The Spot: Audrey Taichman's restaurants

audreyclairetaichman-credit-danyahenninger
Audrey Taichman at Cook, the demonstration kitchen she founded in 2011 after opening Audrey Claire and Twenty Manning Grill.

We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.

 

Audrey Taichman is an anchor of the Philadelphia restaurant scene, as the owner of Audrey Claire, Twenty Manning Grill and Cook - and organizer of annual FringeArts fundraiser Feastival.

Nineteen years ago, when she launched Audrey Claire, her BYOB in a former five-and-dime on the corner of 20th and Spruce Streets, Taichman was nothing but a 26-year-old who had a lot of experience as a server and bartender. What she also had was a lot of energy, nerve, and charm. The banker who approved her small-business loan told her she probably wouldn’t have gotten it, if not for her charisma.

The banker was right to follow his instincts, because Audrey Claire was busy from the night it opened. Upending conventional wisdom - at the time, hotspots included the luxe Striped Bass and Le Bec-Fin - Philadelphians embraced Taichman’s vision of a streetcorner BYOB. Diners happily toted their own bottles and waited up to two hours to crowd into the spare-but-tasteful space to enjoy simple bistro fare. And they still do.

Her second restaurant, right up the block, got off to a more rocky start. The longtime home to Carolina’s had been turned into a wine bar called Beaujolais, but it faltered after less than two years. In 1999, the owners decided to sell. Taichman decided she had to buy. The bar was Audrey Claire's de facto waiting room. The interior was revamped, an Asian fusion menu was developed, and Twenty Manning was born.

It was a much bigger endeavor than her original BYOB, with double the seating and a full bar. From the start, Taichman was in over her head, and she knew it. In 2002, her then-boyfriend Marc Vetri sent her a lifeline in the form of chef Kiong Banh, who helped streamline the menu and establish order. Still, the concept wasn’t quite there, and it took eight more years - and the crushing reality of a big recession - for them to decide to scrap everything and start over. Banh came in as full partner, and in 2010, they reopened the location as neighborhood-friendly Twenty Manning Grill.

Never one to shy from challenges, that very same year Taichman organized the first Feastival. She’d been brainstorming with the Fringe Festival folks about how to raise more awareness and money for performing-arts organizations in Philadelphia. “We should throw a big party!” she suggested. The response: “Sure. Go for it.”

She went for it, and went big, roping in Stephen Starr and Michael Solomonov as co-hosts and convincing dozens of chefs to donate food and time. The event was a smash hit, raising more than $200,000, and it’s been bigger every year since. (Audi is now a title sponsor, and former Gov. Ed Rendell’s son, Jesse, and Jesse's wife, Beka, are among the co-chairs.) Funds from Feastival played a big role in enabling the new FringeArts headquarters and theater on Columbus Boulevard, where this year’s bash will go down on Thursday, Sept. 17 (tickets start at $300, here).

In 2011, another space was about to open up on what could easily be referred to as "Taichman’s block." As before, she didn’t want someone else to snap up the corner of 20th and Rittenhouse, which had been the boîtes Salt and Snackbar. But she had an idea from the display of talent and energy she saw at that first Feastival. She decided to create a kitchen-classroom, a cooking school of sorts, but one with a rotating stable of teachers. Each evening, she would invite different chefs to hold court in an intimate setting, giving diners a chance to learn technique while also getting up close with them.

Taichman had no idea if her concept would work - she didn’t vet the idea with all these chefs she was planning to invite - but when Cook opened in 2011, it was met with a warm embrace. Though she says she doesn’t make a dime on the place, it has become self-sufficient, and dozens if not hundreds of chefs have banged pans on its small (but well-outfitted) line, feeding and getting to know hundreds if not thousands of people.

Somehow, amid all this, Taichman managed to get both pregnant and married, and she now takes care of five kids in addition to everything else. It has changed her perspective somewhat - microwaving mac and cheese is now a big part of her life - but not her intensity.

She recently stole an hour from her busy schedule to sit down at Cook and talk about it all, from the advice given to her by restaurant greats of the past to the lessons she’s now eager to pass on.

 

When you opened Audrey Claire, were there other restaurants around Rittenhouse Square?

There was D’Angelo’s, and there was Carolina’s when I first looked at the space - that was the hottest restaurant in town for a while. And there was Friday Saturday Sunday, where I worked, and there was Devon [Seafood Grill]. But there was no Rouge, no Parc. I remember the Square then - at night, you wouldn’t walk through it. It was not safe, it was not beautiful, there was no garden. It was just a different world.

Was La Colombe open then

La Colombe had just opened, and I remember meeting those guys, going over to them and saying, “I’m going to open this restaurant, and I’d love to use your coffee.” We quickly became friends, because we had this new vision. A more artisanal vision.

Metropolitan Bakery was already open?

Yes, Metropolitan, they were here, and [Wendy Smith Born] was so welcoming. My first day being open, I got this huge basket from her saying, “Welcome to the neighborhood!” That really was the impetus for me to realize that being kind and gracious is so important. In just two seconds, she taught me that. And she’s always been so supportive of me.

Did you get a loan to open Audrey Claire?

Yeah. I don’t know how I did it. I was just a server and a bartender. I had written a business plan, and I had written out the numbers, but I had no money.

How did you learn to write a restaurant business plan?

I bought this book called "How to Open a Restaurant" and I joined the restaurant association and I called every single person I possibly could. Dmitri [Chimes] from Dmitri's - I remember meeting with him. He helped me.

Why did all the people you called take your meetings?

I don’t know! They were so nice, people were so nice to me. I was lucky. I had this banker - it was at a place called the Money Store. I was going for a small business loan, and I had [talked] my way through it. I remember him saying to me, "If you didn't have so much charisma, you wouldn't get this loan. But I believe in you, because you're so enthusiastic." And then I got four really good friends to each give me $5,000 for the down payment. And my father gave me $10,000.

Who else did you get advice from?

During the first few years, Neil Stein [creator of Striped Bass, Rouge and a number of other restaurants] was my mentor. I used to get so nervous, because I didn't know him at first, and he would walk by my restaurant and just stare in the window, with his intense gaze. Later on, when we became friends, he told me, "I love how you had everything lined up, all the salt and pepper shakers." I used to make my staff take a ruler to line everything up, so when people would walk by during the day it would be perfect.

He taught me, again, to be gracious. I remember asking, “What do you do when someone’s sitting in the restaurant and you’ve been closed for an hour and they just won’t leave? Do you turn up the A/C really high? Do you turn off the music?” And he said, “No. You should be so honored that they like your restaurant enough that they don’t want to leave. You give them the best experience you can.” That was what, 20 years ago? I tell my staff that every staff meeting.

Did you get to know Georges Perrier?

He's one of my best friends, yes. Perrier is one of the most complex people I've ever met. Probably the most talented chef, really, still. He's old-school. People don't understand that when he grew up learning how to be a chef, the chefs yelled. People always say he's a hothead and he's crazy, but he’s a product of his environment, in France. And he's the greatest teacher. His employees always loved him. You can't help but love him. He's got the biggest heart. He's the most generous man. Everybody who worked for him got paid so well.

There’s a big debate about that these days; many restaurants are having trouble staffing the back of the house - do you think it’s because wages are too low, or because cooks think they’re too good to work on the line?

To me, it’s like this. For the past 20 years, line cooks, for the most part, have been from the Latino community. First generation in the States. And they've been working their butts off to make sure that their children go to school and don't have to work in restaurants. I think that’s fantastic for the Latino community - I work with [immigrant nonprofit] Puentes de Salud - and I'm so proud to be a part of getting this community up and educated. But, now it’s hard to get a staff.

So that has to do with the low wages, right? The people who would accept those low wages are gone - does that mean wages should go up?

Wages should go up, but I think most mainstay restaurants do pay well. Because there's always another restaurant that's willing to pay 50 cents or a dollar more. That's the hardest part about this business - keeping your people.

Is it becoming more of a problem in Philly because there are so many restaurants?

There are so many restaurants. But that's what makes our city so great. So, as a citizen, it's fabulous. As a business owner, it's hard.

If the hardest part is staffing, what's the best part about owning restaurants?

It's just the most amazing feeling to walk into a busy restaurant, and the music's playing and the glasses are clinking and I look around and I don't know anybody. And I'm thinking, how the hell did they know about this place? They're in my restaurant, and it's working!

Has technology changed the way things work in a restaurant - made it easier, or harder?

To me, when I think of tech and restaurants, I think of Yelp and social media, and that drives me crazy. Because the Yelps are sometimes just mean people who have nothing else to do. It's such a bummer.

Has the internet has changed the role of the professional critic?

Maybe. I think the mainstream critic isn't as important anymore - some restaurants are critic-proof. I’m not saying [Inquirer critic Craig] LaBan isn't important, but I think the one positive thing about social media and Yelp, is that, if a place is what the people want - and they're saying that on Yelp and on Twitter - LaBan could give a terrible review, but people will still come.

So what happened when you first opened Twenty Manning - how did you know it wasn’t working?

The first night was just a catastrophe. We weren't ready. It was just so much bigger than I imagined. It was like my eyes were bigger than my tummy. I took that restaurant because it became available - I wish it hadn't. It was almost like I had to take it, or somebody else would. It's this opportunity that I wished never knocked on my door. I wasn't ready, the concept wasn't quite honed.

If you could go back, you wouldn’t do it again?

No. All of my friends who own one restaurant say, "I think I'm ready to do another one." I always say to them: Don't do it. You have such a good life right now. The one restaurant makes you enough money, you get to get home to see your family, don't do it. Nobody listens.

Unless you're going to do it big. Unless you're going to open up like [Stephen] Starr, or [Michael] Schulson, or like, a few guys that know how to run big restaurants. Go for it. But if you're just going to be a small chef or owner, and then open up a second one? So stupid. So dumb.

It worked out OK for Marc Vetri, for example.

Well, he also had a great partner [Jeff Benjamin], who knew the front of the house. That was a symbiotic relationship. That rarely, rarely happens. I didn't have that until Kiong came to Twenty Manning. And then I was able to do Cook, and do Feastival, and do these other things that I do, because I had such an amazing partner.

How did you find each other?

Marc Vetri found him for me. We were dating and he was like, "I got a guy for you. He's the most zen, cool guy." Kiong really is the greatest man in the world. He's so relaxed, he's chill, he's happy, he just keeps you calm. And he works like a horse. I mean, he’s up every morning, doing the shopping at the markets. Chefs don't do that anymore. You never see delivery trucks outside our restaurants. Just him and his little Toyota 4Runner, all loaded up every day. He picks up for Audrey Claire, too.

But he’s happy running just the one restaurant, Twenty Manning Grill?

He loves what he does. But I think he's tired. We still have some money to pay off on the loan we got to redo the place. It’s not that high, though, and he’s 60, so once that pays off, I hope he can retire. I finally convinced him to hire a sous chef for the first time last month.

Has the cuisine at Audrey Claire changed since you opened?

I keep it the same. If it's not broken, don't fix it. It's so simple, but people seem to gravitate to it. There are many things on that menu from 20 years ago. The rack of lamb, the pomegranate chicken, the hummus flatbread, the arugula salad with French lentils and raspberries. I'm not trying to keep up with the new "in" things. Remember when sun-dried tomato was in? I'm not trying to keep up with the new sun-dried tomato.

No kale at Audrey Claire?

No kale! I refuse to have kale. I am so over kale. You know, I don't get it.

What about the BYOB idea - it wasn’t very tested when you opened.

It was purely by accident. I was saving up for a liquor license, but I didn't have enough money. So I was going to open up, and then save up, and then get the liquor license. But it was such a phenomenon, people were waiting outside with their bottles for two hours. I was like, this is great.

But the profit margins in a BYOB are much slimmer, no?

Yeah, but we're lucky in that we're so small. And we're still doing three turns every night. I mean, so lucky. Knock on wood. There's not a day that even after 20 years I don't go to bed thanking my lucky stars.

How did you end up so busy - did you advertise?

For Twenty Manning, the first one. We thought to be a "real restaurant" you had to advertise. We spent so much money on publicists and big ads - we wanted to be like Stephen Starr, big shots. It was such a waste of money. And now that there's Twitter and Facebook...

So you do social media?

Actually, I can't stand it because I don't know how to do it. And I can't afford somebody to do it for me. But everybody else seems to be doing it! They're all so on top of it, and I'm just...I don't even - if I were to sign onto Facebook right now, I would have no idea what to do.

With Cook, it’s different. This whole business is based on the Internet, and they know how to do it, that's what they're here for.

You got the idea for Cook from a restaurant you visited in Boston?

Yeah, a little place called Stir. By Barbara Lynch. It's still there. So on this corner, Snackbar was on the brink of closing, and it was another one of those Monopoly-type situations, where I didn't want someone else to take it, and then have it be another BYO, or another bar.

Which, by the way - every time something opened here, I would panic, and I'd be like, "I'm doomed!" It never happened. My business would dip down a bit, but then it would come back. You never have to worry about that. If you're a good restaurant, the more the merrier. So any restaurateur out there, if you're a newbie: Don't worry if your neighborhood starts to get really hot.

So back to Cook...

I had been to Stir, and had always wanted a cooking school, but I didn’t think I could sustain it with the same cook every night - what were we going to teach? And then we did Feastival; that's where the idea came from. Everybody put out the most amazing food. So I thought, what if we did something where every night a different chef in Philly gives a demo? I had no idea if they would agree to do it - I just jumped in. But it worked. It was miraculous.

So, how does it work - do the guest chefs pay for the ingredients they use to make meals at Cook?

No, we reimburse them. They don't pay a dime. We also pay them a fee. We don't - maybe I shouldn't say this, but we don't make money here. This place to me is not for making profit. This is to make a contribution back. I love our industry. I love Philadelphia. As long as I pay my employees, and pay my rent, and all the things we need to pay for are paid for, I’m happy. I love this place. It's the best thing I ever did. Because it's just so cool. And people love it!

When you launched Feastival, there were already some other charity chef events - why do you think Feastival became one where everyone puts their best foot forward?

I don't know. To me, it's still so amazing. I mean, I used to participate in those charity events, and I never put my best foot forward. It was always like, OK, of course I'll donate, I'll just put out a chip with some tartare on it. Then at the first year of Feastival, it was just unbelievable.

How did you convince Stephen Starr to be the co-host?

We were never like buddies, but he was always so kind to me. What I love about Stephen is he's quiet. He stays under the radar even though he's so part of the radar. So I called him and was like, "Hey, I'm doing this thing, it's for the FringeArts." He's like, "Whatever you need, kid." And then [Mike Solomonov] was just like, "Yeah, dude, I'm in!"

Why did you ask those two?

Well, I knew Stephen was a heavy hitter, and his name was gonna catapult it. And Solo, at the time, was just getting started. I believed in him. He had just opened Zahav, then, but I just had a feeling. I always loved him. Solo is the nicest guy on earth. When we opened up Twenty Manning Grill, he taught us how to make pizza. He was always there for me when I needed something. And vice versa. I find that the Philadelphia restaurant community is a great community, with people who really support each other.

Do you ever have a chance to check out other city's restaurant scenes?

I used to all the time. That’s part of what drove me. But now, I have so many kids. I'm making Elmo mac and cheese every night. I can't believe it. I used to say, I'll never have a microwave. Now I'm nuking food all the time. I have three kids, and then any other given week, I have another two 16-year-olds. And to feed that many boys, it's just nuts. Every morning I think about, "What am I making them for dinner tonight?"

So you pulled yourself out of the restaurants for a little bit?

No, never. I mean, right now it's Feastival time, so I'm totally focused on Feastival and the children. The restaurants know. It's like, just please bear with me for the month.

Do you see yourself eventually handing off the restaurants to somebody?

These restaurants? I don't know. I don't want to think about it. My life is much different now. People always said that once you have kids nothing else matters and I didn't understand that. Now that I have children, it's true. Every day, you're only as happy as your child's last crisis.

But I don’t know, because I can't imagine not having these restaurants. It's my identity, it's who I am. I love what I do. It's hard, but I love it.

 

Audrey Claire: 276 S. 20th St., 215-731-1222

Twenty Manning Grill: 261 S. 20th St., 215-731-0900

Cook: 253 S. 20th St., 215-735-2665

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