Back in 2008, Michael Schulson didn’t have any restaurants in Philadelphia. After cooking at Le Bec-Fin, Stephen Starr’s Buddakan in New York City, and restaurants in Tokyo, he dabbled in celebrity cheffing on TV and opened sleek Japanese restaurant Izakaya in an Atlantic City casino.
Then he came back to Philly, and over the last decade has been a major part of the buzz surrounding this city’s restaurant scene. Schulson, with his wife, Nina Tinari, now runs an empire of eateries that are seemingly always packed, earning them the title Restaurant Empire Builders of the Year in the 2018 Eater Awards. By the end of this year, they’ll have 14 restaurants — 12 in the Philly area.
For Schulson and Tinari, creating the right restaurant experience is about more than the food.
“My parents would go to dinner and a movie, but dinner is the movie now,” Schulson says. The big question he asks his team is: “How do we create the movie?”
It’s a balance of “great hospitality, great energy, great service, people-watching, and an element of transporting the guest where they don’t feel like they’re necessarily on 13th Street, Sansom Street, or even in Philadelphia,” Schulson says. “People love a movie, but there’s nothing they want more than to be in the movie.”
Maybe Schulson should try his hand at Hollywood — his dramatically designed restaurants are definitely drawing in audiences in Philly.
Asian fusion spot Sampan is set on a bustling block in Midtown Village, with a hidden outdoor bar behind it accessed via a very narrow alleyway. Schulson opened the restaurant in 2009 and it’s still a hit. Next door is Double Knot, a coffee shop upstairs and dimly lit Japanese restaurant below ground. Keep going: Next to Double Knot, Schulson and Tinari just added Alpen Rose, an intimate, sophisticated steakhouse with plush booths, ornate chandeliers, dark wood, and a cooking fire diners can watch from their table (you’ll smell a bit like a campfire when you leave).
A few blocks away, sprawling Italian restaurant Giuseppe & Sons, which debuted late 2018, mimics the upstairs/downstairs concept of Double Knot, but this one is a collaboration with the Termini Brothers Bakery family, legends in Philly. At Harp & Crown, next to Giuseppe, the restaurant and huge bar are upstairs; downstairs diners will find another bar and, get this, a bowling alley.
Detouring from Philly, the Schulson Collective opened Monkitail in Hollywood, Florida. There’s a restaurant just off Rittenhouse Square in the works, and two across the river in Camden, New Jersey. By the end of the year, Schulson and Tinari will be running 14 restaurants.
The buzz around each opening sparks fresh interest in their existing restaurants, Schulson says, and locating them next to each other helps bring in business: “Any time you build your presence and create a buzz, it give the other ones a boost. Put them next to each other and people just come.” Using subterranean spaces with cheaper rents is another savvy move.
Almost 1,000 people work for Schulson Collective. When opening his second Philly venue, Independence Beer Garden, Schulson tripped up on staffing, moving too many employees to the new spot. “It was hard, because you’re trying to pull people from the first to open the second, while trying to make sure it doesn’t impact the first,” he says.
Lesson learned. Now he’ll move just a few people over from an existing restaurant to an opening one — the older restaurant is “still stable and fully staffed,” he says, while new employees are getting trained at the new location.
Tinari, a former political and communications consultant who served as special assistant to Governor Ed Rendell, is now the head of marketing at Schulson Collective. If the restaurant group was a movie studio, Tinari would be the set decorator, prop master, and costume designer — she guides the interior design, the menu design, and the look of the staff uniforms.
Her influence is increasingly noticeable with each new restaurant. While the 10-year-old Sampan has some eye-catching decor, Giuseppe & Sons feels like stepping into another world. It starts with a set of stairs than leads down from the street-level, retro-styled luncheonette and through a long, narrow hallway below ground. Being ushered through the glowing, sprawling, subterranean 170-seat dining room to a plush booth in a sunken seating area can feel like the scene in Goodfellas when tuxedoed waitstaff carry a table to the front of the packed Copacabana for Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco. With Sinatra crooning on the soundtrack, packed tables of boisterous diners digging into meatballs and gravy, and servers bringing out trays of martinis, it’s like being in a movie.
We’re publishing a feature story on each of the 2018 Eater Award winners in Philly. Read about Restaurant of the Year Suraya, Chef of the Year Cristina Martinez, and Design of the Year winner Louie Louie.