Facing adversity has made renowned restaurant stronger.
Kamal Boulos describes the Refectory through 40 years of fine wines and masterful meals.
“We'd like to think that we create a sort of sanctuary with architecture and ambience, and a dining experience that's a bit elevated—from the quality of the cuisine to the service to the wines,” Boulos says.
“You'll remember the elevated dining experiences that you've had,” he says. “I'm an accumulator of experiences, not an accumulator of things. I'll agonize over spending $100 for the house, but think nothing of spending $600 on a New York dinner and a show. That will create a memory, and it's the memories we treasure.”
There are so many of those memories, but Boulos recalls two stories, one in the midst of a national security crisis, and the other a story of his rescue by wise friends a decade ago.
On Sept. 11, 2001, as the country faced terror attacks on New York and Washington, the Refectory had a memorable visitor as all air travel was suspended.
“The publisher and editor of Wine Spectator, Marvin Shankin, was flying from San Francisco to New York. His plane had to be grounded in Columbus, and he dialed here because he knew who we were,” Boulos recalls.
In 1991, the Refectory had earned the magazine's prestigious Grand Award for its excellent wine list and extensive cellar. It was a turning point. “There were probably 90 winners of the Grand Award in the entire world, and the year we won it, they added six. There were wine cellars that had over 300,000 bottles in inventory, while even at our zenith we had only 25,000.
“To us, it was like knowing it takes $100,000 to climb Mt. Everest, and we had $10,000. And then all of a sudden, how did this happen? We made it to the summit.” The magazine's reviewers considered the breadth and depth of the wine list, just as much as volume, and its publisher remembered the Refectory in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Only five years later, the Refectory met a crisis of its own. Between 2006 and 2007, the Refectory's revenues fell 10 percent. “It was a wake-up call,” Boulos says. Urgently, he convened an advisory board to diagnose the problems. Two issues emerged: Boulos himself had to engage more closely with the business, and the Refectory had to do more for the community.
Boulos acknowledged the pull of family had distracted him, but at first he couldn't understand a lack of community involvement, especially because the restaurant donated 700 to 800 gift certificates a year to community causes.
But Boulos recalls his advisors said, “You think you're being generous, but in actuality you've been snubbing the community all these years,” by not having the Refectory present at charitable events. “If you're not visible at these fundraising events, they said, then the business is invisible for the community.”
Quickly, he worked to turn that perception around, participating in more than 20 events a year. “In 2007 the business came back 5 percent, and in 2008 another 5 percent. But the 2007-2008 recession posed unprecedented challenges. “We thought we were going to be in breadlines in 2009. That's the fear that was out there,” he recalls.
Bleeding “rivers of red ink,” Boulos nonetheless persisted in community charity events, and 2009 revenues surprisingly grew 1 percent, while others cut back and lost sales. “We went to more events in 2009 than anyone else, and those nonprofits became our advocates,” Boulos says.
To Sandy Harbrecht, CEO of Paul Werth Associates, the community strategy reflects Boulos' head and heart. “He knew getting engaged more deeply made sense intellectually, but he's also authentic, a very nurturing and giving kind of person,” Harbrecht says.
Where many businesses chose caution during the recession, Boulos wisely chose to reinvest, Harbrecht says. “If you do that when others are pulling back, that's when you can really grow market share. That's what Kamal did, and when things began to turn around, he was so well-positioned to take advantage.”
Mike Mahoney is a freelance writer.