Michael Chernow is living a few dreams. In 2010, he and his buddy Daniel Holzman started a modest eatery on NYC’s Lower East Side called The Meatball Shop—an unpretentious joint dedicated to serving the most unpretentious dish done right. It was a hit with snacky nightlife’s and, unexpectedly, with the city’s major critics; within five months, they opened their second location. Now they’ve quadrupled in size, one of the biggest recent success stories in NYC’s brutal restaurant scene, where the failure rate is roughly akin to the Buffalo Sabres’.
Along the way, Chernow’s become a next-gen media star, appearing on the Today show, featured in American Express ads, detailing his workouts (intense) for the Equinox website, modeling for J. Crew. So he can teach us a thing or two about style, management and otherwise. Chernow, 33, talked to us about why now is a great time to strike out on your own, what no entrepreneur should be without, the key to successful personal branding and how to stay in business with a best friend without killing each other.
Today’s market has allowed creative people to grab their balls, quite frankly, and do what they want to do—as opposed to years past when creative people weren’t taken too seriously.
Is this a good time for guys to strike out on their own?
I think entrepreneurship has taken a step in a really strong direction. So many tech tools have given young entrepreneurs ways to market themselves without having to spend a ton of cash. That plays a huge part in starting businesses and allowing younger people to see if their dreams are viable.
My generation, the millennials, are very ambitious, and the competition is pretty fierce, but creativity has really taken a step forward. The American market has allowed many creative people to grab their balls, quite frankly, and do what they want to do, as opposed to years past where creative people really weren’t taken too seriously. The thought used to be, “You have to be an executor 100% of the time, you can’t always be an idea guy.” Given technology today, being an idea guy is actually more important than being an executor, because you can hire the executor. The creative is really where the money is now.
What’s one thing an aspiring entrepreneur should not be without?
The one thing that I needed on me at all times was a notebook and a pen. Every single time I heard something that I needed to remember, I wrote it down. Without a pen or paper on me, it was really hard to build upon my ideas and thoughts. I see a lot of young managers and young entrepreneurs who walk around and take meetings all day. That’s great and all, but if you’re not keeping track of this stuff …
Is there a key to rocking a meeting with a potential investor?
Coming in prepared. Have an answer for any question. Have precise, efficient meetings. Long-winded meetings suck. People get bored easily. Shorter meetings are the way of the future. It’s fine to sum up everything you have to say in very few words.
The key to success in life and in business is accepting the way other people think—not trying to change people.
Clockwise from left: Meatball Shop food porn; more Meatball Shop food porn; Chernow and Holzman on Today (Photos: The Meatball Shop/Facebook
When you were starting out, did you have an element of self-doubt that threatened to hold you back?
I’m somewhat of a fearless guy. When I put my mind to something, failure doesn’t infiltrate. It’s not that I never think that I’m never going to fail, because by God, I’ve failed a number of times in many different areas in my life. But I walk into every situation, specifically venture-wise, with a positive outlook. I don’t really think of the bad stuff.
What’s the key to working with a partner and staying friends?
Constant communication. A little mantra that I say to myself all the time—and that I constantly am screaming at the top of my lungs to the staff in the nicest way possible—is that the key to success in life and in business is accepting the way other people think and not trying to change people. Once you make that part of your DNA, it’s a lot easier to swallow once somebody doesn’t agree with you or see that your decision-making process is viable. A lot of the time, when I feel really passionately about something and my partner doesn’t feel the same way, or vice versa, we give over to the person who is super-passionate about it.
What was your biggest mistake, and how did you recover?
In the beginning, we didn’t know the exact solution for setting up our companies, so we lost a little bit of cash in the beginning through taxes. It was definitely a hitch to us financially as individuals. One thing I learned when I was doing my restaurant-management degree was never cheap out on insurance, never cheap out on a lawyer, and certainly never cheap out or try to fuck with the taxman.
Invest in PR. If you have a story to tell, you’ve got to be able to tell that story.
How did you identify that you had an idea that the public wanted? It wasn’t an idea that hadn’t been tried before.
When my business partner and I looked at developing our concept, we thought, Hey, let’s think about everything through the eyes of the people who are going to be working here. Let’s make it amazing for them, and if we can make it amazing for them, our guests will follow suit.
You’re the face of a brand. You’re on TV, you’re doing American Express ads, you’ve got Equinox calling to do an article on your workouts. How important is personal branding, and how were you able to accomplish that?
My passion is in people more than anything else—engagement. I love to talk with people and touch people. I think for me it somewhat came naturally to be comfortable in those situations. I think that the cooler you are in terms of not being “a cool guy,” the better. Be the most down-to-earth you can be. People want to work with those people. My attitude once we started gaining some media exposure was, “I’m going to put my head down and be as humble as I possibly can and learn every second I possibly can.” People were attracted to that.
One bit of advice I have to give to any entrepreneur that’s opening up a new business, is invest in PR. That could be the thing that distinguishes you from other people in the industry. If you have a story to tell, you’ve got to be able to tell that story. If you don’t know how to do it yourself, there are professionals that know how to expose that.
What’s your media diet?
I read Entrepreneur magazine every month, Inc., Fast Company, Harvard Business Review. I learn a lot from those magazines. They’re great platforms for young entrepreneurs to see what other guys are doing.
What time do you get up in the morning and what time do you go to bed? How much of that time to do you spend working?
I wake up typically at 7am, I start working at around 7:30am, emails and whatnot. I go to bed at around midnight, and I stop working at around 11:58.
Is it necessary to have that kind of schedule to be successful?
For three years I literally worked every single day, non-stop. Could not take a break, was attached to my email. The conversation I have pretty regularly is, what is success? Is it constant work, or is it hard work and play?
In the last year-and-a-half, I told my business partner and my team, “Hey, I’m not working seven days a week. I’m not even working six days a week. I’m working five days a week. You bet your ass I’m going to work as hard as I can for those five days a week, but two days a week I’m giving to my family.” That’s been really successful for me. I learned that 10 or 11 hours a day, five days a week, is more efficient than 16 hours a day, seven days a week.