Ms. Lynch spoke recently about defying the odds in an industry where most restaurants fail after the first three years and the overwhelming majority of chef/owners are men. A condensed version of the conversation follows.
Q. How did you work up the courage to open your first restaurant?
A. I have always been a risk-taker, even as a kid. I stole an MBTA bus when I was 13 just for laughs and never got caught. It was all because of my upbringing. I was the youngest of six children raised by my single mother and I was fearless. I had worked for several chefs, including Todd English, and by the time I was 26, I had my first executive chef’s job at Rocco’s, an Italian restaurant in the theater district, with a staff of 22 underneath me seven days a week, breakfast, lunch and dinner. By the time I was 34, I knew I didn’t want to work for another chef. I said to myself, “I’m totally ready.”
Q. What was it about your upbringing?
A. I just didn’t want to be on welfare. I’d wake up in the morning and see this dilapidated building we lived in, and I knew there had to be a better life. I was a bookie in high school, and I’d place bets for some of my teachers. I dealt drugs, anything to survive. And when I was 13, I got my first cooking job making meals for the priests living in the rectory of the church across the street. I figured if I could cook, I’d have a job for the rest of my life.
Q. Why do you think your restaurants succeeded?
A. I had a vision of exactly the kind of place it had to be. I’d worked at a private club in Boston as a waitress when I was 15 and the chef there was an Escoffier chef who made sweetbreads under a bell, put together the most elegant white-glove dining, and he was making people happy by cooking. I knew then that was what I wanted to do. I would provide fantastic hospitality to make people feel amazing, with great china and great silverware and a great space. And it worked.
Q. How did you find investors?
A. I got some advice from a friend of my future husband’s brother, who helped me with the business plan. Then I started networking throughout Boston. My first angel investor was Arnold Hiatt, who started Stride Rite Corporation. I was very conservative about my plan. I didn’t come in with lots of data or charts telling them how many seats I was going to have. I knew I wanted my check average to be $56, and I made clear that I wasn’t going to set myself up to fail. I wasn’t trying to set myself up as the best chef in the city. I was just going to have a really great restaurant that is attainable and not intimidating. I think my investors loved the fact that I was self-taught, that I came from Boston, that I was raised by a mother with five other children and that I was clearly a hard worker.
Q. What was the smartest thing you did to please your investors?
A. I made it a point to pay them back in three years. I didn’t take a salary until I paid them back.
Q. What did you live on?
A. Those were definitely lean years. I had just gotten married, and we made a commitment to putting everything into this restaurant. All I did was work.
Q. What failures have you learned the most from?
A. I haven’t had many failures but one was to open a produce store called Plum Produce in the South End of Boston. It was basically a beautiful little storefront in which we had porcini mushrooms, heirloom apples, all sorts of produce from the local farmers who supplied the restaurants. But when I opened it in 2006, the South End was filled with young professionals who didn’t like to cook during the week. My lesson was to do more research and understand the challenges of retail more.
Q. Anything else you would do differently?
A. My advice would be, try to own the property. I don’t care if it’s a garage but buy it because with me, nine restaurants later, I don’t own any of my buildings. I lease.