Chef Eliot King and his wife Jennifer Jackson-King are the team behind Prima, a restaurant that's been in business on Lyndale Avenue for 12 years. Two of the couple's other restaurants have since come and gone. Three Fish closed near Lake Calhoun in 2008, and a second Prima location in Minnetonka closed in 2010. We sat down with the couple to talk about what they have learned in their last decade of running restaurants. This is the second in a three-part series. (Read part 1 here.)
What have you learned from all your experience in the industry? Eliot: It's a lot easier just to do one [restaurant].
Jennifer: Less is more. We both met when we were in Corporate Restaurant America. Eliot was a regional chef, and we were [accustomed] to multi-unit management at a corporate level. So when we opened this small restaurant, and then we did Three Fish on Lake Calhoun a couple years later, and then we did Prima Minnetonka a few years after that, we were [accustomed] to juggling multiple restaurants.
But here we are, 20 years later, not in corporate America anymore, and we're not 25 or 35, and we appreciate quality time. That outweighs the delight of opening multiple restaurants. [We appreciate] being able to do the farm and really cultivate something special--because with three restaurants there is no way [it would work]. It's just a whole different chapter in our lives.
Eliot: I found it harder to own three restaurants, as opposed to working for a company that owned three restaurants. When they're actually yours, it's more difficult because you care about them a little bit more. So that was kind of hard--trying to be everywhere all the time, and trying to make sure everybody is 100 percent doing things the way you'd like them to. It's a lot easier when it's just the one restaurant to be able to control that kind of stuff.
Jennifer: And that certainly comes with some life sacrifices. You have to accept less in life personally, with only one store. But I think I'm willing to give all that up to see what comes out of the kitchen and know I'm here every day. There is a great sense of pride in knowing what's happening at one store.
Has the restaurant industry changed since you started working in it? Eliot: Big time. It has become a lot more difficult to make money in it. Because of the economy, increasing costs, and increasing taxes, it makes it a lot more difficult. It used to be a lot easier. You just have to make sure you're spending the money where it's really important and try to cut back where it's not. Food cost increases and tax increases and minimum wage increases in the last few years really have made it a lot more difficult.
Jennifer: I think it takes a pretty savvy businessperson to manage a single unit and be able to live off that and thrive and survive. It is so much more difficult than it was five years ago.
How do you share the workload of running a restaurant? Eliot: I do most of the back-of-the-house stuff, and Jennifer does most of the front-of-the-house stuff. Anything else, we just kind of wing it.
Jennifer: I think we're a lot more cross-pollinated than we used to be. I used to be really only front-of-the-house-ish and he was only back-of-the-house-ish, but now he can wear dual hats. Being home at night with our daughter has been more of a priority during grade school years. During the toddler years, it was easier to get a babysitter, and I would come to work at night. But children become these developing little humans that need a lot of parental interaction. Eliot has taken on more at night, working with the front of the house, so that I could be at home.