Ryan O’Donnell of Ballyhoo Hospitality: “Try to Own The Real Estate”

The Simpler the Concept or Idea, The More Success You’ll Have. Keeping it simple should be embraced throughout the entire idea: concept and restaurant. The simpler the idea, the stronger it is and the better chance you have at being successful. Try to Own The Real Estate. This is another thing I wish I would’ve […]

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The Simpler the Concept or Idea, The More Success You’ll Have. Keeping it simple should be embraced throughout the entire idea: concept and restaurant. The simpler the idea, the stronger it is and the better chance you have at being successful.

Try to Own The Real Estate. This is another thing I wish I would’ve known at an earlier stage in my career. Owning real estate protects you in a lot of ways and puts you in a position of long-term strength and growth.

As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ryan O’Donnell. His many decades of experience in the hospitality industry started when he was just 14 years old. He knew at that young age that it would be his life’s work. He started working his way up the ranks, and at the age of 21, he decided to go to culinary school at Kendall College — the first time in his life he got straights A’s. After receiving his degree, O’Donnell worked for a variety of renowned chefs in Chicago and Arizona. Eventually, he went to Keefer’s Steakhouse in Chicago and made the transition from the kitchen to the front-of-the-house. A monumental life event happened for O’Donnell at Keefer’s, as it was where he met his wife, Anna. In 2008, he opened his first restaurant in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, Gemini. With Gemini’s success, he went on to open a second restaurant, Rustic House, in 2011, followed by Coda di Volpe with Chicago restaurant veteran, Billy Lawless, of Gage Hospitality Group. Anna and Ryan would later open Walton Street Kitchen + Bar in the Gold Coast. In 2018, Ryan and Anna founded a restaurant group of their own, Ballyhoo Hospitality, focused on championing the qualities that make a neighborhood restaurant great: the heartfelt greeting when you walk in the door, service that makes you feel cared for and a warm ambiance that encourages you to relax. They since grew the company, opening Mexican cantina, Old Pueblo Cantina in 2019, and Sophia Steak, a neighborhood steakhouse in the northern suburb of Wilmette, in 2020.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

I always loved the party, but more specifically, I always loved being the host of the party. I was 14 years old when I first started working in restaurants as a busboy for a summer job at the Woody Creek Tavern outside Aspen, CO. I worked in restaurant kitchens ever since, throughout high school and college. Whenever I walked into a restaurant, I was always energized by the buzz, feeling the excitement of the dining, the drinking, and the socializing. When I was 18 and got to college, I realized that I enjoyed the party more than I did school, and I needed to get a job out of survival. First, I was flipping burgers and hotdogs at a hotdog stand in Denver, but then I went across the street to a finer dining boutique restaurant. I saw what the heart and soul of the hospitality business is; the social energy that exudes from busy restaurants. Those first few restaurant jobs I had were really what sparked my interest in working in hospitality and wanting to be around the buzz and excitement of a busy restaurant.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

Gemini is an American bistro, but when we first opened, the menu was heavily influenced by French cuisine. Back then, and when I was young just starting out in restaurants, I always focused on French food. The main reason for that is because of my mother, Beth. She’s an excellent chef herself and studied French cuisine when I was growing up, just as a hobby. Another reason I was drawn to it was because of a trip I took to the South of France when I was younger. We stayed in Aix-en-Provence and that trip really opened my eyes to French food and cuisine. It really was the beginning of the route my whole cooking and culinary experience would take in later years. Finally, I went to Kendall College for my culinary degree, and all of the cooking was rooted in French cuisine, taught by French instructors. It was there I learned the ins and outs of French cuisine and I concentrated on my culinary focus.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

Years ago, Billy Lawless and I bought a building on Southport Ave. in Lincoln Park. It wasn’t in the best condition, but we loved the building and location. We got a bank loan and when we went into the space with the general contractor and architect to lay out our construction plans, we quickly realized the building wasn’t conducive to a restaurant. The ceilings were too low, the basement was a mess, etc. So, we figured the best option was to tear the property down and reconstruct the whole building. A few days after we tore it down, our banker called and said, “I just drove past your location, and the building is gone. You tore down the building I secured your loan with!” To which we responded with, “What do you mean?” He let us know that the loan was secured with the land itself as well as the building — which no longer existed. Luckily, the banker is a good friend who helped us through our misstep. The lesson learned was to read all of the paperwork and know exactly what you’re signing up for, especially before you demolish an entire building.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

This wasn’t early in my journey as a restauranter, but it was my first failure. I had already opened Gemini and Rustic House, and was opening my third restaurant, Kabocha. That was my first failure — I closed it nine months after opening. The writing was on the wall after six months that it wasn’t going to work. The hardest part of that is to lose the investment money; telling people who trust you that you failed, and you can’t pay them back. It’s extremely difficult. I overcame it by trying to learn from what we did wrong and the mistakes, and then finding the entrepreneurial spirit to push on. Self reflection, studying, trying to figure out why id didn’t work and what we could have done better. You don’t know you have a failure until it actually happens. In 2016, I opened Coda di Volpe, overcoming failure by finding success in a new venture.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

Simplicity. You can always “wow” people with intricate dishes and overwrought plating, but no one wants to go back to those dishes after they’ve had them once. If they aren’t crazy about a dish, they won’t remember it. People remember fried chicken or a swordfish chop, dishes that don’t have a lot of layers and elements to them. If they’re done really well with execution and technique, people will come back to it over and over again. Simplicity is key.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

A Caesar salad, spaghetti bolognese, and garlic bread

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

A lot of inspiration for me comes from inside and is a very natural feeling — almost second nature, but I also turn to people for my daily creativity boost. I surround myself with people whose opinions I respect. From a creativity and cooking point of view, my mom is the biggest source of inspiration for me. I do a lot of creating with everyone I work with at Ballyhoo as well. I think people who are born creative can find inspiration everywhere, whether it’s through their peers, new restaurants or older, classic establishments, travel books, menus, design books, lighting or furniture catalogues. These are all things I use on a daily basis to inspire me because they’re what I’m interested in and passionate about. If I need a daily creative boost, I turn to the people I admire and follow for that, and I try to constantly learn and absorb as much information from those people as I can, both their successes and failures.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

In a few short months, we will be opening our fifth concept in Ballyhoo’s portfolio, a Greek-Mediterranean restaurant with Chef Doug Psaltis in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. This is an impactful project given the neighborhood it’s going to be in — Logan Square. It has become a dining destination for Chicago, and it’s an extremely community-focused area. Additionally, it will be our first Greek-Mediterranean restaurant in the Ballyhoo portfolio which is very exciting. We’re also working on a sixth restaurant, a French bistro in Winnetka. It will have as much, if not more impact, on the North Shore than Sophia Steak has had. We saw how extremely well-received Sophia Steak has been within the Village of Wilmette and the surrounding suburbs, with excitement building in the western suburbs for a second Sophia location. With the COVID-19 pandemic shrinking the restaurant pool, it’s given us the opportunity to have our new restaurants make a larger impact in the city, the neighborhoods, and our hospitality group as a whole.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

It’s all about feeding your passion and supporting your weaknesses. Hire the most like-minded people as possible. Surround yourself with the best and most capable people you can who have the same visions and goals as you, who can help carry some of the load for you. Have a good team. There are two ways to establish a good team who can help you and the restaurants thrive.

First: You have to become a master at delegating. You can’t micromanage and hold onto control of every single detail. You have to empower your team and delegate tasks to them. The more responsibilities you give people and the more you can manage from above, the more success you’ll have across the board, because almost everyone wants to work, work successfully, and show what they can do. Provide everyone with the proper tools, the space, and the freedom to do their job, benefitting the entire team in the long run.

Second: Continue to push yourself on wherever your passion lies, whether its design, menu development, PR and marketing, product sourcing, visuals and interior and exterior design, general contracting, or architecture. I am passionate about a lot of these areas, although I never studied any of that in culinary school. I’m self-taught in many of these things by observing the people I admired who were the best at it. I tried to absorb as much as I could from them — and I still do to this day.

In order to thrive and not burn out, you have to continue to feed your passion, and the only way you can feed your passion, is to find your passion. The areas I’m not passionate about, I find the right person who is passionate about it and I empower them to better support myself and my business. My wife, Anna, would be the number one example of this. I’m weak at organization, doing paperwork and anything with financials or accounting, but she loves numbers and spreadsheets. Anna’s strengths support Ballyhoo, allowing me to focus on the areas I’m most passionate about.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. The Simpler the Concept or Idea, The More Success You’ll Have. Keeping it simple should be embraced throughout the entire idea: concept and restaurant. The simpler the idea, the stronger it is and the better chance you have at being successful.
  2. Try to Own The Real Estate. This is another thing I wish I would’ve known at an earlier stage in my career. Owning real estate protects you in a lot of ways and puts you in a position of long-term strength and growth.
  3. Social Media’s impact on the Business I wish I had known that earlier. In addition to that, how technology in general works within the restaurant industry and how it can drive our business and help with reporting, especially in regard to the financial aspect of our business.
  4. Find Solid Partnerships-Having trustworthy and like-minded partners allows for strategic growth and peace of mind. This business is stressful enough and it’s comforting when you have a partner who is capable of carrying some of the load and has a vested interest in building the business together.
  5. Prepare for The Worst. I wish I had known our industry would face a pandemic and we would need to prepare all of the restaurants accordingly. Moving quickly, we needed to find ways to survive from installing operable windows, increasing patio space, and building robust takeout and delivery options.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

At Gemini the Swordfish Chop, at Coda di Volpe the Pizza Napoletana, at Old Pueblo Cantina the Cheese Crisp, also known as the Sonoran Quesadilla, and at Sophia Steak the Fried Lobster.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The number one movement I would like to inspire would be one that supports equal pay for both back of house and front of house staff in the food and beverage industry. Similar to what Danny Meyer tried to do in New York. I’m not sure what that movement would look like, maybe it’s through a no tip policy or alternative legislation, but it’s extremely important to me to create more equality across the industry. Knowing and seeing every day what is done in the back of the house and the front of house, there isn’t a single role that’s more critical than the other. All are equally important to the success of the business and that should equate in equal pay. I think what Danny tried to do was the right direction to create a better spirit of our industry, but unfortunately, the country wasn’t ready for it yet. However, after seeing how COVID has ravaged our industry, we need to re-evaluate that movement, making equal pay for our back of house staffs a priority now more than ever.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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