His lounges and restaurants have been featured everywhere, from InStyle to W Magazine to People. His branding know-how was named “Best Display of Marketing Genius” by The Village Voice. Matt Levine is one of those guys—cool, hip, and seemingly born with a gift for creating and launching the next big thing. Currently, Levine is a partner for indieFORK, an operations and hospitality holding company, and Brandsway Creative, a branding, marketing, PR, and special events company, as well as the restaurant Sons of Essex, the bar and restaurant Cocktail Bodega, and the lounge and nightclub The Rowhouse Inn. He recently spoke with business writer Heather Chaet about what it takes to build a brand, hiring the right employees, and creating the kind of buzz that can take a small business to the next level.
HC: You’ve started and now run a number of businesses. Were you always interested in running your own company? What was your first entrepreneurial venture?
ML: I've always had an entrepreneurial spirit, always been focused on accomplishing goals, the joy of creating, and the satisfaction of team building, while putting a unique product or service out there. I know it's pretty cliché, but you only live once, so there's no reason you shouldn't be able to accomplish any idea or create any business. I guess you can say [my first entrepreneurial venture] was as a little kid in The Five Towns [a group of villages on Long Island, New York] shoveling sidewalks after snowstorms and selling watered-down lemonade on the street corner in the summertime. Throughout middle school and high school, I was also organizing and throwing parties and special events in the city.
HC: Can you share a little about Brandsway Creative?
ML: Brandsway Creative is a branding, marketing, and public relations firm that I started in 2010 with my business partner, Kelly Brady. We represent people and places, from Victoria’s Secret model Jessica Hart to Lucky Strike Bowling Lanes, and produce special events across the country, including events at The Grammys, Sundance Film Festival, and Paris Fashion Week. While The Eldridge [Levine’s former nightclub] was operating, many different brands, companies and establishments came to me to help market, publicize and produce events for them. At the time, Kelly was vice president of Lizzie Grubman PR, with an expertise in public relations, which complimented my passion for creative branding and special events production. That led us to partner up and form Brandsway Creative.
HC: Did anything surprise you as you were preparing to open your restaurant, Sons of Essex, or surprises you now in the day-to-day operations?
ML: You can never let your guard down in the hospitality business. The quality of product and services needs to be on point 24/7. It's always someone’s first experience, someone's first mushroom truffle pizza, someone's first apple crumb pork chop. You don't get a second chance to make a first impression, from the host smiling to the server's greeting.
ML: When it comes to hiring, I use resumes as an outline for the interview process, but don't live by them. The glorified pieces of paper are just that—a piece of paper. I like to hire ambition and creative enthusiasm. It's not what you've accomplished yesterday, it's what you want to accomplish tomorrow. [I find out] what [a person’s] ultimate goals are, and how we, as a company, can help achieve and implement them within our company culture.
Don't hire to fill job descriptions and voids, hire added value. If you come across someone that brings something unique to your business, that can help build your brand, create a job title for him/her. It's important in any business for employees to wear many hats, and, as an entrepreneur and leader, you can mold that employee and build off of their strengths.
HC: With so many details to juggle, how do you manage it all? Any hints on how to keep focused and organized so things don’t fall through the cracks?
ML: It's the attention to details that separates one operation from another. When building a brand and a business, it's important to create the company culture and brand identity in the beginning stages. Once the foundation is built (and strong), management can deliver a shared vision, making sure the team is focused and organized and delivering [that vision]. Delegation of roles and responsibilities is very important to keeping things focused and organized. By not micro-managing but rather by sharing your concept and vision, [you] let your management [hone] their own management style and personality.
HC: You’ve captured that elusive buzz over and over again, garnered a great amount of press and cultivated a celebrity following for each of your ventures. What tips do you have for other entrepreneurs, even those outside of the restaurant business, to build buzz and brand awareness?
ML: It's important for your brand to tell a story and portray a lifestyle. It's important not to force-feed information, but build brand awareness organically. Customers, whether in the public eye or not, want to discover the brand and/or service on their own.
We've managed to use social media, to help get our message out organically, especially with YouTube. [Before opening,] we introduced Sons of Essex with "Lower East Side is..." videos that features cameos from actors and artists, such as Padma Lakshmi, Jeremy Piven, We The Kings, and Jessica White, along with local Lower East Side DJs, graffiti artists, and shopkeepers. [We did not] focus on Sons of Essex, but focused on the identity of the neighborhood.
I am no expert on social media or viral videos, but content is king. Help—don't sell. Every business has a message to convey and a story to tell, [so] painting the picture through video for your consumers in a creative manner can be an important marketing tool. We give the consumer an inside look, such as our "How to Make a..." series and "A Day In the Life" of some of our loyal customers. We keep it as real as possible -- our staff (bartenders and servers) is featured in the videos, and we use the platform to show our business offerings, not aggressively push sales.
Build your brand from within. If you are opening up a restaurant, rather than press and media tastings, do neighborhood tastings first. Your neighbors are your core base customers—they will walk down the block to fill your seats during non-peak hours and nights. And outside of the restaurant world, when building a brand, identify your key consumer, and introduce the product to them first. To create true brand awareness, understand that what you sell or provide is not as important as what you can do for your consumer and customer. [Ask yourself:] What problem are you solving? What need can you meet? How are you improving their life?
HC: What is the hardest lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
ML: I think it's important to stay true to your mission statement. Don't be motivated by cents and dollars—be motivated by staying true to the brand you set to create. That will eventually lead to reward, both financially and in meaning. I always say, “Don't read the book, write your own book.” You'll never be a true leader and innovator in your field by following the scripts written by others.