Photo by Kristin Zwiers
In part one of this week's Grillaxin we learned that 1) Brian McCracken and Dana Tough are busily preparing for the


Hangin' McCracken-Tough: 'We Look Back at Our Early Decisions and Just Laugh'

Photo by Kristin Zwiers
In part one of this week's Grillaxin we learned that 1) Brian McCracken and Dana Tough are busily preparing for the any-day-now opening of their third concept, The Coterie Room, in the old Restaurant Zoe space; 2) have each aged about 20 years and gained 20 pounds since opening their first restaurant, Spur, three years ago; and 3) feel the word "rustic" is used way too much to cover sloppy cooking. As Tough admitted, "I've eaten way too many burnt Neapolitan pizzas in this town."

Today, the duo reveal the biggest mistake they made early on, what's ahead for them professionally, and what the most fun part of owning restaurants has been (it's not the six-pack of Rainier on their menu, but it's close!).

SW: What are some of the things you've found out about each during these last three years?

Tough: I feel like three years ago we would have our bickering moments, but I feel like now we realize that it's just business. We'll still have those [bickering moments] now and again, not very often. I feel like our life at work has become less stressful in a way, too, because we've built up this foundation of people, support. And at the end of the day I think we're just really good friends--business aside.

McCracken: After a crazy, hectic day with some bickering decisions, we'll still grab a drink afterward. I think that--and I don't know if this is so much learning something about each other, but--we've kind of developed one business mind, where individually, we're two branches of the same brain.

Tough: It's like establishing a brand. We work for the brand now. When we make decisions, we make decisions that both of us would agree upon.

Do you both have a clear vision of what you want your brand to be?

Tough: We're still working on getting our vision in sync.

McCracken: I think that's a big thing. We're always adjusting that and being fluid with what we want our brand to be. I once had a baseball coach tell me that it takes 5,000 repetitions to develop muscle memory. When you take 5,000 perfect swings of a baseball bat, your body can just do it without really thinking about it. I kind of feel like we've developed our brand by making 5,000 decisions and finally getting to a point where we've got that memory of what it is. We've created that habit.

Photo by Trevin Chow
Inside a bustling Spur.
What is your brand?

Tough: Our brand is creative, forward thinking. I think we're expected to do something unique. Part of our mission statement is to do something original every time as we go. We're not really to the franchise level yet or wanting to duplicate any concept. I think we're more creative than that.

How much work went into redesigning the old Restaurant Zoe space and creating a distinct space for you two?

McCracken: It's been very important to us [to create a distinct space], but we also went into this because the space already had good bones. We wanted to just change some of the design elements. That was a lot of planning and a lot of mental effort. But, you know, we turned the place around in just over a month.

Were you eyeing that space before it became available?

McCracken: We had had conversations.

Tough: We were approached first. We jumped on it.

Which came first--the space or The Coterie Room?

Tough: We always keep our eyes open. And the fact that it's so close to Spur was a big thing for us. It's going to help alleviate some of the work at Spur and our catering business. There's a big prep kitchen down here [at The Coterie Room].

McCracken: With concepts, we find a good location and a good space that we like--and the right deal--and then we build a concept. We've had six or seven deals that we've worked on in the last year-and-a-half that didn't happen for a number of different reasons. But we have those concepts filed away for when we find a spot for them.

Photo by Julien Perry
Keeping their giant chandelier under wraps at The Coterie Room.
Why did you decide to jump in on the actual design of the place?

McCracken: We've had our hands in the design of all three of our restaurants, more and more with each step we take. And with this one, I think a lot of it was that we thought it would be fun.

Tough: Having our architect there to say, "It might look better this way," and have his input on the whole thing was nice. We knew what we wanted the space to look like, we just needed to hear whether or not it was possible.

Once you have three restaurants, what does your role become? Are you still in the kitchen cooking?

McCracken: You'll see us in the kitchen.

Tough: It's important that we stop by each place every day.

McCracken: We're not going to be cooking that often.

Tough: We'll be on the outside yelling at people. Just like normal. I'm kidding!

McCracken: It's more important for us to train people up so that the same product goes out when we're not actually making it.

Do you think you'll ever stop opening restaurants?

Tough: I don't think we're going to be strapped down opening just restaurants. I see product in our future. It's all about finding that right thing at the right time.

McCracken: We do want to do a lot of different things. We have a lot of ideas that are always running around our head.

Tough: It's important for us not to over-extend ourselves, either. We put a lot of thought into each of our concepts. We have Spur which requires a lot of our creative input. And then Tavern Law, which is more of a cocktail-driven place where we don't have to be there all the time. Certainly not during service. Here [at The Coterie Room], we opened up a third restaurant right next door to Spur. It seems easy. We're taking these steps that are manageable.

Photo by Trevin Chow
What's been the most fun part of owning restaurants?

Tough: Seeing our growth. At the end of the day, we're still chefs. We still get off on being inspired. We've traveled to a lot of cool places and have met a lot of really iconic chefs. I think our growth as chefs alone has been the most fun.

Going back to my original question [from part one of Grillaxin], in these past three years, how have you changed?

Tough: In the beginning, we were much more ego-driven. We look back at our early decisions and just laugh. Like any chef, whether it's saying "no" to something.

McCracken: Saying "no" to putting something on a plate a customer asks for.

Tough: Things like that. That's a simple example. Now, the thinking is more, "if we can do it, it can be done." You should always try your hardest not to say "no."

McCracken: We had a goal of kind of cooking for ourselves, developing a place for ourselves.

Tough: Whereas now, we look at it as hospitality. All we're doing on a daily basis is throwing the best party that we possibly can.

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