Bistro on Main General Manager Ben Dubow spoke with Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price about his experience opening a fine dining bistro and the importance having a social enterprise component in your business.
NAN PRICE: You’ve held many roles in your career—chef, pastor, business partner, entrepreneur. How have your experiences helped shaped you? What have you learned along your journey?
BEN DUBOW: This is my second experience opening a restaurant. I was the executive chef and part of the opening team at Blue Plate Kitchen in West Hartford, and I’m still a partner there.
In addition to restaurants, I’ve started churches and other for-profit businesses. So, I’m an entrepreneur at heart.
I feel like startups, even from industry to industry, have a lot in common. Startups are always crazy. So, I knew we needed to be super organized. We created a three-month, 40-page playbook that detailed where we were going to be and when down to their electricity set up, vendors, computer installation, bathroom fixtures, and so on.
The other piece is knowing you always need more capital than you think you do. I feel like most entrepreneurs get themselves in trouble because they’re undercapitalized. We were realistic and conservative with our business plan and our performa. I didn’t want to oversell what I thought we could do. We tended to overestimate what we thought things were going to cost.
To me, the surprises so far have been all positive. We’re further along than I would’ve anticipated. Our staff team is in a better place than I would’ve thought. We’re beating our performa pretty much every week. I was expecting it to be a lot harder.
NAN: How did you become involved with the opening of Bistro on Main?
BEN: Bistro on Main is wholly owned by the Manchester Area Conference of Churches (MACC) Charities, a nonprofit which has been in the community for more than 45 years meeting people’s’ basic needs—food, shelter, clothing, advocacy. Over the last couple of years, MACC shifted that mission more toward breaking cycles of poverty.
When I left a Blue Plate Kitchen three years ago, I went to MACC full-time, running the food areas—the soup kitchen, overseeing the pantry. We did a lot of transformation. We have a farm-to-table soup kitchen now that serves everything from scratch, family style. It’s good, wholesome food.
We also started an 18-week culinary jobs training program. Because we realized to break cycles of poverty, it would help to train people, not just provide them with food. But, we should’ve realized from the get-go that, without real-life experience, the transition from a lab-based kind of program to a job wouldn’t be easy. So, we started a full-service catering company to give people an internship type of experience.
NAN: Is that when you came up with the idea of opening a restaurant?
BEN: Yes. We started catering, which was easy because we already had a kitchen. And then you’re working offsite in other peoples’ facilities. It was a relatively low startup cost and it was really successful.
When we started sending people out into the workforce to work in restaurants, we realized you just can’t replicate the experience of working a busy Saturday night on the line. It’s not the same as being in a classroom setting or even at a catered event. That was when we started talking about what a restaurant concept would look like.
So, the idea to open Bistro on Main wasn’t driven as much by my personal need to start something as a mission goal. It was one of those cases where we looked at our mission and it made sense for us to open a restaurant.
We looked into the ideas of food trucks and cafés. We were encouraged to look at some grants from the town and this space on Main Street in Manchester was available. The location made sense. It’s supporting not just the social development in Manchester, but economic development. We ended up not getting a grant. But, in that process, the board bought in and we decided this was the right time for us to take a risk and move forward.
That was May of last year and then we opened about six months later. It was a pretty quick turnaround.
NAN: Tell us about the social mission aspect of the restaurant. How is creating economic growth?
BEN: We are explicitly a social enterprise. I believe all businesses should have a social mission, even if they’re not explicitly social enterprises. I don’t think that has to be so unique to a business. As business owners, entrepreneurs, and restaurateurs, we have a social responsibility to our community. When the community does well, we do well and vice versa.
That said, I think every restaurant needs to have a social conscience, be involved in the community, and think about what it means to invest locally.
For us, this restaurant comes out of our mission of mobilizing our community to break cycles of poverty. This restaurant becomes a training site to help people become job-ready. So, it provides transitional employment for folks to be able to develop the skills to go out and work elsewhere.
NAN: Aside from the social enterprise mission, what makes this restaurant innovative?
BEN: Going into this, we knew to be successful we had to figure out a way to be a standalone, destination restaurant that also was doing good in the community. It couldn’t just be a charitable thing, or people would come twice to support the community and they wouldn’t keep coming.
Ultimately, to succeed and to provide employees with a legitimate, resume-worthy skillset, we had to be a really good restaurant. A lot of times social enterprise restaurant models are social first, enterprise second. We knew we had to get that mix right to make it a sustainable business with really good food that was also training people.
We’ve also embraced a no-tipping concept. It makes sense for us and it’s also innovative. For a lot of the folks working with us, this is the first time they’ve ever had a “real” job, so we knew having them walk away with handfuls of cash at the end of the night wasn’t going to be helpful. They needed to learn how to do things like open a checking account, budget, and saving money for a deposit on an apartment.
With a non-tipping concept, our employees can earn predictable money and we can pay the back of the house the same as the front of the house. We pay just about everybody $15 an hour. It’s worked out well—and there have been some positives I didn’t even anticipate. It’s a much better work environment. There’s less tension over who gets which tables and sections. We’ve eliminated all of that.
Another thing that’s made us innovative is we try to leverage technology a lot. We’re short on management staff by design and money, but we’ve made up for that with technology, which works behind the scenes. Customers never see it, but from an entrepreneurial perspective, I think it’s interesting.
We’re using an excellent point of sale (POS) system, which cost a lot of money upfront, but saves us hours because of the data it provides. We use an online system for our inventory and our invoices, so they are automatically being processed and again, save hours. Our managers aren’t stuck in an office, instead we’re on the floor working with guests and our staff.
NAN: Speaking of staff, how many employees do you have?
BEN: There are three full-time managers, including me. And then our hourly staff runs from 25 to 30. They’re all part-time, which is by design. We didn’t want this to become a place people wanted to camp out, because it’s transitional employment. So, it’s explicitly part time. People who come through our program can only be here for a year. Again, the idea is this is for them to build experience, build their resume, and launch their career.
NAN: And how are you finding employees?
BEN: Some of them come through our program, which is so far focused on back of the house training. We’re starting a front of the house training program, so we’ll get more out of there. And we advertise locally. Our commitment was to hire as locally as possible.
NAN: Any advice for other business owners?
BEN: Be well capitalized. Assume you need more money than you think. You have to build into your model the capacity to break even for the first six to 12 months, or you’re going to get yourself in trouble.
Everyone’s got to figure out their own business model. I feel like a lot of restaurants spend a ton of money on style, without giving themselves the basic infrastructure, and then they don’t have the cash to sustain. We went pretty minimal. We painted and hung some posters. We could have gutted and renovated, but that would have cost a lot. I think you have to be realistic, and it’s a process of getting where you want to be.
Also, the technology piece I mentioned earlier. It may be easier not to spend a lot of money on a good POS but being appropriately set up and giving yourself the infrastructure also sets you up for success. I don’t think technology is the place to cut and save money.
NAN: What does being an entrepreneur mean to you?
BEN: For me it’s the thrill of the start and building things. And I think innovation is always a part of that because of the drive to want to start and build things that are new and different.
As a pastor, my passion has always been starting new churches. It can be easier to work for another church or get a job working for a restaurant, but why when I can start something?
A lot of entrepreneurs frankly get bored after that. That’s the downside. Two years in, some are looking for the next project. Like Bear’s Smokehouse BBQ owners Jamie and Cheryl McDonald, they keep opening new restaurants and new concepts. That’s a beautiful thing. If you get stuck in a single-unit concept, then it’s a little harder.
NAN: Were you able to talk other restaurant owners about their startup experience?
BEN: The industry in general is so supportive. In Greater Hartford there’s a lot of collaboration among restauranteurs and chefs. We’ve received mentoring and help and advice. We spent a lot of time talking to folks at Billings Forge, who gave us a good business model: We go to Firebox because it’s a really good restaurant.
I also connected with Jamie and Cheryl McDonald to talk through our idea and pick their brains. I also got feedback from City Steam Brewery owners Jay DuMond and Lisa Cole. We reviewed menus and business plan concepts.
NAN: The Bistro on Main menu appears to be a fancy, upscale bistro. That was obviously intentional.
BEN: Yes. When we signed the closing, we didn’t have a concept. A few of things were important to us: We didn’t want to compete with other existing businesses on Main Street. We didn’t want to repeat a concept. And we also wanted something that would teach transferable skills.
There wasn’t really casual French east of the river. We thought: What better in terms of transferable skills than teaching French cooking? You learn how to do that, and you can work in any restaurant in any kitchen.
We could’ve done the same menu but with no French on it. Ultimately, we decided to embrace it. It’s really kind of defined and I think elevates who we are.
The other thing that was important to me is was for future employers to know our restaurant is a legitimate, real restaurant. So, we didn’t want to call it something like “Second Chance Café.”
NAN: Exactly. People can go to Bistro on Main because they’re doing good and eating well.
BEN: Right, which is by the way, our motto: Eat good, do good.
The other amazing thing is I wanted to mention—we received donations from Max Downtown and Burton’s Grill when they did renovations. It’s been great how people haven’t seen us as competitors and they get what we’re doing. Obviously, we’re all competing for dollars, but we’re all trying to make the pie bigger or trying to divide up a small pie differently.
If Main Street Manchester can become a food destination in a way West Hartford Center or Middletown can be, then everybody wins. That’s how it works. When a business succeeds, it benefits the community.