The ingredients of success

Photo of Chef Bert GillIf you were to compile a list of the area’s best restaurants, Bert Gill’s three would likely be near the top. His Mildred’s Big City Food, New Deal Café and Ti Amo! are well-known for fresh, high-quality food and flawless service.

But you’d almost expect Gill to have mastered those elements of his craft. After all, he started in the business at 15, graduated from the New England Culinary Institute, and is a self-professed food junky.

He’s also well-known for his devotion to the community. He regularly supports fund-raising events such as WUFT’s Celebration of Wine. He has spent years mentoring students at Eastside High School’s culinary program. And he’s a key advocate for the “buy local” movement. Having spent some of his childhood on a farm in Missouri, his devotion to fresh, local food was almost a given. “I think that has something to do with my farm-to-table attitude,” he admits.

His love affair with restaurants started in 1985 in Winter Haven, Florida, where he worked at Harriston’s, an eatery that featured continental cuisine. He continued in the business while attending high school and after graduating from Winter Haven High, Gill came to Gainesville in 1989 with a plan to attend the University of Florida.

He met his wife, Tara, here but school didn’t work out. “She graduated; I did not,” he says. Instead Gill continued to develop his skills at several local restaurants. He always had lead roles, such as kitchen manager, but by the time he reached the age of 25 he came to a realization: “I felt like I had plateaued,” he says, “and it wasn’t a high enough plateau.”

So, he and Tara moved to Montpelier, Vermont. There, Gill studied under the top chefs at the New England Culinary Institute, refining his skills in a rigorous program. He worked six days a week, 10-hour shifts, and served in seven restaurants in a year. Then he followed that with a comprehensive stint at a top Boston restaurant before coming back south to start his career here.

Now just 42, Gill has made a relatively quick transition from teenage cook to executive chef and restaurateur, but the years have been filled with experiences that have helped shape everything about the way he does business, as he explained during a short break in one of his regular 14-hour days.

During your career, you’ve been fortunate to have several mentors, including Bruce Johnston, the owner of the first restaurant where you worked. Can you talk about what you learned from him?

He was very firm but he was appreciative of the people he worked with. That attitude has stuck with me and has always been a part of who I am as an operator and employer. I’ve always tried to be grateful of people coming in here and working hard.

We have a saying that our numbers are relative to quality of work we’re doing. And if our numbers are down, maybe we need to look at what we’re doing and do a better job through service, through the product we’re serving, through the whole gamut.

You also had an educational experience after graduating from the New England Culinary Institute, though not is a positive way.
It was one of my great life lessons. I met with the chef at the Four Seasons—one of top restaurants in the country—and he accepted me and basically said I was hired but I had to meet with the head of human relations first.

Well, I went into the interview and I was a jackass and didn’t want to be bothered with her questions. I said, ‘When do I start; let’s get to the basics.” That night, the head of human relations called me and said she decided who was going to work at the Four Seasons, not the chef. She said she was not going to hire me because I was a punk but I could interview again in six months if I wanted to. That showed me it doesn’t matter how big you think you are; there’s somebody to put you in your place.

Where did you go after that?

I looked all over Boston and settled at Pillar House. It was a family-owned institution in Boston. I worked for Tom Larsen, who had been The Restaurant Association’s Restaurateur of the Year. I started as executive sous chef and in little more than a year became executive chef. I was the youngest person on the staff.
I don’t think I could have been successful in the restaurant business without that experience.

It was a very complex business—we even had our own laundry for linens. And as chef I was paid on the management of costs. That involved everything from my linen detergents to my silver burnishing schedule to plate breakage—the complete line-up of being a restaurant owner.

You left after about five years. What drew you back to Florida?
I turned 30 and wanted to start a family. Also, even on an executive chef’s salary it was hard to get by in Boston.

Did you come straight to Gainesville?
No, we bought a little property in Flagler County on the beach and we thought we were going to be grossly successful in one of the fastest growing areas in the country. We ended up realizing we were going to starve to death.

What brought you here?
The owners of Mildred’s of Micanopy wanted to start a restaurant in Gainesville and I was hired to open it up. The Micanopy location was a coffee bar and sandwich place. That was what they planned for Gainesville as well. We had plastic chairs, Mexican platters. We had a deli of pre-prepared foods and around a 30-seat dining room.

Why did you change?
Dinner business became 60 percent of income within the first seven months so we re-configured to the current layout, with separate lunch and dinner concepts. Later we opened the New Deal Café next door.

Can you talk about the concepts?
The Mildred’s lunch concept is very casual. It’s counter service; it’s fresh food.  The New Deal Café has a cooked lunch. It’s table service. You’re more likely to get a plate and a hot meal in the New Deal. And then Mildred’s dinner becomes linen and wine glasses and fresh food. It’s really a neighborhood bistro.
We’ve created multiple restaurants under one roof. That’s what really makes this company successful.

And all three restaurants work out of the same kitchen space.
Basically yes.

When you bought the former Sovereign Grill downtown, which has now become Ti Amo!, you had a separate facility. Did that make it more difficult to manage?
Yeah, we struggled in that first year for a number of reasons. I wasn’t prepared for the amount of work I needed to do on that old building. We ran it a little too much as an independent business. That left people without the support structure they needed. Also, I made a mistake in continuing under the Sovereign name.

What do you mean?
I knew I was going to change the concept eventually, but I wanted to take this destination Sovereign restaurant that everybody knew about, call it Bert Gill’s Sovereign to create context, then re-concept it down the line. I don’t know why I did that. It was foolish. I should have re-concepted it on day one.

How did you turn things around there?
I realized everybody needs a greater support mechanism around them so we started operating the restaurants more as a team. Now we have all our meetings together and the management structure is all-inclusive and we’re all responsible for both companies. Anytime there’s an issue, the staff at one restaurant has the full support of the other. That’s really changed things for us.

Each of your restaurants is different from the other. How do you come up with successful and unique concepts?
The first part of it is, we’re all diners. We’re all really interested in food and restaurants. We’re watching the industry. We like to travel and eat. And then when we develop a concept we’re trying to be regional as well.

You’re about to open a new restaurant named Blue Gill Quality Foods in the Shands Cancer Center garage. Given all you’re doing already, what prompted you to take on another project?

It’s really driven by my co-workers. I have some great people here and they want to stay with the organization and their incomes need to grow and we can’t do it with our current facilities. We have about 65 people on staff now. I hope to double that we when add the new restaurant.

The idea that you may help somebody become more successful is very gratifying. There’s a great reward to getting that phone call when somebody has left and they call to say, “Thank you for preparing me.”

Why did you pick a space at Shands?
I’ve really liked that southwest corridor for a while. I think the economic engine of Shands and the University of Florida is a significant market. I have extremely limited competition in the half mile around there. Also, this gives us a distribution hub to market to the people at Shands, plus all the other people around there.

What’s the concept for Blue Gill?
The restaurant will have a North Florida Cracker theme and will have North Florida cooking. The décor will be mix and match. There will be a little over a 100-seat restaurant and bar. There will be a chalk board where people can leave notes for each other or comment on things.
We’ll also have a bicycle delivery business into the hospitals. People will be able to order and pay for meals on their smart phones or computers and then meet the delivery cart at the front of the tower at each hospital.

Both Dan Schillinger, the chef at Ti Amo!, and Richard Roettgen, the new chef de cuisine at Mildred’s, had worked for you in the past, then gone to culinary school and jobs in fine restaurants elsewhere before returning. I would think that’s unusual in your business. What do you think draws people back?
I think it’s the quality of life in Gainesville. And I think at the restaurants we have great food. Part of being a chef is working with great ingredients and we get great ingredients. An average chain restaurant has 20 vegetables total; I’ll have 15 kinds of tomatoes in tomato season. So that massive variety of products is part of the picture.
Also, if you’re going to become a restaurateur this is a next logical step.

What do you mean?

With Dan at Ti Amo!, the idea is, “This is your restaurant.  You may still need to be mentored, still need support but you need to start making some decisions on your own.

That attitude of support seems to be evident everywhere in your business.
We have a very mentoring environment and we’re known for creating great co-workers. If you work here, you have a lot of support mechanisms around you that allow you to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes.

You seem to extend that attitude of mentoring to your entire staff.
The idea that you may help somebody become more successful is very gratifying. There’s a great reward to getting that phone call when somebody has left and they call to say, “Thank you for preparing me.”

Yet you’re also very demanding of your workers.
We’re known for having a very disciplined environment and our labor pool must like it because we have very little turnover here.

You’re also unique in that you not only prepare your kitchen staff to move on; you push them out the door.

They’re on a deadline from once they come into the kitchen to when they’re leaving. We look for young kids who have very limited experience then we train them and mentor them. Then we look at what their next step should be.

We’re looking at jobs for them. We’re looking into culinary programs. We’re deciding what the next step in their culinary careers should be.
Sometimes it’s leaving the industry.

How long is the average cooking career here?
We structure it so at least half our cooking labor pool is leaving every 18 months. We don’t want people to stay more than 18 months to two years—not at the entry level. There’s always a new pool coming in and really there’s a cap on how far they can go here.

Along with your work with your own staff, you’ve been very involved over the years with the high school students in Eastside’s culinary program. What attracted you to Eastside?
Part of it is it is my responsibility as a chef to give back to the community. It is the community that supports me; I have to participate.

Part of it also is teaching them about having a relationship with the community of farmers and suppliers. Sure, you can buy anything from anywhere but the best business practice is to support our community by purchasing locally.

Also, it’s part educating them to this business. These young chefs in high school have the idea this is a very glamorous career and they’re going to leave high school to be one of the world’s top chefs. I want them to realize that if they think they’re going to become one of the world’s top chefs they maybe ought to consider being an astronaut because, you know, they have about as good a chance.

I would suspect that reality shows like Top Chef would give high schoolers a skewed view of how demanding restaurant work is.

People don’t understand the amount of production that goes into a night’s dinner service. It’s hours and hours and hours of physical production here. Because we’re working with fresh, local ingredients, the fish aren’t cut; they don’t arrive cut up and frozen in bags; they’re whole fish and each one has to be prepared. The vegetables arrive straight from the farm. They have to be cut; they have to be washed; they have to be trimmed. We’re serving thousands of plates a week and one bad plate isn’t acceptable. This is a tough, tough business.

You’ve said you regularly work four or five 14-hour shifts a week and you’re managing multiple restaurants. What do you do to re-charge?

I have a family and I try to opt out when I can—take off some weekends when I can. But the hours and work become part of the makeup of it all. I don’t really find too much negativity in it.
I’m a provider; I have to be a provider for my family and for the people in my labor pool and I’m really comfortable with that.

Does Tara work in the restaurant?

She’s my partner in all of this. She manages our payroll and our accounting and I can’t say enough good things about her. We have three small children and she carries as big a load as I do, if not more.
A good marriage is two people supporting each other and making each other better through life. And that’s my wife.

As we’ve seen by the number of recent restaurant closings, this has been a tough time for the industry. Have you experienced that here?
We still have a huge, loyal lunch business. I have a lot of people who eat here daily or a multiple times a week. We have people who eat here 52 weeks a year, and I’m not talking about 5 or 10; we have more than 100.
I don’t have less guests; guests spend less. That’s been our biggest thing.

So what are you doing to stay successful in this environment?
It’s a daily challenge. We pay close attention to our P&Ls and expenses and growth or lack of growth. We manage on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. And we focus on the quality of what we do more. Fortunately, I have extraordinarily devoted co-workers.

Quality and customer service seem to be the watchwords in many businesses these days.
We have a saying that our numbers are relative to quality of work we’re doing. And if our numbers are down, maybe we need to look at what we’re doing and do a better job through service, through the product we’re serving, through the whole gamut.

Do you stress this regularly?
We have a meeting before shifts and we talk about our responsibilities to each other. It’s a real simple
mission. We have to do a great job every day.

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