How I Made It: Keith McNally founder of The Third Man Management
WHEN Keith McNally arrived in New York nearly 30 years ago as an illegal immigrant from Britain, he was an unlikely candidate to become one of America’s most successful restaurateurs.
Indeed, until he was 17 he had never even been inside a restaurant.
He was brought up in Bethnal Green, east London, in a poor family that had “absolutely nothing”. It was an environment where stomachs — not palates — mattered.
He got his first job, as a bellboy in the London Hilton hotel, at the age of 16. While he was there he was noticed by film executives who were staying at the hotel to audition children, and McNally ended up getting a part in a film called The Life and Times of Charles Dickens, starring Michael Redgrave.
The role led to other acting jobs, and in 1968, at the age of 17, McNally got a part in the Alan Bennett play Forty Years On in the West End.
It was a turning point in more ways than one. While appearing in the play he was taken out for his first meal at a restaurant, Bianchi’s in Soho.
He said: “It was the first time I had ever eaten — or seen — a melon. I could barely understand a word of the menu. Artichokes, avocados, leeks, endives, squash — even the simplest ingredients were lost on me.”
Even having to decide which utensils to choose “from what seemed like a battalion” was a mortifying experience.
At the age of 19 he decided to see something of the world, and spent several months on a kibbutz in Israel before spending a year travelling through Kathmandu and India.
He finally arrived in New York in 1975 without a green card or papers and started work as a busboy at a tea shop called Serendipity. He moved on to become a waiter at another restaurant, then got a job removing oyster shells at One Fifth, where he rose to become restaurant manager.
By 1980 he decided he had enough experience of restaurants to open one of his own. With help from his girlfriend and brother he scraped together enough money to open his first restaurant, Odeon in New York’s Soho.
He said it was his most interesting project to date because he had so little money and had to think creatively.
From that modest start he has slowly built a successful restaurant empire, each time choosing remote, run-down buildings in totally unfashionable areas and rebuilding them to create beautiful restaurants.
He now runs a string of brasserie-type restaurants including the well-known Balthazar and Pastis, as well as Lucky Strike, Pravda and his newest restaurant, Schiller’s Liquor Bar.
McNally admits it is still a “torture” when he is building a new restaurant, and he worries that the project will be “the one that doesn’t work out”.
At Balthazar, in downtown Manhattan, however, patrons need to book at least three weeks in advance for dinner. People who drop in casually to see if there might be a free table can end up waiting at least two hours at the bar — and the likelihood is that they will leave hungry.
Balthazar and Pastis even have private numbers to call to help you get a reservation.
McNally has apologised for this, but said he always left tables open each night because he cares about the person at the back of the line, who perhaps has little money and cannot really afford to dine out.
Between them, the restaurants bring in between $36m (£30m) and $38m a year.
This does not include the bakery at Balthazar, which supplies many upmarket restaurants in New York with bread and pastries.
Balthazar opened in 1997 and has been extremely busy ever since. It starts buzzing from 7.30 in the morning.
“We do 200 to 300 breakfasts, 300 lunches, 400 to 500 dinners, and then about 100 suppers. It goes on all night.”
McNally’s father, who is 83, is on the staff and lives with his son and his family. He works at Balthazar, putting together the knives and forks and napkins in the bakery’s take-out section.
Now 53, McNally is reluctant to talk about the success he has achieved, saying: “There is nothing more boring than a working-class person talking about how he made it; how he lifted himself out of this steaming vat of pig shit and he is sitting there beaming about the fact.”
Waving his arm towards paintings in his Greenwich Village home, he said: “I don’t have a penny in the bank. It is all here on these walls.”
His advice to anyone thinking of starting a business is to be prepared to make mistakes, but never to be driven only by money.
“When you get money or supposed success, it reinforces the gut feeling that there has to be some other method for evaluating oneself other than a material one.”
His other piece of advice is never to believe what people tell you about your own success.
McNally said his staff played a crucial role in the restaurants’ achievements. Indeed, training and hiring staff takes up much of his time as he opens new restaurants and ventures. He claims to know within minutes of speaking to someone if they have the potential to work for him.
“I hire people who feel the same way I do, who get satisfaction from seeing people enjoy themselves in a restaurant. I won’t hire someone if I detect a hint of pretentiousness.”
For all his success, McNally’s love of acting has clearly never left him — he named his company The Third Man Management, after his favourite film.