Steve Hanson Wants You To Be Happy

The Atlantic Grill is so busy on this wintry Tuesday night that it’s nearly impossible to squeeze through the bar to get to the hostess. But owner Stephen Hanson, stopping by as part of his nightly rounds of his seven restaurants, doesn’t seem pleased at the sight of the hungry throngs here on the Upper East Side. Instead, his eyes dart around, searching the room as if he were playing the child’s game What’s Wrong With This Picture?

“The lights are too bright,” he tells the manager, noting that the carefully calibrated romantic ambience is slightly off.

Hanson confers with the hostess over where to seat Rudy Giuliani, who has a reservation later that evening. Next, the restaurateur scans his customers, trying to analyze their moods in shrink-to-patient fashion. As a divorced 49-year-old bachelor who knows all too well the perils of dating, he instructs his waiters to pay attention to body language, and if it’s evident a couple is not having fun – staring into space awkwardly, conversation at a standstill – to put a rush on their food order. “They don’t want to be here anymore,” he says, “and we want to help them.” Tonight, however, it’s a happy crowd, and Hanson’s only concern is a few women who have their arms crossed awkwardly as if chilly. Urging the hostess to turn up the heat, he says, “I want this place toasty.”

In an era when most new restaurants in Manhattan scarcely last as long as the foam takes to cool on a cappuccino, Stephen Hanson has built a restaurant empire that now feeds 35,000 people a week, the equivalent of the entire population of Hoboken – and he’s done it in little more than a dozen years. His company B.R. Guest (inspired by the Chicago restaurant chain Lettuce Entertain You) grossed more than $40 million last year. Hanson, a former commodities trader and garment-industry executive, has a simple formula: fun and sexy neighborhood restaurants where dinner for two is safely under $100. Sure, dropping $300 at Le Bernardin offers a culinary thrill, and snagging a reservation at BondSt gives you bragging rights, but most nights, people just want a hassle-free, value-for-money meal. Or as Hanson puts it, borrowing a phrase from his retailing past, “I’m the bridge designer of food.”

And he caters to Manhattan’s notoriously fussy eaters: Hanson doesn’t advertise his cuisine as spa food, but he’s sensitive to the waistline concerns of his customers. “Steve’s challenged me to try to thicken sauces without roux or butter,” says Atlantic Grill’s chef Joseph Boyer, an enthusiastic 25-year-old. “He figures everyone’s into looking good, so let’s help them.

Hanson’s newest venture on the Upper West Side, Ruby Foo’s, cost $3.5 million and features a dramatic David Rockwell-designed interior – a startling red-lacquered wall of Asian artifacts, handsome mah-jongg tiles backlit at the bar – yet the Pan-Asian food runs a mere $30 per person. The restaurant has been open only a few months, but it is already a West Side sensation, filled to overflowing. “Steve’s restaurants aren’t about high-end food,” says Tim Zagat, whose survey ranks Hanson’s Blue Water Grill in the top twenty of New York’s most popular restaurants. “They’re about getting thousands of people to come again and again and again.”

As king of the one-star-restau-rant world, Hanson may be the best social observer in New York today. “I’m just the bozo,” he jokes. “If I like something, I figure a lot of other people will too.” But it’s not quite that simple. “I don’t buy that act,” says an amused Danny Meyer, whose Union Square Cafe is just around the corner from Blue Water Grill. “Steve is a hell of a lot smarter than anyone gives him credit for.” He makes it his business to know who his diners are. He has discovered, for instance, that people who hang their hats in different neighborhoods abide by different body clocks: His two Upper East Side restaurants start filling up at 6:30 p.m. and empty out well before midnight, while customers at his West Side and Union Square establishments get started later and party on longer. He can guess how long people are likely to linger over their espresso. “If two people go out, they’ll stay 90 minutes, but for a party of four, it’s two hours,” he says. Eating habits are surprisingly predictable: 25 percent of diners always order the special, whatever it is. And when customers return to a restaurant for a third time, Hanson says, “70 percent order the same thing they had before.”

He wants to be able to quantify absolutely everything that goes on in his world. Each waiter is required to fill out a report after every shift, discussing whether customers liked the specials and whether the kitchen delivered promptly, and even answering a personal question – How do you feel? – by circling responses ranging from “Great” to “Depressed.” (Why is it somehow not surprising to discover that one of Hanson’s good friends is Mr. How-Am-I-Doing himself, former mayor Ed Koch, who enthuses that Hanson is “heading for the top of the food pyramid” in New York?)

Does anyone actually ever admit to being depressed? “They’re actors, they’re full of drama,” says Jon LoPresti, chef at Ocean Grill, with a laugh. “They’ll tell you.” Anyone who checks off “Depressed” several times is likely to wind up having a how-can-we-help chat with management.

For a man who has deliberately deluged himself with paper, Hanson appears almost comically disorganized. Step into his cluttered warren of second-floor offices, right above his restaurant Park Avalon, on Park Avenue South, and you need to hopscotch around the piles of paper on the floor to get to a chair. “I know where everything is,” he insists, and he triumphantly comes up with a document he wants to show me, the weekly breakdown of every meal ordered at his restaurants. At Ocean Grill, 686 people ordered the blackened swordfish, 643 ordered the bass with risotto, and – hold the presses – only 446 people ordered the salmon, usually one of the most popular dishes. “Mr. Salmon ought to be knocking Mr. Swordfish out,” he exclaims, noting that LoPresti has been trying out a new recipe, and either the menu description or the dish itself will have to be changed.

Instead of relying on his hostesses to remember the names and faces of the regulars, Hanson has programmed his computers to do the job: Each time someone calls for a reservation at, say, Coconut Grill or Isabella’s and his phone number is logged in, his NV (number of visits) pops up. Hanson uses those numbers to further build loyalty: giving VIP preference for reservations on busy nights, passing out restaurant-logo baseball caps, free drinks, or dessert.

His regulars tend to show up at his restaurants during the week, avoiding the weekend crowds. And here’s another intriguing factlet: Saturday-night diners are the most adventurous eaters, going a little wild and crazy in honor of the fact that it’s not a school night. As Hanson says, “They’re willing to try something new because they’re relaxed.”

Hanson has been obsessed with the nuances of restaurant life ever since he first began working at the ultimate Manhattan singles bar of the seventies, T.G.I. Friday’s, while attending New York University. Michael Whiteman, a restaurateur who with the late Joseph Baum operated the Rainbow Room until recently, says, “If you go to dinner with Steve, he’ll want to discuss what the headwaiter said and how do the guests feel about it.” Not to mention whether the rolls are too chewy or leave too many crumbs. Hanson once arranged to drive Michael Weinstein, the restaurateur who owns Bryant Park Grill and Ernie’s, to work for the privilege of asking questions en route. “He’d even stand next to me at the treadmill at the gym so we could talk,” recalls Weinstein.

At Ruby Foo’s, Hanson bounds cheerfully up the handsome black curving stairs that separate the upstairs and downstairs dining areas. “I call this my Fred Astaire staircase,” he says. Today he’s unshaven and wearing sweats, his tousled hair standing on end (his other mode is the full slick Calvin Klein look). Gesturing about Ruby Foo’s, Hanson is eager to explain the people-pleasing theory behind the architectural design. A dramatic skylight has been cut between the two floors, which reduces the potential number of tables. But the payoff is great views from all angles, with a focus on the striking wall of Asian artifacts by the staircase. Better to have 350 happy diners than jam in an extra 20 more who are miserable. “Instead of people demanding ‘Where are you seating me, Siberia?’ when a hostess takes them upstairs,” Hanson says, “they’re gonna wanna climb.” (Sure enough, on a recent Saturday night, Diane Sawyer, Mike Nichols, and Anna Deavere Smith were sharing a table at Ruby Foo’s … upstairs.)

Nothing makes New Yorkers crazier than feeling that somebody else has an edge – a better table, a better life – so Hanson tries to orchestrate a dining experience that is democratically welcoming. The 800 waiters, hostesses, and busboys employed by B.R. Guest are virtually brainwashed into doing the ultimate non-New York thing – being really, really nice. ‘No Attitude’ signs are posted in the kitchen area of his restaurants. The waiter’s training manual urges the staff: “Be cheerful! Be sincere! No one is too cool to not smile – NOT HERE.” “Steve’s attitude is that getting through the day in New York is so difficult,” says Chris Giarraputo, the company’s executive chef, who’s been with Hanson for twelve years, “that it shouldn’t be difficult going to our restaurants.”

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.”

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.

Steve Hanson Wants You To Be Happy