Benjy’s is a popular restaurant in Houston’s Rice Village founded 20 years ago by Benjy Levit, an on-again, off-again vegan who wanted to offer fine dining in a more relaxed atmosphere. He now has one location for benjy’s and four for his second concept, Local Foods, which serves more casual fare in elevated surroundings. Levit opened his fourth Local Foods location downtown last year and is opening another in the Houston Heights area this month. His second benjy’s location on Washington Avenue — which endured a fire in March and flooding from Hurricane Harvey in September — closed at the end of last year. It will be replaced this summer by a new diner concept, The Classic – All Day, which will feature a lighter take on iconic dishes as well as three-ingredient cocktails. His restaurant empire generates around $20 million in revenue per year.
Being preachy. I grew up in Houston but I spent some time after college in Los Angeles and New York, where I went to a vegan cooking school. I also worked in a restaurant kitchen there that was vegan-inspired. I thought Houston was ready for a restaurant like that.
So when I moved back, I worked with a chef to create a menu that wasn’t quite vegan but very vegetable-forward, a health-oriented restaurant with ideas about portion sizes. I had lots of rules around what I was trying to do with the food. We didn’t use a fryer and we didn’t use any dairy or butter in any of our sauces. I felt like I was following my passion.
About a year into it, I made a shift after listening to customers and getting feedback. What I found out was that people were leaving the restaurant hungry. Houstonians wanted to see the food on the plate and wanted things that were richer. I continued to follow some of these passions personally but backed off from being preachy.
Around the same time, I was having difficulty keeping really talented chefs. I felt like I was often trying to tell them what to do and giving them really strict parameters. Chefs are like artists, and artists don’t like people telling them what to do. So creating some clear parameters – and yet not minute details – led to a lot better relationship with these artists I rely upon.
And rather than having to switch out the chefs every six months, I’m now at the point where the key people have worked for me for eight to nine years. I’m still passionate and involved, yet not preachy with a list of 50 rules.
It’s important to be passionate, but it’s also important not to be pushy.
It’s important to be passionate, but it’s also important not to be pushy. I learned that what I was trying to do was force people to follow something that they weren’t quite prepared to do.
I had to go back and rethink why I wanted to get into the restaurant business in the first place. It was about providing something unique. The restaurants serving the best food in town were white tablecloth restaurants. I was trying to create something special that wasn’t stuffy but still used the best ingredients that were available. Whether I used butter or had a fryer wasn’t paramount to that idea.
What I learned was how to stay involved and how to maintain certain ideals and yet allow both my customers and my team to still give me feedback on what each of them is looking for. I’ve gone back and forth with being vegan personally, so I’m still finding my personal rules. Yet I want to have a work environment where everyone is comfortable, to have a place in which the feedback goes in both directions.
At Local Foods, we flipped things. I wanted to elevate the most casual of experiences, whereas at benjy’s we were trying to downscale the most fancy of experiences. I’ve found that the principles are a way for me to express my passion. And while I’m super-interested in details, my business relies on lots of other people, so I need to give them room to operate.
Follow benjy's on Twitter at @benjys_village.
Photo courtesy of Benjy Levit