Executive of the Year, Small Organization: Darren Malhame

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Darren Malhame had just graduated from Duke Law School when his brother, Kevin, came to him with a business proposition.

Kevin and his wife, Katie, wanted to open a restaurant that would pull together exemplary customer service, high-quality food and a social conscience. They hoped Darren Malhame would help, but he wasn't convinced. "Being risk-averse," he says, "I decided we shouldn't all go bankrupt together."

Fast-forward a year later, and the restaurant called Northstar Café was thriving in Columbus's Short North. Malhame, on the other hand, was finding life at the law firm of Kaye Scholer in Washington, D.C. was not all that he hoped it would be. And so Malhame packed his bags and headed to Columbus to join Northstar as a managing partner.

"They had a fantastically attractive vision to make people happy and healthy and change the world doing it," Malhame says. "That was attractive to me."

Although the Malhame brothers grew up outside New York City, Darren went to Amherst College in Massachusetts, while his younger brother, Kevin, headed west to Washington University in St. Louis. There, Kevin met his wife, Katie, a Greenville, Ohio, native. Their mutual desire to open a restaurant led them to the Northstar concept.

Meanwhile, Darren was trying his post-graduate hand at teaching with the faith-based Inner City Teaching Corps in Chicago. "I didn't have an inherent passion for teaching," he says. "It was the greatest growth experience of my life [but] it was not as intellectually challenging as I wanted it to be, so I went to law, which was plenty of intellectual challenge, but not quite enough optimism and positive energy."

So he went to law school, but found working at a corporate firm unfulfilling. "Why I didn't want to be a lawyer is I was not passionate, and I knew I would never be as good as the people I worked for. It was better to be happy at the end of the day, and if I were to die that night that I'd be OK with what I'm doing. I want to have an impact on the world and have fun doing it."

That is exactly what Malhame says he has found at Northstar, where the intent is to create a business that serves local, natural food and treats its customers and its employees as if they were family.

"Darren cares about everybody as an individual," says co-worker and nominator Leigh Nordin. "His legal background has brought a lot to our organization, but underneath is this undercurrent of really being interpersonal and kind and sensitive. He takes an active interest in everybody at Northstar-their lives, families, goals and aspirations, inside Northstar and outside Northstar."

The Northstar concept quickly gained traction in Columbus. The Shorth North restaurant opened in 2004, followed by locations in Clintonville in 2007 and at Easton in 2010. Third & Hollywood, a more sophisticated eatery with table service, opened in Grandview Heights in 2009.

Nicole Kraft is a freelance writer.

Reprinted from the August 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.