In March of 2012, many were surprised to learn that Frank McClelland decided to sell his original Sel de la Terre waterfront location after "receving an offer [he] couldn't refuse." The maker of that offer? Bill Brodsky, who was the executive chef of the Wequassett Resort on Cape Cod. After a four-month renovation and remodel, Brodsky opened his contemporary American restaurant, City Landing. One year and a small handful of positive professional reviews later, Brodsky spoke to Eater about the experience of opening his first restaurant, how his time running a seasonal resort prepared him for this new role, and the "mind-blowing" flattery he feels when former Cape regulars make the trek to Boston.
So, one year in, how does it feel?
It feels great, actually. Just really exciting. It's hard to believe that a year has gone by. It certainly doesn't feel like it. It's just remarkable how fast it went. It feels like we only opened our doors a few months ago.
Do you have memories of opening night or is it a blur for you?
It's a little of both. It was certainly a blur. However, I remember the distinct feeling of "holy cow, I've been working on this project for a year and a half and we are finally at the starting line!" I remember a sense of relief, I remember a sense of fear, and quite a bit of exuberance. It felt like we had climbed a large portion of a mountain.
How did opening night go overall?
We had done a friends and family night and that was probably our overwhelming shift. "How are we going to do this for people that are paying money?" But our opening night was pretty smooth. We didn't open up to 400 people. It wasn't something that we heavily promoted, because we wanted to kind of open soft and really focus on our guests' experiences rather than just a big financial windfall out of the gate.
You are in the old Sel de la Terre space and it took many by surprise when they found out that the sale took place. How did you come to say "I want to be there?"
I had been looking for a solid year. We probably toured over 35 different spaces and had done research on over 75 when I had gotten word that Sel might be interested in looking to part with the assets and the space. At that point, I had my broker reach out to Frank McClelland. The financials made sense. It was a space that I was very fond of. I was a big fan of Sel de la Terre. Since we've moved in, we've certainly had to invest some money in infrastructure and maintenance systems, as it had been a little run-down. We are absolutely delighted with the space and the renovation that we put in.
Was there anything specific that you put in to execute your menu that had not been there before?
Oh yeah! I probably spent over $100,000 just in the kitchen. We upgraded refrigeration. We added a tilt skillet. We added a blast chiller. We added a four-deck pizza oven. We've reconfigured the whole kitchen. We gutted the entire storage space down in the basement and set it up to be more efficient. So yeah, we spent a lot of money trying to get the back of the house in a good place as well as renovations for the guest side.
This is your first ownership project. Have you participated in any previous openings before or was that process new to you as well?
Well, I've never opened a restaurant from scratch. But, working on the Cape, I was in a seasonal environment. The resort that I was at, Wequassett, had three restaurants, banquet facilities, in-room dining, the whole kit and caboodle. We used to actually close every year so I wasn't a stranger to reopening a property. There were many aspects of the City Landing opening that echoed what I was used to. Obviously hiring an entire new staff and having to train them, that was really the game changer. Getting people to cook your food is easy when you are training one or two people at a time and you have a lot of people coming back. But to start off with a whole new crew, it required a great amount of patience, and also determination. To this day, we are still training, constantly trying to raise the bar. I think we are in a good place. A year in, and I am finally feeling like we are okay.
What precipitated your move from the Cape to Boston? Was it simply that desire to cook year round or was there something more than that?
I think there were a couple of things. Number one: I've always wanted to go into ownership. I had a very cushy job on the Cape that I really loved, but it wasn't mine. I really wanted to open my own restaurant and start my own company. What was really attractive about moving to Boston was I didn't want to open it in a seasonal environment; I wanted to open it in a place that would provide for year-round business. So, the Cape got crossed off my list. I've always loved Boston. I've always thought it had a lot of cultural things that, perhaps living on the Cape, wouldn't be there for my family to experience.
About that year-round draw. Have you noticed that winter in the Aquarium area is quiet?
It's obviously a lot quieter. It's really quiet during the winter. But it's not like I am closing the doors for three months and then laying people off. I think that's the primary difference. Obviously, summertime is our high season, but I am talking about completely closing on the Cape. Although it's nice for quality of life, it makes it hard to maintain really good help when you are in that kind of volatile environment. Not to mention the continuity of service. When you close the doors, people forget things and you have to retrain them.
It's interesting that you mention service because the professional reviews have mentioned that you seemed to start out of the block with a great sense of service. Do you have a front of the house magician there or is this coming straight from the kitchen?
I feel that dining as a whole is experiential. It's got to be seamless from start to finish. So we've focused on making sure that culturally, everyone in the restaurant is in tune and that we are promoting a total package. Of course we want the food to be brilliant and great; every restaurant strives to have great food. But I think that a lot of restaurants out there, fail to see the importance of service. Maybe they focus too much on just the food aspect. We actually have a program called "City Landing University" where we have one-on-one classes for each position. We talk about all the technical proficiencies that are an important part of our service, but we also focus on the philosophy of hospitality and reading our guests to make sure we are anticipating their needs and providing the customized service that really is going to be the best solution for them.
When you were on the Cape, did you have regulars there? Or was it a transient customer base?
We absolutely had a regular fan-base and a clientele. What's amazing is that I see those people up here all the time. I would say, a few times a week one of the staff comes into the kitchen and says "Hey, there are these people that used to dine with you, do you have some time to come out and say 'hello' to them?" and I always do. It's so nice to see people that are loyal and identify with what you are doing.
Are these Bostonians who are coming to visit you at home now?
Oddly enough, it's a mix. I would say that probably 75% of them are Bostonians who, when they summered on the Cape, dined with us. However, there are people from the Cape that come up as well, which is really mind-blowing. They can go to any restaurant in Boston but they choose to dine with us. It's flattering, for sure.
How much time do you spend reading the feedback from either professional reviewers, Yelp, or any of those sources? How does that influence, or does it influence you?
It absolutely influences me. I probably tune in to that stuff several times a week and audit what our customers are saying. We also have a comprehensive guest feedback comment card program. We are absolutely listening. I am not one of those chefs that kind of feels "well, either you identify with what I do or you don't." I love feedback. Obviously, some feedback is better than others. Typically, when people are objective in a review and can provide a balance of "okay, I liked this but I didn't like this," those are the ones that typically have more credibility. I sit down with my team on a routine basis and we vet through it. I try to respond to most of it.
If there's something that I feel where we've really made a mistake, we want to own it as a company. All too often, people write off bad reviews. Why would you ever want to do that? Why not accept ownership of it? Maybe the guest was in a bad mood when they wrote it, or maybe not. It really doesn't matter, at the end of the day, it's feedback. We always look for patterns in feedback. If one person says this dish was too salty, okay, maybe the cook was a little heavy-handed, or maybe that person has a different palate. But, if we are seeing it on a consistent basis, we certainly audit it and perform a gut-check to make sure that it is the dish in fact that we think it is.
The area you are in is tourist-heavy. Have you had any crazy experiences that you had to deal with in the dining room?
I don't think we've had anything that's atypical for a restaurant. We certainly get our share of tourists that want to use our bathroom. We get the occasional person that has had one too many and we've had to stop serving. That's never fun. I can remember, we got blasted on Yelp one time by this guy who was absolutely obnoxious, drunk, and inappropriate with the service staff. He turns around and dings us after we refuse to serve him. It was just absolutely obnoxious. But, you know, that's just society, sometimes that happens.
Looking forward, is there anything you want to do differently or additionally that you haven't yet had a chance to try in your first year?
Absolutely. I just felt like we got our menu to a good place this spring, to where we've figured out our clientele and are tailoring the dishes we offer to them. We've increased the amount of shared appetizers. We went to a little bit more of a seafood focus than we had initially out of the gate. I'm looking forward to our fall menu. I think it's really more about bringing sustainable seafood to the forefront. It's something that we've done in partnership with the New England Aquarium. Sometimes restaurants get pigeon-holed into these dishes that are very popular, that people love, and it's hard to pull those off to move on to the new dish. I always try to cycle out a good 50% of my menu on flips, and, sometimes, it's some of those old dishes that go, to make room for some new stuff and keep it interesting for people.
Eater Boston intern Gabriel Bellegard Bastos transcribed this interview.
· All coverage of City Landing on Eater [~EBOS~]
· All coverage of Bill Brodsky on Eater [~EBOS~]
· All coverage of One Year In on Eater [~EBOS~]