How to Make it in New York’s Restaurant Industry
Small Business Spotlight on Phil Morgan, restaurant veteran and owner of Brooklyn’s Hecho and Building on Bond
Phil Morgan’s father taught him about margins at 15, when the two of them purchased, rebuilt, and sold a classic car. The concept stuck—he’s applied it to the many restaurant and bar businesses he’s founded over the years. He could write a primer on how to make it in New York’s restaurant industry.
Phil talked to us recently about his current ventures: Hecho, a design-build construction company specializing in bars and restaurants, and restaurant-bar Building on Bond, both in New York. He shared his story of serendipity, falling in love, partnering with the right people, and following his passions over a journey that’s brought him to where he is now.
Tell us about your businesses. Hecho was first, and then Building on Bond, right?
That’s right. Hecho is a design-build construction company in Brooklyn. We build bars and restaurants all over NYC, hundreds of them over the years. I opened it in 2004 with my partner John Kole, then Jeff Kaufmann joined as a third partner in 2011. After all these years, we’re still crushing it. And now we also own and operate a bar-restaurant, Building on Bond.
How did you get into the restaurant business? Were you always in the industry?
No, in fact I studied mechanical engineering in college and and worked at both General Motors and Chevrolet before I got into this business. I ended up selling cars for a while and was really, really good at it. But I said to myself, “If I don’t get out of this and try something else, I’ll be in the automobile industry for the rest of my life.”
At one point I took a break and traveled to Europe for awhile—London, Paris, East and West Berlin, Italy and Austria—it was that trip that let me to go back and study abroad in France, and it all started there. I fell in love with the restaurant business at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Paris.
How did you find your business partners?
Also in Paris. I met them when I started working front of the house at the Tex-Mex place, but we didn’t start anything right away. Unfortunately I had a bad accident there restoring a car for a friend. I couldn’t use my hands to bartend because they were so badly burned. I had to move back to the States, but I missed France.
When I was able to finally move back to Paris, it was to help build a bar. It worked out well so my partner and I decided to open up another place.We ended up buying a restaurant, designing it and building the whole space by ourselves. This was the first restaurant that I was involved with from inception to opening: the Lizard Lounge in the Marais. That was October 1994. From there I opened another place called the Bottle Shop with a different partner, but we eventually parted ways. I’m still partner at the Lizard Lounge.
So Paris was a big catalyst for things to come for you.
For my career, definitely. But there was more than that. I also met my wife in Paris. She’s American, but was there visiting. At first we were long distance, she wouldn’t move to Paris but we finally agreed on New York. It was there that I opened Suba with a friend, a high-end Spanish restaurant on the Lower East Side. It was nominated for a James Beard Best Restaurant Award in 2002. We sold it in 2008.
Then that same year I opened Building on Bond in Brooklyn. We serve new American comfort food, and the bar at night has an authentic feel with great craft cocktails. John Kole, my partner from Paris, and I have been running it ever since.
Where does Hecho fall in all of this, and why did you move into construction?
I really wanted to branch out from just restaurants, but I knew the industry so well that I wanted to stay close to it. At Hecho we do architectural and interior design, custom fabrications, and special projects that often involve art installations and concept design that’s done especially for restaurants and bars. We use a lot of reclaimed materials and turn unique spaces into inviting places for patrons.
What do you think makes Hecho special… what inspires you?
For us it’s all about telling a story with the projects we take on. The reclaimed materials aren’t just about less waste, although it’s important, it’s about designing a space that preserves the history of these materials from different origins. We love creating interesting contrasts and layering styles for a sort of balanced unpredictability to our designs.
Sometimes people don’t realize that the materials we choose can be even more work, though, and sometimes cost as much as new. It’s a challenge using items that aren’t perfectly straight, flat, or in mint condition. But that’s part of the art—finding a way to make something beautiful, like the reclaimed hickory floor at Cannibal in NYC that we built from a tree cut down in the early 1800s.
What’s the key to success in business, in your opinion?
You really have to be ready for the challenges. As a general contractor, for example, you have to be ready to push customers for payment. When I started Hecho I had to be more confrontational than I was used to being. We worked 15-hour days and sometimes people just wouldn’t pay us.
With Building on Bond, location and scale was a challenge. If it were in a different neighborhood and was five times as big, I would make five times as much money. With almost the same amount of labor. But we’ve made it work, and it’s worth it.
You’ve done a lot already. What’s next for you?
In 2011, at my birthday with some friends, I said I wanted to start something else in a passion that I love. I wanted to open up a brewpub. And my friend said, no you need to make whisky. And that was it.
So I had plans to turn a small bar into a distillery but once I delved into the financials, I realized it was very difficult for a distillery to make money in a 700 square foot space. You need a certain scale in order to make some money. So I’m in the middle of fundraising for that. It’ll be called Tidal Mill Distilling Company.
We’re looking forward to it. One last question… what do you want your legacy to be?
You know, I’m proud of what my partners and I have done and I know I’ll have my bars and restaurants as part of that. But right I would like to be known as someone making a really good bourbon in Brooklyn. One that’s sustainably and ethically made and distributed throughout America. I’ll make sure to send you some of our first batch.
Phil also gave us some great advice for first-time bar and restaurant owners. See what he shares in 5 Tips for Opening a Bar or Restaurant from Industry Veteran Phil Morgan.