Daniel and Lana Wright Are Lifting Up The Next Generation of Food Entrepreneurs

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Photograph by Ryan Back

With a decade of restaurant success at Senate, Abigail Street, Pontiac, Holiday Spirits, and Forty Thieves, Daniel and Lana Wright are lifting up the next generation of food entrepreneurs. We sat down with them to chat about their educational residency program at Forty Thieves.

You’re hosting and mentoring aspiring food entrepreneurs every Sunday at Forty Thieves, the walk-up restaurant inside your bar Holiday Spirits, as part of an educational residency program. How does it work, and why was it something you wanted to do?
Daniel Wright:
We were brainstorming what would make Sundays a little bit more fun around here…. I was like, You know, it’d be really cool if we did a residence program and brought all the people in who are aspiring to run their own kitchen one day but don’t have the forum. They’d either do two Sundays or four Sundays, depending on the concept.

When we put the news out [about it], a bunch of people reached out to us…. There is an interview process that goes into it. They don’t pay rent, and they get to keep 100 percent of their profits. We just ask that they take care of our property, clean the kitchen, stuff like that. Our first one was in November, and it was funny because, you know, the dishes start piling up, and I just look at them like That’s part of this, part of the course. This is your kitchen. You have the ability to make the money, but you also have to staff it with your people to be able to make it through.

What can they learn here that they can’t on their own?
DW:
In a commercial kitchen—to actually be able to put out their own menu and make the decisions on the food—they learn about costing out food and what you can charge versus what you can’t and being able to run the kitchen as if it’s their own. Then that segues into them being able to make money, and they get to keep their profits. I just thought it was a good entry-level opportunity for people to be able to get into this industry and, to be quite frank, decide if they want to break into the industry. By the time the two to four weeks are over, they’re going to have a really good indication of whether this is something they really want to pursue or if it’s something that may just stay as a hobby.

Some might be surprised that as successful restaurateurs you would spend your time helping other people get into the business. How do you look at it?
Lana Wright:
I think, the longer we’ve been restaurateurs, you kind of have to look at it like we haven’t always followed what other people are thinking or doing—we do what we do. We don’t want to ever be jealous or keep anybody else down because that isn’t how this industry should work. I think it’s a very humbling thing, and it’s just a kind of a way to say Hey, let’s see if you’ve got it. There’s enough light to shine for everybody.

What are the biggest challenges jumping into this business?
LW:
We always joke around and say just because you can bake an apple pie doesn’t mean you should open up a pie place because, you know, you have to staff it, you have to do this, etc. You have to understand that, sure, you might be busy on a Friday, but everyone in this neighborhood is busy on a Friday. What are you doing Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday? The hard part of the business is managing the POS [point of sale], learning how to deal with employees, learning how to talk to employees. You know, they may get in one of these residencies and might have hired a couple of their friends, and they might at the end of the day say, I don’t think I’m good at managing people…. I think just giving people that opportunity, even if it’s just a small glimpse of it, is something we feel we can give to people and give them a break when there were people willing to give us breaks.

Photograph by Ryan Back

Who were your mentors early on, and what was your first big break?
DW:
I think we had to make our own big first break, to be honest with you, because I worked for a lot of chefs in Los Angeles and Chicago but I didn’t actually cook in a kitchen when I came here. We came here with the idea to open a restaurant, which is something Lana and I really wanted to do. She spent most of her life in the front of the house, and I spent mine in the back of the house. I’m not saying I haven’t had mentors over time who taught me about kitchen aspects, but I certainly didn’t have anybody teach me about the business aspect of what else it took. There was a lot of trial and error for us when we opened Senate. Obviously it wasn’t anything that we couldn’t do, because we were used to running restaurants for other people in Chicago.

LW: But there were people like Jean-Robert de Cavel, like Alex Mchaikhi, who opened their restaurants, their hearts, and their worlds to us when we first moved back to Cincinnati, and I think it’s people like that who we’re almost modeling because it’s not this insecure thing where it’s like You’re opening a restaurant, I don’t want you in here. I want you working here. You’re going to see what POS I use, and you might steal a couple of employees who you get in good with. Jose Salazar actually worked at Abigail Street while he was building Salazar. We knew he needed a break and knew that he couldn’t work for The Cincinnatian while opening a restaurant. So he worked for us for a couple months.

DW: When we came here, I just was like, I’m done working for someone else. I want to work for myself. I want to run my own kitchen and do my own food. I actually bartended for Jean-Robert and Alex, who were very content knowing exactly what we were trying to do, and they put me behind a bar and didn’t care. Alex would walk up and be like, Hey, this is Danny. He’s opening a restaurant in Over-the-Rhine. And of course all the customers then were like Why would you open a restaurant in Over-the-Rhine? I’d work Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays as a bartender, and he gave me the rest of the week to try to open Senate…. It was very encouraging.

LW: Before we opened Senate, we had run out of money, and it’s in the cookbook (Senate: Street & Savory, City Stories), but we had an angel donor. We had these business plans—it was called The Senate—and passed out maybe 20 or 30 of them, like, Give us $5,000, and we’ll give you a food credit. Nobody, not one person was interested. 3CDC contacted us about this guy, and they said he loves the neighborhood and wants to help. He loaned us $40,000, and of course we’d forfeit everything to him if we failed. The agreement was to pay him back over five years, and we did it in a year and a half. It was a financial break. I feel like the lessons we learned in the restaurant industry we kind of had to figure out on our own.

Are there misconceptions about how much the finances come into play?
DW:
Oh, I think there’s that, yeah. These guys and girls are cooking because it’s what they want to do, but then realizing that there’s far more that goes into the business side, I think it becomes a bigger picture thing for them.

I can tell you guy No. 1 of our residency program [Derrick Braziel of Pata Roja Taqueria] is doing awesome. The first week he made the most money he’d ever made. So he’s continuing to go up and build his confidence and realize there’s something there that people love. And I think that he slowly needs to start doing different things. So it’s not just like, Hey, come in and cook. I try to steer him in the right direction…. My thing is You can’t do what you did last week. You can do al pastor because that’s your signature, but now you have to do something different. He has to push the boundaries and teach himself how to do different stuff.

Did you ever come to that “bigger picture” realization yourself?
LW:
It’s not just, like, I make a good taco. I’m going to be rich. We never ever thought about money when we opened Senate, ever. When we opened those doors, I had an apron on and I thought we were going to have this cute little mom-and-pop place and we were just going to kill it. But at the same time, we were scared to death. What if no one shows up? We were hoping that wouldn’t happen. When we started making money, I remember the first $5,000 went through, and I was like, We have $5,000 in our bank account! That’s crazy! But then I was like, Wait, oh, we’ve got to pay sales tax and workers comp, and we have to pay our employees. And then I was like, Oh, we’re left with $300. People don’t get that.

Why do you think it’s important to help these entrepreneurs get their start?
LW:
I think once you get to a certain point, you’re able to help people instead of feel like they’re going to take something from you. You just give it to them.

DW: I don’t expect everybody who leaves here will go on to open a place. But anybody who does it, hopefully in the future, when they have the ability to go and help someone else, I hope they do it, too. It’s a sort of “pay it forward” mentality.

Forty Thieves, 1538 Race St., Over-the-Rhine, (513) 818-9020

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