Having words with Kenneth Himmel, president & chief executive, Related Urban

Having words with Kenneth Himmel, president & chief executive, Related Urban

The economy has put a damper on many a restaurant development plan, but that hasn’t slowed down real estate developer and restaurateur Kenneth Himmel.

Among his recent projects is Post 390, a two-level, 14,000-square-foot “urban tavern” that opened on the site of the Clarendon Back Bay, a luxury condominium facility in Boston, last month. Himmel is president and chief executive of Related Urban, the mixed-use development division of New York-based The Related Cos., which developed the Clarendon.

Post 390 is already serving a packed house many nights, which Himmel said is a testament to how it caters to consumers’ new desire for affordable luxury.

In addition to Post 390, Himmel operates two other Boston concepts, Grill 23 and Harvest, through his Himmel Hospitality Group.

Himmel, whose career has included such high-profile development projects as the Time Warner Center in New York and Water Tower Place in Chicago, also recently oversaw the opening of a second location of A Voce at the Time Warner Center, in partnership with London-based Marlon Abela Restaurant Corp., or MARC. He also is planning to open Bistro du Midi in Boston, at the site of his now-closed restaurant Excelsior.

FAST FACTS

HOMETOWN: Marblehead, Mass.EDUCATION: The College of William and Mary, 1968; Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, 1970CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: serving as co-managing partner of Time Warner Center in New YorkPERSONAL: married with three kids and four grandchildrenHOBBIES: golf

These are tough times to open a restaurant, particularly one as large and ambitious as Post 390. What’s the key to its early success?

I’ve always had a philosophy that if you do things the right way and keep reinvesting in the business every year, you’ll succeed. People would say, “You must have lost your mind to be opening a restaurant now,” but these decisions were made three years ago, and I wouldn’t have reversed my course. [Post 390] is dead-on for the times.

How so?

[Value] is not a new fad or a phenomenon anymore. It’s become a more critical part of the equation. The average check [at Post 390] is $50 for food and wine, while the average check down the road is $100. To get [diners] to part with their dollars, you’ve got to excite the hell out of them. There’s a high energy level [at Post 390]. There are exhibit kitchens on both levels, exhibit bars on both levels. It’s all about theater and engagement with the customer.

Tell me about the new concept planned at the Excelsior site.

Excelsior opened five years ago during the irrational-exuberance era in our lives when we thought everything would keep coming up. That is not where the palate is in most of the country today. Now people are looking to relax. [Excelsior] was not in keeping with the times, so we said, “Let’s reposition it.” [Bistro du Midi] will be a Provençal bistro-brasserie with lots of wonderful Mediterranean seafood in a more casual, more engaging space.

What advice do you have for those navigating the current real estate market?

Real estate markets are not coming back for three to four years. This is not going to be a 12-month turnaround. It’ll be slower than any of us want. You should plan and judge accordingly. These are not the times to take any aggressive risks.

Make sure [any project] is really well-capitalized. When I open a restaurant I take on several partners, but I always remain the majority partner. We put very little debt on anything we do because you’ve got to sleep at night. And you have to have the breathing room to get things launched the right way.