It’s a delicate balance, this restaurant business. Grow too quickly, and you could be looking for a manager’s job at Denny’s. Don’t grow, and you could sow stagnation among your team and eventually whither.
Not too long after Marty Grims opened Autograph Brasserie three years ago in Wayne, he told his management crew that was that—no more restaurants. Autograph was the eighth property in Grims’ Fearless Restaurants portfolio, which is concentrated in Philadelphia, on the Main Line and in Long Beach Island, N.J. As the days passed after he delivered the news, Grims started to notice something he didn’t like. “Instead of being on their toes, they were on the balls of their feet,” he says. “My responsibility is to create opportunities.”
But a recent flurry of activity offers some assurance that his people won’t be falling back. There’s the recent debut of Louie Louie at 36th and Walnut Streets near the University of Pennsylvania campus, along with the Italian-themed Rosalie in the Wayne Hotel, which should be open as you read this. This fall, look for a fourth White Dog Cafe in Glen Mills. “You either grow or die in this business,” says Grims. “But it’s very important to grow responsibly.”
That statement sums up the philosophy with which Grims approaches his soon-to-be-11-strong restaurant group and future expansion. He believes a successful restaurateur must be able to “touch and feel” his properties. He doesn’t want to open restaurants in far-off lands and force his staff to live in hotels while managing a culinary diaspora.
That’s why there aren’t 15 White Dog Cafes sprinkled throughout the Philadelphia area and beyond. The Glen Mills location represents a new frontier, but one that’s part of a brand he’s cultivated. And by bringing Rosalie to the Wayne Hotel, Grims is growing his relationship with Steve Bajus, who owns the spaces where White Dog’s Haverford and Wayne locations have settled.
Riding shotgun on the newest projects with Grims is his 28-year-old daughter, Sydney. Like her father, she’s a graduate of Cornell University’s vaunted School of Hotel Administration & Hospitality Management. She began working for her father at age 12 aboard the floating, four-mast Moshulu, which means “dreadnought” or “fearless” in the Seneca language—thus the company’s name. After leaving Cornell, Sydney worked for the Hillstone Restaurant Group, which owns 60 properties across the country, and then was part of the food and beverage team for Ronald Perelman’s MacAndrews & Forbes, Inc. She is quite happy to be part of a less regulated environment. “In a corporation, all the fun is taken out of the restaurant,” she says.
Sydney’s title with Fearless is director of business development, but she provides a wide range of assistance. “I get all the jobs nobody else wants to do or that take a lot of time,” she says, laughing.
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A lot of that is focused on honing the Fearless culture and improving its human resources component. But she’s also in charge of creating the environment where diners will enjoy chef Merrick Devine’s fare at Rosalie. “It will be warm and approachable,” she says.
When Bajus bought the Wayne Hotel in 1985, it was being used as a synagogue. Earlier iterations of the building, which was first opened in 1906, included a tenement hotel, temporary housing for Hungarian refugees and a nursing home. Bajus and his development team converted the property into a 40-room boutique hotel. Not long after, they brought in Jean-François Taquet, who ran the restaurant for 21 years.
Interestingly, Grims and Taquet once went in together on a Radnor restaurant named for the chef. Now Grims is taking over his old partner’s one-time spot—which was rebranded as Paramour—and working again with Bajus. “The market has gotten very competitive, and running a restaurant is not something you do in your spare time,” says Grims of the reunion. “Steve realized he needed an operator full-time.”
Before heading the kitchen at Wayne’s White Dog Cafe, Devine had demonstrated his talents with Italian cooking at Boulder, Colo.’s Frasca Food & Wine. What Grims doesn’t want is “an Italian-American restaurant where people are looking for veal Parm.” He’s looking for Devine to create something authentic and northern Italian focused. “The Italians look at pasta as an art form,” Grims says.
Rosalie will incorporate several components of the hotel’s first floor, including the current restaurant and bar, its inviting porch, and the lobby. It will also continue to service the special events room. Grims envisions a lounge-style setup in the lobby. Bajus fondly remembers the early 1990s, when that area was packed every Friday and Saturday afternoon for happy hour. “Paramour was fine, but it didn’t set any records,” says Bajus. “The main thing it did was service the hotel and have special events. Marty will give it some more energy.”
The White Dog in Glen Mills is taking over the former Big Fish Grill space in the Shoppes at Brinton Lake. Grims says the area is underserved in terms of non-chain restaurants, and the growing population and higher-end housing developments bring a clientele capable of embracing the more upscale approach. “The concept speaks to the marketplace,” Grims says. “Glen Mills is a little more rural.”
At 58, Grims doesn’t appear ready to step back even a little from his chosen career, which began in the mid-1980s when he helped launch The Fountain in Center City’s Four Seasons Hotel. Still, having Sydney as a growing part of the Fearless team allows him to plan a bit for a future. He has two other children, Carli and Cole, who aren’t in the business, but no parent can ever predict what his kids will be doing in 10 years. “I look at this as one big painting,” Grims says. “You keep adding color and brush strokes to it. The painting isn’t complete when you open a new restaurant—it’s completed when you’re done doing what you do. Then someone else takes the painting and adds colors to it.” Carefully.