Interview: Matt Levine, Restaurateur and Industry Night Host

Posted in Interviews on February 19, 2013

Matt Levine knows how to make a splash in the industry. A partner in LES hotspots Sons of Essex and Cocktail Bodega, along with the soon-to-open Rowhouse Inn in the Meatpacking District, Levine’s restaurants are high-profile and highly creative in both concept and execution. With Culintro’s latest Industry Night event coming up this Thursday at Sons of Essex, we sat down with Levine to pick his brain about the restaurant business, building a brand and what to expect at his latest project.

-What was your first job in the industry? What did you like about it and why did you stay in the food business?

I barbacked in middle school, was a bartender and server in high school, and then bartended through out college. I’ve always enjoyed the hospitality business—creating and supplying a product, orchestrating an atmosphere, the satisfaction of team building and the detail in operations challenges me daily.

-How has being in the industry shaped your social life?

The industry is my social life. You can never let your guard down in the hospitality business. The quality of product and services always needs to be on point – you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. The way to become less of a commodity in the marketplace is through exceptional customer service, and that applies 24/7.

-Why do you think it’s important to host events like Industry Night at one of your restaurants?

It’s the barbacks, bartenders, bussers, cooks, hosts, runners, servers, and the service industry as a whole that sees through an owner’s vision, the backbone and foundation of what we do as operators. Hosting industry events like this are important not only to bond with career like-minded individuals, but also to network, share ideas, and socialize.

-You’re known for your innovative promotional techniques at Sons of Essex–releasing videos on YouTube, hosting special themed nights, etc. Any advice for restaurateurs on how to take a creative approach to getting the word out about their restaurants?

It’s important for your brand to tell a story. Your brand should be a brand within itself, it should portray a lifestyle. Customers want to discover the brand and/or service on their own. It’s important not to force feed information, but build brand awareness organically. We’ve managed to use social media to help get our message out, especially YouTube. We introduced Sons of Essex pre-opening with a “Lower East Side is…” video series, not focusing on the restaurant itself, but focusing on the identity of the neighborhood.

I am no expert on social media or viral videos, but content is king. Every business has a message to convey; to paint the picture through video for your consumers in a creative manner can be an important marketing tool. I always say to build your brand from within: if you’re opening up a restaurant, rather than press and media tastings initially, do neighborhood tastings first, because your neighbors are your core customers. It’s all about the local and organic word of mouth approach.

-What’s the philosophy behind [the soon-to-open] Rowhouse Inn? Do you think it will become an industry hangout?

The philosophy behind The Rowhouse Inn is to bring something different to the Meatpacking, something with culture, personality, a downtown pulse, a little Lower East Side…Having the support of the industry is always the goal, it’s a huge compliment when your comrades in the food and beverage world support your venue.