In the highly competitive and notoriously fickle hospitality industry, a restaurant’s survival depends on creating the kind of atmosphere that keeps people coming through the doors again and again. From axe throwing to fine dining, the award-winning Nashville-based Strategic Hospitality aims to do just that.
On this episode of Mastering Innovation on SiriusXM Channel 132, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School, Max Goldberg, co-owner of Strategic Hospitality with his brother Benjamin, speaks about capturing the dynamic spirit of his hometown and the importance of prioritizing the guest experience. Goldberg shares how a genuine passion for the spaces he creates helps his businesses grow and stand the test of time.
An excerpt of the interview is transcribed below. Listen to more episodes here.
Harbir Singh: So the restaurant business, I think we all follow it in some ways. We certainly are consumers in the industry. The success rate is relatively low and yet, of course, the rewards for the highest end are very, very high. Can you talk about what it takes to innovate with new concepts in an industry that has a lot of risks attached to it? Or is it that innovation itself improves your chances of success?
Max Goldberg: Yeah, I heard a statistic that 9 out of 10 restaurants fail, which is pretty brutal to hear. But I think that we’re fortunate that we are in the hospitality space, in the business of people. We live by the Maya Angelou quote that “People may not remember what you said or what you did, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel.” One thing that we obsess over is how people feel in our spaces. And so whether they’re coming in for a $500 chef’s tasting or just a basic cheeseburger, which is one of my favorite things in the world, it’s how people feel in the space and how they’re treated and the warmth that they receive that I believe is what brings them back.
I think that my brother and I have an incredible ability in Nashville, which is one of the most exciting cities in the world. A lot of our success is based on the fact that we’re operating in this space where we do have a really healthy economy and we do have people who are moving there and people excited about what we’re doing who will give us a chance. As a result, we can push a little bit farther. We continue to invest in our people and continue to invest in pushing spaces and creating that warmth, and as a result, we’re able to get tourists and locals alike. I’m really, really excited about what we’re doing in Nashville, but I think that part of it is the city itself and the timing of what’s been going on that has been part of our success.
Singh: Can you take us inside one of your favorite venues? What do we see, and what do we eat, and why is it special? You’ve talked about some of this already, but just give us some kind of a virtual experience.
“We live by the Maya Angelou quote that ‘People may not remember what you said or what you did, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel.’ ” — Max Goldberg
Goldberg: Sure. We’re fortunate that every space has a personal touch and a personal story behind it. And my brother and I are lucky that our company really has had organic growth where every space has a personal significance for us. For example, we have a restaurant called Merchants in downtown Nashville. It’s about 30,000 square feet, and the building was built in 1892. It’s been a hotel, it’s been an ammunitions parlor, it’s been an apothecary, and it’s been a restaurant for the past 40 years. And my grandparents actually went on dates there. I went to prom there, which was kind of a funny, full-circle moment. This was one of the better restaurants 20 years ago, but it had just kind of fallen off and fallen behind on their rent payments. And we, about 10 years ago, had the opportunity to go and buy the business and take it over.
We took the keys at midnight and opened the next day and said, “Hey, we’re your new owners,” at 8:00 a.m., and gave everyone the opportunity to keep their job and stay with us. We were able to build that business back. You walk in and it’s this beautiful, historic, incredible building with a tremendous history, with rumors of Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard staying there when it was a hotel, or Jesse James, the gunslinger. And we were able to go in with our little take on food and drink, and so we were able to modernize it from a food and drink perspective to keep the history of the building in the downtown corridor in Nashville, and it’s been tremendous for us.
Down the street, we have a bowling alley, coffee shop, swimming pool — kind of a crazy concept. It’s really a “third place,” called Pinewood Social, which had an old dirt floor when we took it over. It was a place where they used to service the trolley cars. We were able to go in and put some of our interior design thoughts and layout in place and create a sort of space where we’ve watched businesses grow out of that space, as well as people going in for the bowling and the restaurant and the swimming pool. It’s just been this fun hybrid space for us. There’s certainly attention to detail in the interior design, but again, it comes down to that warmth and excitement that people feel as they come into the space.
Singh: Where do you get your inspiration from? You go into these places, you see this historic venue that has kind of fallen on hard times. How do you envision these new experiences?
Goldberg: I wish I could say that there was a clear formula for it. I kind of live by the thought that good art is borrowed; great art is stolen. As I’ve traveled around, or as I see things or feel things, I’ll try to take that moment or that memory and see if I can re-apply it and create something that’s really special in Nashville. I was actually chatting about this with a friend earlier today. We went to a restaurant and he said, “When you come, are you able to relax?” And really, I try to go in and find one or two elements of things that I enjoy and see if I can take that idea.
Singh: So you’re filing away ideas constantly.
Goldberg: Yeah. It’s something that I wish I could turn off sometimes, but I just don’t have that ability. I’m constantly thinking about new ideas and dream projects, and literally have a dream board where we have ideas for the craziest ideas that we’ll just put up there. It’s images and menu items, glassware and paper clips or whatever, and we’ll apply it. Really, the process is completely organic, and the first question we ask ourselves is, “Would we be the first people to go there?” Are we creating something that doesn’t exist in this market in which we’re playing? Is this something that excites us? Do we think that we can create meaningful jobs?
I probably shouldn’t say this on your show, but we’ve never opened a business to make money. It’s always been, “Are we passionate about this? Are we excited about it? Is this something that we could see ourselves being a part of?” The financial gain will come later. And we’ve never compromised the integrity of what we do for a quick buck. We’ve always been so obsessed with the guest experience and the idea of the spaces that we create. And as a result, I think that we’ve been able to create something that’s really in it for the long haul.
About Our Guest
Max is Co-Owner of Strategic Hospitality in Nashville, TN. Founded in 2006, Strategic Hospitality includes The Patterson House, The Catbird Seat, Merchants, Pinewood Social, Bastion, Henrietta Red, The Band Box, The Country Club at The Band Box, Airport Restaurant Concepts and most recently the Downtown Sporting Club. The company employs over 550 people across its venues.
Max sits on the board of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp, the Community Foundation, Oz Art and the Habitat for Humanity Advisory Council. He is a member of the Young Presidents Organization, Entrepreneurs Organization, Urban Land Institute, as well a 2016 graduate from Leadership Nashville. Max has been recognized as one of Forbes 30 Under 30, Nashville Business Journal 40 Under 40, Nashville Business Journal Power 100 and has been nominated nine times and was a semi-finalist for the James Beard Awards for outstanding restaurateur 2015, 2016 and 2018.