I heart Benjamin Steakhouse in Manhattan, and I was so glad to learn that this popular power lunch and dinner spot now has a sibling in Westchester. I was curious, though, about the challenges of opening a second restaurant, so I rang up proprietor Benjamin Prelvukaj for his take on the opportunities and the risks.
Benjamin, what made you decide to expand your brand?
You always want to grow, especially when you can grow during a recession. It means you’re doing something right. It was an opportunity to meet a whole new audience.
And, how did you decide on a site outside city limits in Westchester?
I live in Westchester County! I live, like, five minutes away. But, it’s not easy to get a great location in Westchester. I always had my eye on this space. It was a hotspot, and then it died down. Still, I would go with my family and friends and eat and drink. I chatted with the owners and felt them out and asked if they would consider selling. At first they said no. And, then they came around slowly. We negotiated for almost two years. Luck was on our side, because the economy was getting worse and worse.
How long was the process from start to finish, once you had the lease?
It was very quick to open! We took the keys in June. Construction started in July. All (50,000 square feet!) of the building is brand new construction. We had people working 24 hours a day. We opened our doors on October 18, 2010, after a couple of weeks of a soft opening.
That seems quick!
The second location is actually always easier, because we were able to train everyone in our first location. It’s the same system, so it was a seamless transition. And, we got two longtime employees to join us there.
Did you face any challenges being outside New York City proper?
Staffing outside of the city was a bit more challenging. It’s not easy, but we were fortunate to find good people to work for us. The main problem in restaurants is transportation. Public transportation doesn’t reach all the outlying metro areas, and late-night travel can be a challenge.
I would imagine you might be focusing on maintaining consistency between the two locations, so that you don’t have a regular visit the new restaurant and say, “Oh, in this location, the onions are done differently,” or, “The bar doesn’t have the same gin as they do in NYC,” and that kind of thing.
We use the same vendors at both locations. So, thus far, we’ve had few comments. I mean, it’s virtually identical. In fact, our Manhattan sous chef became the chef at the new location. And Executive Chef Arturo Mcleod is there to oversee the operation. So, it’s the same hand cooking the food!
Speaking of food, can you explain diners’ love affair with steakhouses?
I think steakhouses are so popular because of the quality of the food. And, there are big portions. You get full! During a recession, people become a little more hungry. Everybody wants a big steak, a big lobster, a good bottle of wine. Also, for businesspeople entertaining clients, there are very few things that can go wrong in a steakhouse!
Steakhouses, I think, can battle a perception problem that they are very expensive, but, actually, you don’t have to break the bank at all.
Steakhouses can be very economical, especially for families. Even with a couple of kids, you can just get steak for two and a couple of side dishes and have a great meal at a very reasonable price.
I find that if you’re a home cook trying to source steaks like the ones you serve, well, it’s very difficult. And, sadly, my husband (Sorry, honey!) doesn’t do the greatest job cooking these spendy steaks.
Steak is a long process, if you want to do it right. You have to know your meat. You have to have great vendors. And, then it has to be aged in house – at least 28 days. That’s when the steak goes from good to great to excellent. Then, third, you need to have the right grills. Our grills reach up to 1,500 degrees. That’s how you get that char outside!
Oh, good. So, maybe I don’t need a better husband then — just a better grill? Or, better yet, reservations! Okay, any other Benjamin Steakhouse trade secrets?
We use kosher salt for all our steaks. We don’t use pepper. I don’t like it. It ruins the taste of the meat.
That may be the single most controversial thing I’ve ever heard about steak, Benjamin. And, I’m not even kidding. No pepper!? I’m speechless.
Learn more about Benjamin Steakhouse’s newest location and reserve your tables here. And, let us know in the comments where you stand on pepper on your steak!