That said, such creative constraints can be frustrating for ambitious chefs. Jim Botsacos, a chef who has won three-star reviews for his food at Molyvos, recalls his four-year stint as a chef at Hanson's Park Avalon and Blue Water Grill with mixed feelings. "I was 24 years old, and he gave me a shot," Botsacos says gratefully, "but I have a lot more flexibility and creativity now. I'd urge Steve, 'Let's put quail on the menu,' or 'Let's charge 50 cents more so we can use more expensive ingredients; let's show them what we can do.' I told him I wanted to be a three-star chef, but he said he wasn't ready for that kind of operation."
Hanson says he has absolutely no interest in running the kind of pricey, elite place in which food is treated as an art form. "You have to know who you are," he says. "I'd have to raise prices 30 percent and slow down service." He's proud of saving money by insisting his waiters wear their own clothes (in variations of black and white) rather than paying for uniforms and their upkeep.
This attitude has made Hanson a hero to his investors. The restaurant business is so risky that banks won't go near it: a new place opens virtually every day in New York; within two years, more than 75 percent have served their last crème brûlée. But all of Hanson's restaurants have prospered, and his backers -- who include designer Nicole Miller, her CEO, Bud Konheim, and the Jordache jean company -- are getting as much as 35 percent yearly returns, impressive even against the backdrop of a raging bull market.
"There are many people who run good restaurants who I wouldn't give money to, because they're shady financial operators," says Konheim. "But Steve Hanson is 100 percent legitimate, a Class A act." Howard Muchnick says he hasn't had trouble finding investors, adding, "Steve hopes to eventually expand out of New York, and become a public company."
Now that Ruby Foo's is launched, Hanson is already scouting properties in SoHo. He continues to spend his days (and nights) shuttling between his restaurants in his blue Range Rover, juggling hundreds of phone calls, overscheduling himself so much that he's late for every meeting. "I can't tell you how many times a bunch of us have been at Steve's beach house, enjoying the sunset, and he's on a conference call to the restaurant," says John Vassilaros. But friends also say he is extraordinarily loyal, the man to call when in need. "When Alec Baldwin dropped me after fourteen years as his agent, I was totally devastated," says Hanson's pal J. Michael Bloom. "I couldn't get out of bed. Steve called me every single day for months."
Okay, so his friends love him, but what about his employees? "I'm a hard person to work for because I'm very demanding," Hanson says. At least he knows it. Brad Gardiner, who owned the Shark Bar before becoming a B.R. Guest co-director of operations, says Hanson is completely up-front about his no-holds-barred management style. "He told me when he hired me, 'I'll love you, I'll hate you; it's nothing personal. It's the good, the bad, and the ugly.' "
On a recent snowy afternoon, it's the good that's coming through. Hanson is listening in on the daily 4 p.m. conference call among the managers of all his restaurants, and he gets incredibly psyched to hear Chris Paraskevaides, the other operating director, discuss plans to get the customers into a "ski lodge in Vermont" mood that night. "I love that," Hanson says. "Let's hand out hats, suggest hot toddies, do cookie plates. Let's make customers feel great about coming out in the snow."
But he's not done yet. He wants to make sure all the managers have reviewed their "snow documents"; he even wants the coat-check staff reminded "to make sure the gloves are secure in the pockets." Yes, here's a man running a multi-million-dollar company who is worried about the potential for missing mittens. It's excessive -- and it's vintage Steve Hanson.