As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Branden McRill.
Branden McRill is the restaurateur and founder of Fine-Drawn Hospitality, the respected hospitality group that brought Walnut Street Café, Walnut Street Market, The Post, and Sunset Social to Philadelphia.
Branden started his restaurant career in Grosse Pointe, Michigan in 1998. After moving to Chicago in 2002, he spent the next six years working at some of the nation’s most celebrated restaurants including Alinea, Blackbird, Avec and Tru. In 2008, Branden relocated to New York to work at The Modern at MOMA for Danny Meyer’s beloved Union Square Hospitality Group. From there, he held positions at Jean-Georges, Benoit, The Mark Hotel by Jean-Georges, The Hotel Williamsburg, and Red Rooster.
After a little over a decade spent working alongside and learning from these iconic chefs and restaurateurs, Branden opened his first restaurant, Pearl & Ash, in 2012. In 2015, the success of Pearl & Ash led him to open a second concept, Rebelle, which earned a Michelin star later that year.
His travels brought him to Philadelphia, where he became enamored with the city’s vibrant and burgeoning culinary scene. He made Philadelphia home and introduced Walnut Street Cafe to University City in 2017. The restaurant received a three bell review from The Inquirer and the Eater Award for “Design of the Year.” In 2019, he expanded to open a casual neighborhood beer hall, The Post, and a breezy rooftop concept, Sunset Social, both at Cira Green. In Summer 2020, he introduced Walnut Street Market, which serves bright, seasonal fare and sells locally sourced food products, flowers and provisions. Branden currently resides in Center City Philadelphia.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Injured playing soccer when I was 15 led me to seeking an outlet for my pent-up energy, which ended up being my first restaurant job at the Grosse Pointe Hunt Club, and equestrian club in my hometown. The GM at the time, Judy Hopper, hired me to park cars and wash dishes on the spot, and I kept going from there for the next 23 years.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
One of the funniest things (though not at the time) was when I was the pre-construction Dir. of F&B for the Hotel Williamsburg (Brooklyn’s First Full Service Hotel ((now McCarren Hotel & Pool)), and we were in the F&F phase and the developers/owners of the hotel group and their families were all at one large table having dinner. They had asked me to choose a bottle of champagne for them to start, and when I was in the process of opening when the bottle it slipped from my hand, hit the floor squarely and erupted all of the wine in a firework-like explosion all over the wives of the hotel owners (all of whom were seated on the same side of the table). I was mortified and couldn’t move or speak until one of the owners stood up laughing, which led to everyone else at the table laughing, and said aloud to everyone “thats why we do these things … to get the nerves out now … better us than real guests!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Donnie Madea, owner/operator of One-Off Hospitality in Chicago. Having started my fine dining career in Chicago, and having had spent some time in a few different institutional restaurants, was when I first found Donnie Madea, working the floor in Avec. I was working in a neighboring restaurant around the corner called Butter, and would often stop in for a late-night bite after service (Avec was open late). I think it may have been my third night in a row sitting by myself at the bar, taking down 6–8 dishes (dbl for one person) including 2 or 3 glasses of wine in front of me, when he finally approached me and said something to the effect of ‘who are you?’. I introduced myself, and we became friends and eventually I asked him for a job and became a bartender and banquet captain at Blackbird and a food runner at Avec. I believe Donnie to be one of the most well-rounded hospitality professionals in the U.S. His restaurants consider food/service/design/architecture/beverage/locale/community/staff/culture in equal proportions where necessary and in greater capacity towards empathy and humanity, which is where it counts. Donnie leads from the heart and not a balance sheet and it shows in everything he and his team does (who are equally well-intended and talented people). He’s the best.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Early stage efforts and energies were certainly spent towards work-ethic/execution/outcome/efficiency/solidarity / team-building/hospitality/good-fun/ good-wine / paying bills / education staff / serving guests / good vendor relations.
Lately, though, the backbone of the company still remains as above and more, though these things seem to have fallen away to a current consideration of what can we do to:
1. Keep our staff and guests healthy
2. Take care of our guests from an empathy standpoint versus experientially
3. Serve a greater good towards community and human-kind.
We’re evolving as the world changes quickly and working tirelessly to keep ourselves informed and active and allied with the ideals and activations of like-minded individuals/groups/causes, and are continuing to make self-improvements as well.
I feel like myself and the team are learning and applying new knowledge daily, and the positive energy is catching, and spirit-lifting.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
The current mantra surrounding our teams conversations is “this is really hard.” Everyone’s having a really hard time. This is very scary and everything is uncertain. How can we possibly accomplish with these circumstances? Then, we all agree we feel this way, that it’s ok to feel that way, and that feeling that way is normal. After that’s all out on the table collectively, it allows for everyone to align and mutually move forward knowing the person next to you is having the same challenges and the same anxiousness. That’s a freeing and strengthening thing. And it has given us a unity and a camaraderie that is helping us clear hurdles, move mountains, and tackle tough challenges.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
90–120 days of uncertainty in a time when the world slowed slightly caused a considerable amount of people to reflect deeply and in all aspects of their life. Similar to most, I believe my mind wandered to all of the different conversations of “what could have been/what could be/what will be.” Ultimately, I landed at the current understanding that I am doing exactly what I want to be doing and that my current work is important and that I should continue to pursue it. The time also allowed me the opportunity to determine that I could be better and do better for my team/guests/myself, and I’ve applied a lot of those practices and will continue to, as long as I’ve got the opportunity to do so. The time has also allowed me the opportunity to think about the things I want to accomplish (additionally and not in lieu of) and I’ve begun learning some new trades, investigating some new opportunities, taking some classes, and picking up speed on some side projects as well. Slowing down to assess has allowed me to move ahead faster than ever before, which is creatively liberating and a very exciting time personally.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Maintaining the momentum, even if you (and definitely when) the direction is changing day-to day. “Make a plan, get it ready, throw it out” was our on-repeat process for the first 60 days. The inside joke became “this is definitely the last time were going to make a change of our plan”… levity is important in crisis management! On the tail-end of wherever we are at, and moving forward in to wherever it is were going, we are all more 1. Resilient 2. Flexible 3. Knowledgable 4. Empathetic 5. Creative 6. Strong-willed 7. Motivating of ourselves and others than ever before.
The last 5 months has created an iron-bond with this team and I believe there is little we can’t handle or accomplish. Believing that and leading with that is working with and for us right now.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Talk / talk / talk / talk / plan / plan / plan / plan / act /act / act / act / act.
Assess / re-plan / talk / talk / talk / act /act / act.
YOU’VE GOT TO KEEP MOVING.
Set goals. Determine as a group what’s important, and what rules can be bent and broken and then bend and break what needs to be. Don’t use old practices because they’re old. Don’t use best-practices because they are no longer best and don’t apply. Don’t measure now against last year. Don’t plan too far out … or if you do, get TOO committed to those plans.
Consider and be pragmatic but don’t get frozen or analysis paralysis.
Don’t be scared to be first. Hell, be first.
Get in there.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Honesty, sincerity, transparency, firm, fair, open, empathetic, and with compassion and a resolution and potentially suggestions (if possible). Be real.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
By disregarding the fact that you likely throw those plans out, and by embracing the fact that the sheer exercise of developing those plans was beneficial and will likely be the building blocks of the next thing or the thing you inevitably do and that all creation leads to somewhere (even if you have to re-trace or re-track), at least you are MOVING.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
No. Every team is different. Make-ups/goals/etc.
Though, I can say for those I spend most of my time with, it’s that honesty/transparency/communication/work-ethic/purpose/intention/grit/speed/determination are what’s carrying us right now.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Idle. Scared to make mistakes. Scared to go first. Stick with the wrong plan for too long. Be scared of what other people think. Afraid to ask for help. Afraid to be vulnerable.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
The Post, Walnut Street Cafe and Sunset Social, have all been trying to find their new footing during COVID-19.
The Post is a 7,000 square foot beer hall with arcade games that historically thrived for large groups convening on game day to share beer, nachos, sliders and play shuffleboard, skee-ball and vintage arcade games. Those were the “before times.” We’ve decided to transform the space into a virtual food hall and incubator space, with three restaurant concepts under one roof, while operating The Post as its independent concept, too.
Walnut Street Cafe pivoted to offer an open-air market concept in front of the restaurant, dubbed the Walnut Street Market, selling grab-and-go sandwiches and salads, plus locally made pantry items and floral bouquets. We were one of the first to pivot to grocery before it became a national trend.
Sunset Social sits atop 1.2 acres of green space on the Cira Green rooftop, which allows for ample social distancing for our guests. We’ve also used this space to host pop-ups with local businesses who are working in a diminished capacity due to stay at home limitations/ social distancing, as well as with chefs who’ve been displaced amidst the pandemic or aren’t able to work at their full capacity.
Across all concepts, we’re doing our best to give back to the local community by partnering with charities that align with our mission and value system.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
Opposite of this: Idle. Scared to make mistakes. Scared to go first. Stick with the wrong plan for too long. Be scared of what other people think. Afraid to ask for help. Afraid to be vulnerable.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I spend several hours a day reading, so I can say that there a lot of people and quotes that have affected me positively. Instead of attempting to measure or compare, I’d rather share the one I read today that I enjoyed:
“Everyone sits and dwells and debates and over thinks and thinks and ponders and asks friends and mentors and thinks and sleeps on and thinks and debates and ponders again and second guesses and worries and stresses and after all that get it wrong 50% of the time … so why not just …make a call that feels right and end up being right 50% of the time.” — Gary Vee
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