upper East Side, they’re French, Italian, bistros, trattorias…”
In addition to being a shrewd businessman, Stillman is noted in the industry for his imaginative advertising programs and his love of wine. In an industry that remains ambivalent about touting its wares, Stillman thinks nothing of placing full-page ads in The New York Times or spending lavishly on TV spots. “If you can advertise Tiffany and Rolls Royce, I don’t see why you can’t advertise restaurants,” he reasons.
His interest in wine has inspired him to make his restaurants wine destinations. Twice a year he stages New York Wine Week, a spectacular promotion during which wines as stellar as Pétrus are generously poured by their makers at no cost to the diner in all five restaurants. Stillman is a collector of wine, and his restaurants have won numerous Wine Spectator awards.
At 54, Stillman is now dreaming a new dream: hotels. “Definitely in New York within the next year or two, and definitely food and restaurant connected.” He confides, “There’s a need for medium-sized hotels that cater to the same public my restaurants cater to. Moderately expensive, not super luxury.” Stillman followers expect the niche will be filled.