Prime, H20, Tellers, Verace, Beachtree and coming soon, Monsoon
Best Friend: Baron, 10-year-old German Shepherd
Confidant: Brother Kurt
When you sit down in front of a guy who’s got over 1,000 seats in over 34,000 square feet of restaurants across Long Island, you expect a little swagger. You figure he’s going to continue ad nauseum about the cost of tomatoes, whole-wheat pasta or semolina, tenderloin vs. New York Strip (he likes the NY Strip). But instead, Michael Bohlsen is waxing on a much larger scale in a very self assured, fully realized sense of self, sort of way. The guy who spends all his time at his family’s restaurant group is actually a Duke-educated history buff who steals private time to travel the world, take in cultural events and fish in Guatemala with his brother and counterpart in the business. He exudes confidence and intelligence, he’s relaxed in empowering those around him and sees his customers as something like stakeholders. And he clearly loves the legacy of the family business his father started as much as the opportunities the future will bring.
I enjoy the social aspect, you develop a rapport with clients, but you only go so far. It should be about the place, not about the person. I love the people—everyone, the guests and the employees.
Trust is central here, because it’s a family business. My dad’s an active advisor and my brother’s a really talented guy, we play off each other nicely. The partnership between my brother and me is crucial. Kurt oversees the design of each building, manages the buildout, maintains them and works with the local municipalities. Basically, he does all of the things that allow me to do my job without too much distraction. Without our partnership, we would simply not be able to do what we do.
I was a nerd, I went to school for history at Duke and then business school in San Francisco. But I can’t imagine doing something else—every day is different. It’s an amazing feeling—we get to do a party every day. It’s an honor and responsibility. People have their special life occasions and events here. For Long Island, dinner is the night out. They’re going to risk their Saturday night in your place, and they only get one all week.
You have to keep changing things and reinvent to make yourself interesting. (Him too: Michael’s had more hairstyles and shapes of beards than I can count in the 5 or 6 years I’ve known him). You need creative marketing. Consistency of greatness. When something doesn’t work, you have to be willing to change it. And change it quickly. But stick to your standards (the best food, best decor, best locations).
If we’re not getting better, we’re getting worse. Restaurant first, bar second, catering third. We always keep that order and we don’t let one impinge on the other. We close the bars at 1am, even if they’re busy, because nothing good happens after 1am.
It’s a busy life, not a lot of time for “woe is me.” It’s a balance between pride and fear. Because we’re striving for perfection, there’s always some disappointment. But I try not to focus on the 2%, I try to focus on the 98% that turned out well. It’s ok to be competitive but it shouldn’t be cutthroat because that’s no fun. There’s enough business-it doesn’t have to be that way.
I’m a very lucky guy, I’m in a family business and we have a great group of employees, part of our extended family. In twenty years, I’ll still be doing this-what else would I do?
(excerpt from live interview)