John Kolaski of sbe on Dining as Entertainment, Restaurants as Brands, and Owning the Guest Experience from Start to Finish

John Kolaski

At sbe, the global hospitality and entertainment company known for top-tier restaurants like Katsuya and The Bazaar by Jose Andres, restaurants are just one piece of a business that also includes hotels, casinos, and nightclubs. John Kolaski is the Chief Operating Officer of sbe’s restaurant division, which means he’s constantly working with the other divisions to explore how dining fits into the larger experience of entertainment.

“People are not just going out to eat because they’re hungry,” he says. Instead, they’re going out for an experience — and sbe has the advantage of being able to own that experience from start to finish, from checking into the hotel to ending the night at a club.

Here, we ask John all about the changing role of restaurants into brands, and how dining has evolved into a form of entertainment on par with a night at the theater.

John Kolaski

Right now I’m the Chief Operating Officer of our restaurant group, so I oversee our worldwide platform of restaurants, from here in Los Angeles to Vegas, Miami, the Middle East and Bahamas. I’ve been fortunate enough to grow from within to this position. I started with sbe about five years ago and as we continued to grow was a benefactor of our company’s culture to promote from within and give opportunities to those who are working for it.

At sbe, you have many different businesses operating in one group. How is it different from a traditional restaurant group, from a structural and operational standpoint? 

With our different partners we have here at sbe — the nightlife group, our hotel group, our special events division, including oversight from our CEO Sam Bakhshandehpour really tying it all together — we have an in-house development company Dakota Development that helps us work on all of our new projects, everything from architecture to design. We’re kind of a one-stop shop. As we focus on growing our different restaurant, nightlife brands, hotels, we get to do it all here. Whereas perhaps a traditional company has to outsource designers and the architecture company, and find different hotels to drop their restaurants into, we’ve been fortunate that we got to build the big box, which is the hotel, and and program it with our incredible brands to ensure we get that full 360 experience.

How does that influence the end result? Is it a consistency thing?

Absolutely. It makes the best guest experience at the end of the day, because we get to own that guest from start to finish. There’s no partnership relationship that gets in the way, there isn’t a handoff for the guest between one company to another, or this guest is important for this reason to us but isn’t important to them. Every guest is important to us, from the front door until they go out the back, because they’re all within our environment. We get to tailor that experience and communicate together as one team to work towards that goal.

How do you — or do you — use each business to grow and promote the others?

We do a lot of cross-promotion and tying in the incredible brands we have, whether across the restaurant platform and doing different promotions that take you in one of our cities and give you the key to that city so to speak, from a restaurant perspective — you can dine at the Bazaar by Jose Andres one night, Katsuya by Starck the next, and finish with Cleo, our Mediterranean experience. Or you could go to Las Vegas and stay at the SLS Las Vegas and from the moment you check in you’re at one of our hotels and you go to LIFE, which is our Nightlife venue, and you wanted to have dinner beforehand so you stop at Bazaar Meat or Umami Burger. We’re able to utilize our platform in a way that it’s all-inclusive.

What does that look like? Is it based on recommendations, or cross-promotion via email? What are some of the tools and platforms that you use?

We definitely do cross-promotions, whether through our own internal blog, or through our email blast where we’re cross-promoting different activities that we do. If it is someone who’s staying in one of our hotels and they’re looking for an evening out, we’re able to curate that evening, maybe starting with drinks at Tres here at the SLS Beverly Hills to moving on over to Hyde Sunset Kitchen & Cocktails to grab dinner on Wednesday night, and then stick around that evening for our nightlife activation of postmodern jukebox for a show.

We do a lot of that through phone communication, through some of the different offerings we send out to members that are part of our internal system, which is called The CODE.

John Kolaski

What is your vision for the restaurants, as a group?

Our vision is to continue to work with incredible partners — culinary partners such as Jose Andres, Katsuya Uechi, Danny Elmaleh and Michael Schwartz — to build great brands and incredible experiences. And to do so for generations to come. Restaurants that remain relevant — they’re not trendy, as trends come and go, but restaurants that when you step into you have an overall sense of the experience. You feel our culture and our hospitality. When you walk out the door and ask, this restaurant feels so familiar, this incredible sense of hospitality, and you find out it’s an sbe restaurant you go, that’s why. They’re consistent and they do it in each and every one of their locations.

How do the restaurants fit into the larger sbe business model?

The restaurants are really the heart and soul of our company. We began with Katsuya restaurant in Brentwood, so we really set the standard within sbe. That being said, we are a 360-degree lifestyle company, so our restaurants partner with our nightlife venues in different locations on the food, the beverage offerings, the service component.

The nightlife side allows us to drive our relevance. The restaurant group culture and sense of hospitality is really the foundation of what we’ve built here at sbe, and that goes into what we do in our special events division. Then the hotels give us an incredible opportunity to pull it all together in one location. To be able to add in those partner chefs, the design elements of somebody like Philippe Starck, and give someone an immersive experience based on what was built in the fundamentals of the restaurant group.

We’re sitting here at our office and I can walk 10 feet and sit with our President of Nightlife Costas Charalambous, who started the company almost a dozen years ago, and sit and talk with him about tonight’s restaurant offerings and what we’re looking to do. Or the activations we have going on in Miami, or the things we’re working on in the Bahamas. Same thing on our hotel side — it’s invaluable to look at the resources we have at our disposal here.

How do the different teams work together on an ongoing basis? Do you have weekly meetings?

Exactly. We have a weekly executive meeting. We bring together all the heads of our different divisions, all of the partners that are within sbe, to be able to go through what they’re working on currently, what we have in the works. We are able to communicate with each other and really be able to support each other. If there’s something happening in the nightlife world they’re able to speak directly with me. On the hotel side, the same thing. Events, our partnerships team, and different activations that we do. We all get to weigh in on that and utilize all of the talent that’s here to ensure that we get the best overall experience out of it.

You mentioned the partnerships team. What is their role? 

They’re a team that works with us as we might look to do a Hyde Lounge pop-up, or as we go into Sundance. They’ll help us work with different partners that want to come together and activate that pop-up and ensure that our brand’s represented well.

We’re able to utilize that resource across the board. It really allows us to dive into niche markets and very specific target demographics that we’re looking to reach out to. It gives us a whole other side of our business outside of the usual brick and mortar.

The Bazaar by Jose Andres

I’d love to talk a little bit about how, from your perspective, restaurants have evolved in recent years to be entertainment itself. There are so many restaurants now that offer multi-course experiences and are very theatrical, and I would love to hear your thoughts on how you’ve seen that evolution come about. 

About nine years ago, when our restaurant group started, we started with small plates. The ideas was that you go into dinner, and instead of betting that the one entree that you had picked was going to be amazing… if it wasn’t that night, you weren’t able to fully experience the venue. The small-plate revolution kicked in, and it allows guests to interact more and have that experience where they get to try more things, and they’re open to trying more things.

That’s led to dining becoming more of this lifestyle/entertainment section. People are not just going out to eat because they’re hungry. They’re going out to learn, to share, to have their entire evening within a restaurant.

You’re taking in everything from the design of the space to the lighting, the flow of the room, the music — the food and the curated beverage programs all combine and it becomes this social experience that people are sharing. They’re sharing it on all forms of social media and starting a dialogue with their friends and colleagues. It’s this amazing style of entertainment that people can share in and talk about, much like movies were when somebody would go and tell you, you have to go see this movie. Now it’s become, you have to go have dinner at this restaurant.

What tips do you have for other restaurants that are trying to create more of an entertainment experience? Anything you have seen work or not work?

What works is always delivering the best possible experience that you can. You cannot forget the basics. Focusing on the service, the sequence of service, the steps of service. Focusing on the food to make sure it’s consistent. Once you have that foundation of basics you start working on the music, the lighting and how it accentuates the room, how it accentuates the dinner table and the show that’s happening with the food. All of it comes together once you have that foundation of the basics.

From a food and beverage standpoint, how do you work with the designers and people who create the music and lighting to create a real brand?

It’s constant communication. We work with incredible partners like Philippe Starck and sit down with him and his team to discuss what the overall vision of the concept is. We bring in one of our chefs and start that dialogue. We have an incredible development team here that knows what we’re looking for and over the past decade has learned what works and what doesn’t work to allow you to have a room that feels full on a Tuesday and feels great still on a Saturday, no matter how many people are in it. Through those conversations and learning from the experiences we’ve all brought to the table — it allows us to come together and produce an incredible venue. From there you tweak the lights and music, and it all speaks to each other. The food on the plate and the culture of that chef and their personality relates to the design of that restaurant, the music you select. It all comes together in harmony to get that experience right.

Would you say that the brand starts with the food and the chef?

A lot of times it starts with the chef and really the team that’s involved. We have to attract talented individuals to work with us, and we’ve been so fortunate to build an incredible team here. It does start with them. Depending on the opportunity, we tailor what that restaurant or brand may be to the local market, which is different than if we were looking to expand here in Los Angeles. It really depends on the opportunity, but it starts with the people.

Obviously the area matters with the different concepts and determining what’s going to be successful. In your experience, have there been any specific challenges working in different cities, or adapting different restaurants and concepts to a new area? 

Certainly. It’s about doing our homework. As we look to expand into a new market we can’t take one restaurant that exists here in Los Angeles and drop it as-is into any other market. It has to adapt, and in order to adapt it properly we have to understand the differences and what guests are ultimately looking for. What are the habits in certain cities? Miami is a great example — we built and now have three hotels in operation down there and have four of our restaurant brands and one of our nightlife brands down there. We found a market that speaks to our lifestyle brand and what we do well, and we’re able to adapt it rather quickly to the market. As we continue to grow, we’ll look at other major cities and do our research and understand what those markets are looking for and how we can adapt the brands that we want to bring to those markets to speak to what they’re looking for.

What does that research look like?

There’s quite a bit to it. There is an awful lot of eating that happens. [Laughs.] We tend to try and order almost everything off the menu, and then you go around and look at all the different blogs and publications and find, what are the restaurants that are within our comp set? Who are they and what are they doing? We go and try them out and we have a conversation.

The best part about food and beverage is that it’s a close community. We all have a dialogue, and everyone is hospitable and willing to share and support each other. It’s amazing to go out and do that research and meet people in new cities in some of the incredible restaurant groups that are out there. Hearing what it took for them to make it and being able to learn from it — it’s truly what allows us to be successful.

Are there any unexpected ways that you measure success at the restaurants, because of the different businesses involved or because of the structure of the organization?

As we look at building incredible brands we’ve been fortunate to identify great partners, great individuals that we want to work with and expand — here in the U.S. or globally — with. We’ve been fortunate enough through the process to do so: find incredible talent to join us here in the restaurant group and help us grow and see some of the individuals who start with us at a line level and move into management, or young managers that have grown their experiences over the years to being GMs and directors within our company. That’s the best part about our success — seeing the team we have here grow and be the leaders that are going to help us be the best restaurant group we can be tomorrow.