In the ever-evolving gastronomic world of Philadelphia, one chef has not only carved out a niche but has also played a pivotal role in shaping the city’s dining scene. We sit down with Michael Schulson, a culinary visionary whose journey from New York to Philadelphia has been nothing short of remarkable. In this exclusive interview, Michael Schulson shares insights into how he gained a foothold in Philadelphia, adapted to the changing landscape post-COVID, and navigated the challenges and triumphs of the restaurant industry. From humble beginnings to a portfolio of 12 restaurants and counting, join us as we explore his culinary odyssey and his plans for the future.
1) How did you gain a foothold in Philadelphia? How have you been able to pivot given the changing landscape of Philadelphia post-covid? How have you been able to float and what have you done to change your strategy to be successful with the changing landscape of the city?
I grew up in Long Island, New York. I was living, working, and going to school there, and then I decided to go to college at the New York Institute of Technology for Architectural Engineering. After 2 years, I came home and realized it wasn’t for me. My parents are teachers, so that didn’t go over very well. They said, look, get a job, and we will discuss this, so I went back to school, and there was a bulletin board with job ads, and I pulled down one to make pizza, and that was it. That was the beginning of finding something I truly loved. I went to the Culinary Institute of America, graduated, and returned to New York. I had an opportunity to work in a French restaurant in Philadelphia, and I was like, alright, I’ll give it a shot. I gave it a shot and met somebody here, had two kids, and Philadelphia became my home. I traveled around the world while cooking, lived in Japan and Asia for a while, and then went back to New York, but I found myself gravitating back to Philadelphia because I felt like it was a great place to raise a family. It was manageable, affordable, and I knew many people here, so that was what got me here and kept me here.
2) What was your first place and how did you evolve to where you are now? I’ve seen a lot of videos of what Philadelphia looks like now and it has totally changed under the new mayor and governor. How are you staying a float?
When I first moved here, it was probably 25 years ago. I remember going down on an interview with somebody and going down towards the Liberty Bell, and we passed five or six restaurants the entire trip, which is 30 to 40 blocks. There wasn’t much going on, and it felt deserted. There were probably two or three well-known restaurants. One was Le Bec-Fin back in the day, which was a French restaurant. Another one was Susanna Foo, which was an Asian restaurant. That was kind of it. I think that the success that Philadelphia has had is growth. If you think about it, it is an hour and ten-minute train ride from New York. It is about an hour and 30-minute train ride from Washington, and both places are twice as expensive to live in. I think if you are starting out and want a place with a great city and town, close-knit, amazing sports teams with passionate people, a restaurant scene that has flourished because of the proximity to some of these really big places, and you can’t afford to live there than Philly is the place for you. In New York, you can pay $125 to $200 per square foot for rent, whereas in Philly, you can do something at $35 to $50 per square foot. It has given restaurants a fantastic opportunity to grow and flourish.
3) What are your plans for expansion? Are you scaling ahead or scaling back?
We are definitely not scaling back. Philly has been great to me. We have 12 restaurants here in Philadelphia right now, and we are in the process of opening three more in Philadelphia, which is really exciting. We signed two deals to be outside and are going to Florida. Florida is another area where I see there is a lot of room for expansion. Ultimately, we are working on and finalizing a deal in New York for me to go home and have something in my hometown, where my family is and where I love to be. We are growing and excited by it, but Philly is my pride, joy, and home.
4) Do you have any future collaborations coming up?
I don’t right now. As much as I love collaboration, I have a great team of chefs that we hire and culinary people, a fantastic bread baker, and an extraordinary pastry chef; that’s our corporate pastry chef. I find that collaborations are often difficult because we have different views of how things can be done. I think that sometimes when you get to a certain level in your profession, it just makes it challenging. You want to partner with someone great, and it’s like, what’s your lane, and what’s your responsibility? I believe heavily in a culinary system or the brigade system or, if you look in an org chart in any other company. The org chart is there for a reason; ultimately, certain people must be responsible for certain things. I think that sometimes when you collaborate, it makes it difficult to determine who is responsible for what, and there’s a lot of gray area. It becomes challenging, and what’s also made me successful is the model we follow, and bringing someone in who has a completely different model, regardless of our views, makes it a lot more challenging for the people.
5) What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of seeking outside capital? And what are your strategies for growth?
Look, I think there are two things: greed and ego conquer all. So I think you can’t be greedy and must put your ego in check. For me, I look at it as I try to find the right strategic partners. People who are going to make me better from a business standpoint, and we treat our restaurant company a lot of the time as Mom and Pop, and a lot of the time, it’s a restaurant investment. My business bargain is to invest in some major stuff, like real major businesses. My goal is to have a P&L or financial statement that rivals any of these big companies, whether it’s a Wall Street company or anyone else, in terms of the professionalism and the details we take on. That has helped me find business partners. My strategy is to avoid getting greedy and give my business partners a fair deal where they will get good returns on their money, and when they get a good return on their money, they will want to do more stuff. You have to build that relationship that way. For me, when you give them enough and treat them all as individual restaurants, it allows you to be successful in terms of if something isn’t working out, we can pivot and do something else. In contrast, if you’re doing it with debt, which I don’t believe in, like if you have one bad restaurant out of 10 or 12, you could collapse the whole company, so we make sure to stay away from that. Most of the guys in the industry tend to do debt because they want to own the whole restaurant. For me, I don’t need to own the whole thing. I can own a piece of it, and I rather own a fair portion of 13 than the whole piece of one.
6) How did you choose each location?
I always say, and I joke about it, I’m not good enough to do what I do without being in a prime location. We always look for a prime location with enough locals, businesses, tourism, and convention business, and that’s what we look for as an area. In terms of the rent, rent is an important piece, but the extra 10 to 15 dollars a square foot never brings a restaurant down. What brings a restaurant down is the overall cost of a restaurant or the need for more staff, so people sit there and nickel and dime and go; it’s too expensive to go there and instead go 5 to 10 blocks away, but I don’t believe in that model.
7) What are your plans for this summer? Are you traveling anywhere and which places?
I just got back from Aspen, which was awesome. I’m going back to Colorado in a couple of months, so that will be fun. I just built a beach house in the Jersey Shore, so I have been spending a lot of time there. I’m planning a trip to Africa with my kids later this year, so I’m looking forward to that, and I’m spending a bunch of time in Turks and Caicos. For the next five months, that’s what my travel is looking like. Usually, I’m in Europe right now, but unfortunately, I didn’t do it this year, and I’m regretting it. I think I’ve done it 7 years in a row because my kids go to camp, but I thought, you know what Covid is over, I’ve been traveling a lot, I just built a beach house, and I’m going to hang out, and now I’m itching to be there right now. We are opening up a French Bistro, so I will go to Paris in a couple of weeks for 4 days. We are doing a French concept here in Philly, so a bunch of us are going to go to Paris in 3 to 4 weeks for 5 days. Africa, Paris, Turks, and Colorado are the next 5 months of travel, and who else knows what I’ll throw in there. There will likely be a Florida trip in there.
8) What are the inspirations for your cuisine?
I think it depends on what the concept is. I always joke that everything has been done before. You just have to do it better than the original. I think a lot of it depends on what the city or location needs. You can’t be going so big and opening up an amazing restaurant and not think about what the concept is of what that city has. You have to think about what it is missing. I’m not going to go to New York City and open up a pizza place. Why would I do that? I mean, how many pizza places are there that are amazing? You are out of your mind if you want to come there and open up a pizza place, so a lot of it is based on the area’s needs.