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Behind the Business of Grant Achatz’s Next Restaurant

PAIR OF ACES: Grant Achatz has assumed the mantle of Chicago’s hottest celebrity chef. But Nick Kokonas—the money guy behind the scenes—may be his equal in innovative thinking

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Alinea alum David Beran, the 29-year-old chef of Next, the new restaurant that morphs
“Grant and I are the only two people who can handle the marketing stuff,” he says. “It’s almost like running a political campaign. You have to be on message. We know what we want the identity of Next and The Aviary to be and what the goals are. As soon as we [delegate the job] to someone else, it starts looking corporate really fast, and I don’t want it to feel corporate.” In his PR capacity, he fields media and appearance requests, monitors the Internet for mentions, corresponds with bloggers, and writes copy for the partnership’s various websites. He recently took it upon himself to adapt the memoir into a screenplay; David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) is attached to the project as the director. “This is what I do at two in the morning while I drink my pinot,” Kokonas says.

This elaborate gesture—a restaurant backer inviting a reporter to his house to look at spreadsheets—is, in fact, pure theatre. For the record, Alinea makes about $1 million in profit in a good year, on a margin that ranges from 8 to 18 percent of gross receipts, depending on consumption, food costs, and equipment replacement; this past January, Alinea made a profit of $60,000 on $500,000 in revenue, or about 12 percent—staggeringly high compared with the restaurant industry’s target of 5 percent. The numbers, however, may be the least interesting aspect of the business. The intriguing supporting narrative is that Achatz, the visionary, has found in Kokonas, the money guy, a partner who is perfectly in tune with his desire to try new ideas, push boundaries, and reinvent the wheel when necessary. More than just making great restaurants, together they’re building a tiny empire of innovation, one cool project at a time.

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