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Steve Hanson Wants You To Be Happy

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For any restaurateur, one of the most intractable problems is staff turnover: A waiter good enough to last nine months is considered to have Strom Thurmond-like longevity. Hanson, who freely admits he's a control freak -- "I'm a very organized type-A personality" -- has tried to deal with the problem by putting together more staff manuals than McDonald's. Not only does he describe what to do if a diner mentions a food allergy (alert the kitchen immediately and specially mark the order), but he even addresses flirting etiquette ("When not serving couples, slight flirting is acceptable. Please remember you are not here to pick up guests of the restaurant"). The manual lists his conversational pet peeves. Waiters must never say, "Hi, guys," "How you guys doing?," or "That's my favorite dish." If asked to recommend a wine, servers are urged to start by suggesting a moderately priced bottle, so the customer doesn't feel pressured. "If somebody suggests I buy a $90 bottle of wine," says Hanson, "I hate that guy."

Hanson grew up hearing discussions about marketing techniques at the family dinner table in New Rochelle. His mother, Betty Hanson, was a legendary garment-industry figure who ran the showroom of her longtime friend the designer Anne Klein; his father, Viggo Hall Hanson, was a salesman for the popular line. The couple, both now deceased, later launched their own Betty Hanson sportswear company, where Steve and his older brother, Hall, worked for several years. "My mother had a mind like a steel trap," recalls Hall Hanson Jr., a gentle bear of a man who works as an architect and contractor. "My father was the Mr. Congeniality of Seventh Avenue." As for his kid brother, he adds affectionately, "Steve has always tested the limits; he's always been very, very driven. And he's always wanted to make a lot of money."

Hanson has certainly succeeded at that, and he has the toys to prove it: a 3,000-square-foot million-dollar apartment in the landmark Ansonia with an impressive modern-art collection (a Picasso nude etching graces the hallway; a Miró hangs over the fireplace), the house in the Hamptons, a Ski Nautique powerboat, and what friends say is an endlessly changing array of young, beautiful women. John Vassilaros, a friend who runs a coffee-roasting company, says, "We end up having the same conversation repeatedly -- Steve will say, 'You have your wife and kids. But is it worth giving up your freedom?' " Ask Hanson, a health nut who runs several miles each morning, sees a nutritionist, and gobbles 30 or more vitamin pills daily, whether this behavior represents baby-boomer fear of mortality, and he grins mischievously and replies, "It's Peter Pan."

Perhaps that's why he's been so good at tapping into the cultural Zeitgeist. Hanson's career path has mirrored the trendier moments of his generation. After college, he did the Saturday Night Fever thing, opening a nightclub, Peachtrees, in Westchester. "What could be better as a 25-year-old kid than running a nightclub in the seventies disco era?" he says. After selling the place, he went into his Master of the Universe phase as a commodities broker. "I made $3 million trading in 1980," he recalls, "and then silver crapped out and I lost $1.5 million in five weeks." Knowing the money-is-no-object mind-set of Wall Street whizzes, he makes sure his restaurants offer elaborate reserve wine lists including $260 Montrachets.

Those wines, mind you, are being paired with comfort food (chopped salad, grilled chicken paillard with mashed potatoes, seared tuna) on menus on which entrées cost as little as $12.95 and peak at $19.95. Hanson has taken a
lesson from his years in the fashion industry in designing his menus: He knows consumers profess to be intrigued by fashion-forward, trendy styles but stick with tried-and-true classics and less-expensive knockoffs. "The newest food inventions will show up a year later at B.R. Guest," says Barry Wine, the former chef-owner of the famed Quilted Giraffe, who consulted on the menu for Ruby Foo's.

Though Hanson occasionally splurges on an expensive consultant like Wine, he generally hires young chefs who can make a tasty asparagus-and-lobster salad but aren't encouraged to push the culinary edge. As Michael Whiteman puts it, "Steve hires people for his kitchens who are willing to concede that he's the boss -- which is unusual." There are tangible business advantages to hiring chefs who aren't prima donnas. Hanson has a cost-saving centralized purchasing operation for his restaurants that is the envy of his peers. "I'd like to do that when I grow up," says Danny Meyer. "But when you have a chef-driven restaurant, each chef takes a certain pride in having their own purveyors." Similarly, by not promising his customers famous-name food, Hanson has made himself less vulnerable. "No one person is essential to Steve," says Howard Muchnick, a lawyer who puts together the investor partnerships to back Hanson's restaurants. "So he's never in the situation where if he loses a chef, the place will never be the same."


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