One year ago, Will Malnati and Doug Jacob opened gastrobar Willow Road (85 Tenth Avenue, 646-484-6566) in the former John Dory space at 85 Tenth Avenue, the same address that holds lofty and destination-worthy dining spots Del Posto, Colicchio & Sons, and Toro, Malnati and Jacob’s newest venture. Both partners have serious chops: Malnati’s restaurant upbringing (he’s the grandson of Chicago deep dish pizza legend Lou Malnati) and Jacob’s marketing savvy (he’s the CEO of branding biz JWALK). And with the launch of two restaurants in a year, these two former Midwesterners are quickly taking NYC by storm — and at a young age, to boot (Malnati is 28, Jacob is 30). In honor of Willow Road’s one year anniversary, we sat down with Malnati to chat first year ups and downs, how he still marks his dad’s words on the restaurant business, and why he’s due for a new pair of winter gloves.
How would you define the concept behind Willow Road?
We definitely wanted to do American, and we wanted to do smaller plates — especially because of the area, where there are a lot of places to go out and a lot of bars. We didn’t want it to be an appetizer and big steak entrée menu, and then when you left you’d be rolling out of there saying you didn’t really want to go out anymore. We wanted to create a small plate situation where you can share a lot of things but also maybe be surprised at the quality of the food. It’s not a long menu, and we change it a lot. I think people appreciate that. We’re seasonal with our ingredients — I think we’re able to keep consistent quality while at the same time giving variety. And our place is very cozy and warm — it’s a place where you could have a drink with your buddies or could come to for a business dinner.
How has growing up in the Chicago pizza business impacted your role as a NYC restaurateur?
I was fully immersed in it my whole life, so even though it was something that I didn’t think I even wanted to do — my life’s mission wasn’t always to go into hospitality like my father had — it was in my blood for sure, whether I knew it or not. And I think that it was a very natural progression. The more and more I was at restaurant jobs after hospitality school — the more I was involved — I was able to really remember the things that I learned from my dad and from working at a bunch of Lou Malnati’s through high school and grade school. It’s been really interesting for me to create something apart from Lou Malnati’s because it’s a very different thing that I’m doing here — but at the same time, there are a lot of things that I took from my dad’s company and from the values that he displayed to me growing up about how this service works and how to treat guests. My dad’s whole thing is quality and service and to make sure you treat your team really well. I was able to kind of figure out how to do that on my own, but in the back of my head, I was remembering his words and his philosophy and the way that I saw him deal with those things — and I made sure I was able to translate it in New York. I thank him everyday for the things he was teaching me.
The first year of a restaurant in NYC can be a sink or swim period — what do you feel sets you apart in the competitive and fast NYC restaurant world?
First of all, we’re lucky. We have a good location — our neighborhood has grown in the last year, with more apartment buildings and retail popping up here. That has helped. The main thing, though, is that we’ve really kept a strong team. A lot of the servers, bussers, and bartenders have been with us since the beginning. What we’ve created is kind of like a family in there. And we’ve kept people motivated and we’ve kept our staff learning. Also — it’s really about just keeping a close eye on it. And so I’ve been really involved, and so has Doug. There was never a week, or a day for that matter, that I wasn’t in there for at least an hour to oversee things — and there still isn’t. I have complete faith in my GM and chef — but at the end of the day, it’s still a new restaurant. There’s something to be said about an owner’s presence in there, too, to remind people that we care about the place and that we’re right there with them when it’s crazy and right there with them when it’s not so crazy.
What did you keep in mind when forming the team?
I think it was really important to find people that were very likeable. And someone that you’d want to hang out with outside of the restaurant — because that translates to guests and that translates to how you work with each other. The thing about Willow Road is, there’s no back of house, really. There’s an open kitchen — you see every part of the restaurant. So our biggest thing was always to make sure people are getting along with each other and that people are on the same team because it’s too small of a place for them not to be. We’ve tried to make sure that our people are team players and behind each other all the way. Whether you’re a manager or a host or a dishwasher, it’s everyone’s job to make sure this place is represented as well as it can be. We really aimed to find people that held that same ideal, to do whatever it took to make sure that the place was great and was a place they could be proud to work at. We want them preparing the restaurant as if their mother was coming in to eat every night, from the cleanliness to the food.
What has surprised you about this past year?
What was really made apparent to us was that the smaller the place, the harder you have to work everyday to make sure that it keeps going. In a larger space, you can get away with a lot more as far as costs go. You have one bad week, and, most likely, you can make up for it. With a smaller restaurant, because there’s only a certain amount of revenue you can do, it’s very tough to make sure you’re making money every week no matter how busy you are. So I think we had to find that balance of how to create the best experience for our guests while also making sure we’re not just a break-even restaurant.
What is one of the biggest takeaways from year one?
A funny thing happens when you’re not constantly making changes, when you’re not constantly trying to do something a different way or constantly making sure you’re being the best that you can be — and that’s that no one comes. What we’ve really learned is that we have to always be on top of our game in a lot of different ways. Someone always used to say to me, “A funny thing happens when you stop promoting — no one knows you exist.” And by promoting, I mean that our FOH staff is making sure they know the person on table eight and making sure they have their information so they feel a little more special and like they’re going to get taken care of at Willow Road. In New York there are a lot of places you can go, but if guests have a connection with the restaurant’s people, the more they’re going to come back.
This first year has been a lot, a lot, a lot. But now we finally feel like we’ve got the hang of it. It doesn’t mean it gets easier — it just means we know what things are working and what things aren’t working. And so we really push hard on the things that are working.
What do you hope guests take away from their experience at Willow Road?
I think consistency is number one — and I don’t mean just by the food tasting the same the first or 17th time. That’s obviously a part of it. But we want to give them our experience that they can expect to have. They know it’s going to be a great vibe, great music, great service, and great food. So I think that as much as we can give people that same experience that doesn’t fluctuate, the more we can continue to be great.
What advantages and disadvantages have you experienced as being young restaurateurs?
Advantages: You don’t have to sleep as much — you can rally and still be functioning. And we have a lot of energy. Disadvantages? I don’t know. I think it’s OK to be young in the industry now and to take people seriously in this industry, no matter how old you are. I mean, look at the Torrisi guys, for example. These guys are around 28 and 30 also, and they’re killing it. And there are a lot of people not far off from that age who are killing it, too. We’re not the youngest out there or the oldest — and at this stage in our lives, it’s nice to be able to learn from our direct peers as well. We’re still learning all the time and will never stop learning.
Has it been challenging to split your time between Willow Road and your new restaurant Toro, which is located in the same building?
Yeah, I’m the crazy person running around, around and around. I still do laps around this building, like, 50 times per night — and now that it’s getting cold I might have to get some gloves or something. But the fact that the restaurants are in the same building makes everything a lot easier.
What’s in store for Willow Road’s future?
We went into it always saying that we don’t want this to be a place that’s around for a few years and then switch it. Our goal was always to create a spot that is totally sustainable and that could be around for 20 years. We look at a lot of groups that have this real staying power, and we want to become a mainstay of the neighborhood. And as the neighborhood continues to grow, we want to grow with it. There are a lot of changes that are going to happen within the next six to 12 months in this area that we hope will only propel us more.