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Craig Neubecker '90 shares his secrets to restaurant success
by Noah Leavitt
In 1999, Craig Neubecker '90 opened Zebra's Bistro and Wine Bar in Medfield, MA. Since then it's become one of the most popular, and best reviewed restaurants in MetroWest Boston. Since 2003, Neubecker has also operated Perfect Pear Catering. He lives in Wrentham with his wife Janet (whom he met at Curry) and their two children, ages 13 and 16. Curry Magazine sat down with the Management alum to discuss his 20-plus year career in the restaurant business, and his advice to potential entrepreneurs.
CM: How did you get started in the restaurant industry?
CN: "I worked at restaurants through high school and college. Out of Curry I went to go manage a restaurant on the South Shore in Norwell. From there I wanted to learn more of the true management or business decisions behind running a restaurant. The manager that hired me suggested I go work for a chain. I didn't want to work for a greasy chain so I chose Au Bon Pain. I worked with them for about nine years in operations then marketing, and I was their new concept development manager; developing new concept restaurants for them. It taught me a lot of systems-managerial and financial systems. They were so well structured that they could have teenagers running restaurants. I wanted to be able to adapt to some of those systems that were really strong, that some independent restaurants don't have."
CM: Talk about opening Zebra's Bistro and Wine Bar. Why has it been successful?
CN: "Our base is really customers that don't want to drive to Boston or Providence for dinner. When we first opened, no one was in this upscale, casual niche in this area. When we first opened we had a customer tell us we were going to fail because we weren't an Italian restaurant-that people only want to eat at Italian restaurants. The customer base has changed too. The Food Network has helped that a lot. People buy cook books now for leisurely reading rather than just for recipes. The food has definitely evolved. The food knowledge of the general public is a lot further along than it used to be."
CM: How would you describe the food at Zebra's Bistro and Wine Bar?
CN: "New American. Our chef has personal relationships, [and is] close friends with fishermen, and knows a lot of the local farmers. Some of them come right to the back door. Where I live in Wrentham is surrounded by local farms, and we have a lot of friends that run local farms so it was just natural to go pick things up. Plus, we have a traditional kitchen garden at our house. We grow things that we get the best harvest and yield out of for the restaurant. So, in addition to keeping bees there, we do tons of our herbs there and vegetables. The whole trend now is farm-to-table, but I think we were doing that already by default because we live in a farm area, more so than because it was a term we had heard."
CM: Do you feel pressure to have your restaurant jump those trends?
CN: "I don't think we jump on those trends. I see the media talking more about what the trends are. Food writers and television producers are looking for the next trend to talk about, so they find what places are doing and call it a trend. I think once people get accustomed to a better quality food, they can't go backwards. It's evolving, growing, and getting better. And we have more advanced cooking techniques and more access to foods from around the world than ever before, and that continues to evolve. The restaurant world changes so fast. It's like being on a treadmill. If you're not running you get thrown off the back."
CM: Talk about your relationship with your Executive Chef Brendan Pelley.
CN: "He's a very impressive chef. His personality matches up well with mine and our managers, and together we make a good team that has a great vision. He's worked at some fantastic restaurants. With Chef Brendan, I don't touch the menu. He has 100% complete control, which is really nice because I have absolute faith in him. Other chefs I worked with I would always try to give them ideas or influence them. With him I can't hold a candle to what he can do. He's so far beyond me; I'm so blown away by his skill, his abilities, his talents, and professionalism."
CM: How did Curry College prepare you for your career in the restaurant industry?
CN: "I grew up in an area [Buffalo, NY] where if you [were] stepping out and doing something on your own everybody would be saying, ‘you can't do that, you're gonna fail, you're gonna fail.' At Curry that wasn't there-there was much more optimism that you could do it. Another thing that helped a great deal was that I worked on a business plan. I was actually trying to open a restaurant [a hot dog stand] with another student. [Management Professor] Ernest Silver was a fantastic mentor and worked with us helping us get that done, understand it, and trying to make it work as a reality. That was sort of the culture. Your professors were like mentors. It was a good, strong relationship. I don't think much about business plans because we've been open so long, but then that was a key factor because it forces you to think through and be honest with yourself, and put numbers to paper and talk it through with your partner. It forces you to talk through every little issue that you may have an assumption about in the back of your head and you go through that the process until you can truly see it with your eyes closed...you can smell it, you can taste it, you can feel it. When you really have that down on paper you can start moving forward."
CM: What would be your advice to anyone else planning to open a restaurant?
CN: "Restaurants look like they're very easy to run, but just because you like to eat out doesn't mean you can open a restaurant. A lot of people that have worked in the industry for a long time have been in just one job, and they think they can open a restaurant. Work every job in the restaurant: wait tables for a year, be a bookkeeper for a year, cook for a year, be a bartender for a year, be a host for a year; every single job you can think of. Manage a restaurant for somebody else for a couple of years and then go for it."