Emerging from the housing projects of South Boston where James Bulger, known as Whitey, once ruled, Barbara Lynch has become one of Boston’s most successful and celebrated restaurateurs.
Without so much as a high school diploma, the 47-year-old Ms. Lynch has built a company, Barbara Lynch Gruppo, of nine culinary businesses that have 250 employees and produce $19 million in annual revenue. Along with six popular and award-winning restaurants, like No. 9 Park, Menton, Sportello, B&G Oysters and The Butcher Shop, Ms. Lynch runs Drink, an upscale watering hole; Stir, a demonstration kitchen and cookbook store; and 9 at Home, a catering business. On the drawing board are a small food lab and a food-manufacturing business.
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.
Q. Why are there so few successful women chef/owners?
A. Part of the problem is that many women have insecurities about being a chef and not understanding the business side. When I started, I had a general manager and a business manager, both men, and they would sit down, go over the profit-and-loss statements every month, and I had a hard time understanding those P.& L.’s. They made me feel, “Oh you’re just a chef from the projects. You don’t know anything.” But after a while, I felt something wasn’t right. I realized I had to learn the business side, too, because this is my vision and it all comes from the top.
Q. Is your business profitable?
A. Yes. It’s been profitable since I started No. 9 Park in 1998, and I paid back my investors. All my properties have been profitable since Day 1 except Menton. That’s my toughest challenge, and I’m still tweaking the formula. It’s a high-end restaurant, and the economy makes it tough. The location is great but the developers around me have failed to keep up.
Q. How closely involved are you in the day-to-day operations of each business?
A. It helps that all my properties are in Boston and not in other cities. My management team keeps nightly logs of everything going on in each entity — who cut their finger, what table we screwed up on, which meat wasn’t hot enough — so I read those first thing every day. I created the vision and the culture and everyone on my senior staff has been with me for eight to 10 years, which is unheard of in this industry, but it helps me stay on top of the day-to-day business.
Q. Do you hire people from your old neighborhood?
A. I have. At Sportello, which is minutes from where I grew up, I have two servers and a line cook, all of whom happened to have grown up in Southie or Dorchester. I get people from all over applying for jobs, and we hire whoever is a great fit and hungry to learn.
Q. How can you tell who gets it?
A. The ones who get it have an incredible work ethic — that’s huge — and they are open to learning new things. If they just wanted to bartend or wait tables, they might go elsewhere, but they come here because they want to learn.