BY TAKING CUES FROM LARGE FINANCIAL FIRMS AND INVESTING IN HUMAN CAPITAL, THE ALTAMAREA GROUP IS REDEFINING WHAT IT MEANS TO BE IN THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY
When Ahmass Fakahany and Michael White met in 2004, they knew they’d work together one day.
Ten years later, they are the principals of the Altamarea Group, a consortium of both fine dining establishments and casual restaurants that spans the world. Ironically, they opened their joint venture, Costata, at the same Spring Street address in Manhattan as the former Fiamma, where they had first met.
Fakahany, chief executive officer and owner of the group, spent 20 years in finance with Merrill Lynch, ultimately becoming president, and travelling the world in the process.
“I got to work with a lot of interesting people. I had a great career with a company that taught me so much globally,” he explained. But at 49 years old and after 20 years, he decided it was time for a change. “I had done so much in the financial world and the markets were changing.”
Growing up, Fakahany wanted to be in hospitality, but when he didn’t meet the multi-language requirement for a school of choice in Switzerland, he ended up in business school, which led to the career at Merrill Lynch. Ultimately, Fakahany found himself pulled back to that first love.
“It was the seed that never died,” he shared. “I had passion and an interest. I was also always an entrepreneur.”
Together, Fakahany and White have the creativity and the business sense to be successful, but also, and pivotally, a great chemistry.
“It just came together,” Fakahany said. “Your palate gets broadened when you travel the world. I’m a food enthusiast. I’m interested in it. That’s one thing I bring to the group, the client’s perspective and palate.” Chef White, too, draws inspiration from his travels and peers. “I am constantly learning, in and out of the kitchen,” he said. “Taste memory for me is created in everything that I see, eat, and smell. I love traveling to Asia and learning about new ingredients— to not only see new flavors, but also see how other cultures approach food and dining.”
In early 2006, the partners came together to plan what would become the Altamarea Group. They opened their first restaurant in Bernardsville, New Jersey in 2007.
“The idea was a simple one, but a good one,” noted Fakahany, who knew the borough of 7,700 people well. “We knew the clientele, and we thought we could bring New York food to New Jersey and save people a ride into Manhattan. We created a little buzz around it, and it worked.”
Now called Osteria Morini, the Bernardsville restaurant continues to be a favorite. It is a more casual version of the fine dining establishment they originally opened at the location, designing it to be a place that families and friends could enjoy in a more relaxed atmosphere. Its 100 seats are regularly full.
“We have a lot of confidence in New Jersey,” Fakahany said. “It’s a bit more casual with very strong food quality.”
In addition, the group owns and operates Due Mari in New Brunswick, a modern Italian eatery nestled among hotels, a theater, and popular nightlife locations. “There are modern touches, possibly as you might find in Milan,” Fakahany explained. “It has a different, vibrant tone. We like it there. We’re nestled in the community.”
The group’s portfolio includes both casual and fine dining establishments.
“There are different sub markets,” Fakahany said. “Not everyone enjoys fine dining. Good food can be accessible at different levels and price points. So we also have less expensive brands, still driven by quality and consistency.”
The group focuses—almost maniacally, Fakahany added—on client feedback.
“We have tremendous passion and soul in what we do. We really listen to the feedback, we take it so seriously,” he said. “It’s not just about reviews. It is about the client experience. In the end, we are not in the business of food and beverage, we’re in the business of creating memories.” White echoes the sentiment.
“Ahmass and I now approach everything with a lot of thought and focus on the client fully in every decision,” he noted. In keeping with this focus on client relationships, the group is committed to the neighborhoods they operate in.
“Our brands are very much skewed to what I call ‘neighborhood restaurants,’” Fakahany said, noting that leases on their properties are mostly 20 years. “All transactions are long term. We want to be part of the community and its pulse for a long time.” The contrast between a casual dining experience and fine dining isn’t just about the food or the price point, Fakahany explained. While the former is more about the restaurant itself and its visitors, the casual neighborhood place is more about the people who surround it.
“We’ll often say, ‘Look how we have improved the street.’ We want to participate in the community. Whether it’s philanthropy or incorporating local produce—if that fits in, we’ll do that.” In the near future, the group will reach 15 restaurants globally. It is currently in the process of opening Nicoletta, a pizzeria that will be located right next door to the Bernardsville staple. “We are excited about an opportunity to open at Bedford Post Inn, a large restaurant called Campagna (“country” in Italian) in Westchester,” Fakahany offered.
White also has ideas for the future. “I have a love for France and trained there for many years,” he said. “I would like to go to the next step beyond Ai Fiori, which was Altamarea Group’s first foray into hybrid Italian/French Riviera cuisine.”
But growing so quickly in such a short time can cause anxiety, even with all of the success the two have enjoyed.
“We do think we’re going to lean back and settle and make sure we meet all our quality and service standards. We did move quickly. One of the keys of succeeding is passion and paranoia,” Fakahany laughed. “I’m constantly thinking that everything is going wrong.”
The patrons of the duo’s restaurants are not the only ones who benefit from their experience and passion for good food. “I’m very proud of the fact that we built a team here in SoHo…our little headquarters,” said Fakahany. “That is key to the success of our business” adding that the group has invested heavily in the 1,000 employees across its portfolio, which includes rotating staff to different locations to learn different concepts and price points. “We do run it as a business and we’re responsible for our people’s growth and development.
Most people don’t invest in those kinds of resources…this is often seen as a burden. But it has helped us create a beacon of light and an integrated team. We’ve also spent a tremendous amount of effort around retention,” noting that the group’s retention at the top is better than 90 percent.
“We are dedicated to the importance, strength, and longevity of our team, and look at high retention as one of our measures of success,” White added.
“We are dedicated to the strength and
longevity of our team, and look at high
retention as measure of success.”
In fact, the group’s strategic approach has general managers working with chefs, chefs working with finance and operating staff, and so on. This exposure to other facets of the business, to the partners, yields better decision making and an understanding of enterprise priorities.
“I am a huge believer in diversity,” Fakahany said, noting that the culture of acceptance and performance they have created also results in a wider net of talent to pull from. “We get even better people. We are doing what’s right. We want to encourage our people to dream big…to feel they can grow with this company if they are deserving.”
In addition to investing in their own talent, the group invests in the communities they are a part of.
“We are regularly involved with City Meals on Wheels, CCAP, City Harvest, ALS Foundation, Melanoma Research, and many local causes,” noted Fakahany. “It’s part of the responsibility of being in a neighborhood. We give back. That’s what we stand for…who we want to be.”
“There are many perceptions about the short-term nature of this business,” he said. But in Altamarea Group’s case, they plan to be part of the communities they serve for years to come. “We expect to be there, to see families come in and see their kids grow up with us. But that doesn’t mean we won’t change the menu and keep things fresh over time.”