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MUFSO keynote Carla Hall Steph Grant
“You better believe I won’t make the same mistakes twice.”

MUFSO keynote: Chef Carla Hall dishes on fame, failure and the food business

‘The Chew’ star shares hard lessons learned from the rise and fall of her first restaurant

This is part of Nation’s Restaurant News' special coverage of the 2017 MUFSO conference, taking place Oct. 1-3 at the Hyatt Regency at Reunion Tower in Dallas. Follow coverage of the event on NRN.com and tweet with us using #MUFSO. Stay connected on the go by downloading the MUFSO app.

As the keynote speaker at this year’s MUFSO conference in Dallas, Carla Hall — chef, cookbook author and co-host of ABC’s “The Chew” — got real about why her first attempt to open a restaurant failed, what she could have done differently and why it’s important to focus on the right stuff when it comes to the restaurant business.

After two and a half years of planning, Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen opened last year in Brooklyn, N.Y., with a menu that highlighted the celeb chef’s love of downhome cooking, hospitality, sweet tea and Nashville hot chicken.

While the food was top-notch, Hall said, several factors played into the restaurant’s ultimate demise after just one year. Hall pointed to on the lack of an operating partner (rather than just investment partners), the out-of-the-way location and an overly idealistic approach to hiring and labor.

And Hall described her existing fame before opening the restaurant as both “a blessing and a curse.”

“Being famous doesn’t immediately guarantee success,” Hall told the audience. “Everyone thought that success was a foregone conclusion. It wasn’t.”

Ron Ruggless

MUFSO keynote speaker, chef Carla Hall

Though she acknowledged that she has been fortunate to be on “The Chew” and the platform it provides, it does pose limitations on her ability to self-promote and, more importantly, on her time.

“What I learned is that being famous does help,” she said. “You still need to carve out the hours on the ground to carve out your vision. I still needed to be there. I tried to figure out how to do it all, which you know, you can’t. And because of my notoriety there was a tremendous amount of focus put on the branding from day one.”

That branding — like obsessing over small details down to the hairstyle on the chicken logo — was part of what derailed the restaurant, a case of what she called “form over function.”

Hall pointed out that many successful chain operators, like this year’s MUFSO Golden Chain winners, didn’t necessarily go in looking to start a chain. “They wanted to have one good restaurant and then the chain happened,” she said.

Labor and location brought another set of problems, Hall said. At first, lines snaked around the block and it made sense to have “too many people on the floor in a tiny restaurant.”

That momentum would’ve continued had the restaurant been opened in a more touristy location, like Rockefeller Center or Times Square rather than Brooklyn, Hall speculated. But traffic decreased a lot after a long winter (the restaurant was a good 15-minute walk from the nearest subway station), and fewer employees were needed.

“By the time we closed, we had only 12 employees and some of them were really disgruntled,” she said, recalling good workers who had the right work ethic but not necessarily the right skill set.

“My lesson here was that I really needed to have a mix of folks,” Hall said. “I needed more people who could be role models. Because I wasn’t there all the time I needed the right team in place.”

Hall’s last lesson was to expect the unexpected. An electrical fire sidelined the restaurant completely, just two months after it opened. “Additionally, our walk-in went down twice,” she said. “People just didn’t trust to come there. We were letting them down and they were already making an effort to come to us.”

So why was Hall willing to share her humbling experience with a group of chain restaurant owners and operators?

“My message is to remember that your previous success can be as much a blessing for you as a curse,” Hall said. But she remains resilient, optimistic and as cocky as ever.

“Don’t count me out just yet,” she told the audience. “I’ve taken my knocks. You better believe I won’t make the same mistakes twice. I’ll be back — better, faster, tastier and stronger.”

Contact Tara Fitzpatrick at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @Tara_Fitzie 

The MUFSO Premier sponsor is The Coca Cola Company

Presenting sponsors are: Blount Fine Foods, The Coca Cola Company, UNiDAYS

Kitchen Hero Cook-Off is presented by Texas Pete/TW Garner Food Company

The Hot Concepts Reception is sponsored by Rock & Brews

The Industry Awards Gala is sponsored by Tyson Foods, Daiya Foods, Natural brands

Pillar sponsors are: Alchemy Systems, Bloom Intelligence, Boylan Bottling, Cardlytics, Mainstreet, Inc., Nudge Rewards, S&D Coffee, Smithfield Farmland Foodservice, Sweet Street, Weston Foods, Zenput

The MUFSO app sponsor is Steritech

Refreshment breaks are sponsored by Blount Fine Foods, Boylan Bottling, Royal Cup Coffee, Smithfield Farmland Foodservice, Sweet Street, Ventura Foods, and Weston Foods

The Supplier Exchange Luncheon is sponsored by Hale & Hearty, Bruce Cost Ginger Ale and Copper Moon Coffee

The Lanyard & Welcome package is sponsored by Hospitality Mints

MUFSO Breakfast sponsors are Moore’s Food Resources, Community Coffee and Natural Brands

VIP Dinner sponsored by Moment Feed, Pan Pacific Plastics and Rotella’s Bakery

The official music sponsor is Rockbot

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