The Non-Corporate Restaurant Corporation

A new era begins on North Main Street.

Two men stand in the entryway to the East Hampton Grill around 6:00 p.m. on a Thursday in July. The restaurant has only been open for a half hour yet the place is spilling over with people wanting to sit down for dinner.

“What is it?” one gentleman asks the other in amazement. “How do they bring in all these people? I want to know what they’re doing.”

Ask the Hillstone Restaurant Group, a 48-restaurant group based in Beverly Hills, California, what their formula is, and they will tell you they don’t have one. “Formula,” “corporation,” “cookie-cutter,” are all words that Hillstone tries to ignore. The Hillstone family likes to use the word “culture” to describe the company’s outrageous success and, in recent years, prefers instead words like “local,” “individual” and “community.”

Buzzwords or truth, the East Hampton Grill has been a hit since the day that they took over Della Femina, an 18-year staple in East Hampton, whose staff had become family to each other as well as to the community. Earlier this summer, advertising guru Jerry Della Femina and his wife, Judy Licht Della Femina, who sold their eponymous restaurant to the Hillstone Group, hosted a cocktail party to mark the end of this era.

The poolside gathering at the couple’s oceanfront home raised money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a organization that helps gravely ill children fulfill their wishes. Caricatures of the regulars (both famous and anonymous) that hung on the walls of Della Femina were now spread around the pool awaiting a new life. Former customers were invited to purchase their caricatures, with proceeds going to Make-A-Wish. “It was a nice way to go out,” said Della Femina as the party was winding down.

Asked how he felt about selling his popular restaurant, he said, “I feel great.” The Della Feminas are effusive in their praise for the new restaurant, perhaps hoping to inspire success for the new owner, although clearly a following is already in place. “I know the Grill is a great restaurant, and when you spend time with the people who run it, they are really nice,” he said. “In some ways it’s better than ours. The menu appeals to more people.”

While Della Femina chef Michael Rozzi and his predecessors won accolades among foodies, Hillstone menus are simple American fare, meant to appeal to the majority of palates.

Licht Della Femina agreed, “Great food, service and atmosphere are the hallmarks of the new restaurant. The people are friendly, the straightforward menu is mouthwatering and it seems to be made up of everyone’s favorite dishes. As for the Key lime pie, it’s the best I’ve ever tasted.”

New owner George Biel does not speak to the press, but he is known to have worked his way up from busboy to opening his first restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee, to owning 48 restaurants all over the country. Based out of Beverly Hills, Hillstone includes Houston’s, Hillstone, R & D, Bandera, Gulf Stream and the Grills. The restaurant group has earned an estimated $236 million “system-wide sales” in 2010.

“George Biel is first and foremost a restaurateur,” says Robert Wilkinson, the executive vice president, “and is involved in every aspect of the business, particularly when it comes to food, service and design. Hillstone has a strong infrastructure of management, and George believes in letting the organization work.” Wilkinson, a New Yorker, has been with the company for 30 years and is involved in the day-to-day operations, but he says his job is to support the staff at the restaurant.

“Would you like anything to drink?” dining room manager John Kim asks me upon entering the new restaurant for the first time, hours before service begins. Kim brings over a cold glass and a small bottle of fizzy Italian water as executive chef Brian Stefano and I sit down to chat. Chefs typically don’t like to sit still, and Stefano is no exception. He’s working hard not to show it but clearly he is anxious to get back to his new kitchen. At 27, he is running the two-month-old restaurant like an old pro.

“To be honest, this is the only job I’ve ever had. I started at 15 as a dishwasher and never left,” Stefano says of the restaurant business. The Culinary Institute graduate from Chadds Ford, Penn- sylvania, first trained at the Santa Monica Hillstone, then moved to the Park Avenue Hillstone before opening the East Hampton establishment.

The Hillstone Group was smart to grab him. Like the rest of the staff at the East Hampton Grill, he’s young, ambitious and eager to please. He’s happy to point out that the East Hampton location was their quickest turnaround ever.

“We added more than we took away,” he explains of the new kitchen. “All bread is baked in-house. We added a whole bakery station with a proofer, a warm box where the bread can rest, a big stand mixer.”

The only structural change was that a wall dividing the dining room and the kitchen was knocked out to make an open kitchen, a signature design of the Hillstone Group. “We’re proud of our kitchens,” says Stefano. “We don’t like to hide our cooks behind walls.”

The new openness of the space, with the caricatures taken down, seems to democratize the restaurant. In place of the previous cliques comes a willingness to welcome the masses.

Take chef Brian Stefano’s favorite dish, the French dip, an old- school classic, for example. Shaved roast prime, cut to order, rare, piled high on a housemade French baguette, a dash of homemade horseradish and a side of natural au jus for dipping, is simple, yet it’s the attention to detail that brings it to the highest level, served with crunchy, house-cut, matchstick potatoes.

The French dip is a staple dish of Hillstone Group, as is the rotisserie Amish chicken, grilled artichokes, house-smoked salmon and Dover sole, which is served at market price ($48) Thursday through Saturday at the East Hampton Grill.

Hillstone restaurants are known more for their meat dishes overall, but Stefano says he is most excited about working with the fresh fish Montauk offers. One recent night the chef served lo- cally caught striped bass, grilled with spinach and shrimp risotto. While the sides may have been too heavy for the record-breaking July heat, the bass was simple and perfectly cooked on its own merit. He is rotating through several local oysters for the Oysters St. Charles appetizer: the fried mollusk, which sits in its shell on a bed of creamed spinach and artichokes with a dollop of lemon aioli on top, delivers a pleasing mix of tastes and textures.

Stefano hits the farmers market hosted just across the street at Nick & Toni’s on Friday mornings to get to know some of the lo- cal sources, including “the mushroom guy and Ian from Balsam Farms.” He’s talking with Balsam about future lettuce production. They currently source lettuce from Satur Farms on the North Fork and are working on recipes for their tricolored cauliflower to come. The chef notes that produce is a bit late this season due to the heavy spring rains. A blight on the tomatoes hasn’t helped. Local honey is served with their bread option, rosemary biscuits. “Anyone with a great product is more than welcome to come in,” the chef says.

If there is a secret ingredient to their success, it’s that they don’t depend on just one ingredient. “I don’t think you can think of it in terms of formula. That’s probably the first step,” says Wilkinson.

“We don’t think of ourselves or act like a large corporation, so our chefs don’t need encouragement to source locally. They understand how important it is to build relationships with those businesses that are part of the community. Ultimately they know they must source the best and freshest products that represent high quality, while allowing us to provide value to our guests,” Wilkinson iterates later.

Meg Farra walks into the restaurant and immediately picks up the ringing phone. She’s trained with the company three years ago as a greeter as well as server in Colorado, where she studied hospitality at the University of Denver.

All-American, blond hair, a blindingly white smile and not afraid to show a little teeth. She says Hillstone looks to hire “sincere people with a genuine eagerness to serve and please and go above and beyond.”
“If you walk into an interview and are not smiling,” she says, “it’s not a good sign.”

Maybe the locals don’t smile enough because the dining room floor is devoid of familiar faces.

Executive general manager Rob Marano explains that they didn’t get many responses to their advertisements for help. They were relatively late in the season, having moved into the space just weeks before Memorial Day. At that point, most restaurant workers had already found their summer positions. Marano is hopeful once the summer is over, the locals will be more available. As a result, restaurant staff, approximately 40, have come from other places and have rented year- round housing in the Springs section of East Hampton.

The average training period is a week, but that varies, too, according to the individual, and is done in-house. Training is intensive and involves tests as well as a requirement to hit “milestones.” Make no mistake about it, this is a money-making franchise and a well-oiled machine. Farra comes close to admitting a formula: “Consistently keep standards high without letting things get stagnant. Ideas for improvement, that’s the culture we want to instill. If you exude friendliness from the moment you walk in to the moment you walk out, everything else is coachable,” she says.

“Expectations are very high,” Farra continues. “Our restaurant exceeds guests’ expectations in fine dining, yet you can come in with jeans on.”

Brown carpeting replaced the terra cotta tiles in the dining room. Track lighting was added as well as a wooden center column containing bookshelves. The eclectic artwork, from Biel’s private collection, includes a Chuck Close. There is no unifying theme, other than a warm masculine space and comfortable seating.

“In terms of the design, we thought about the long history of the Hamptons, the arts community and its status as a gateway for many different people,” says Marano who travels from the city to help the restaurant run smoothly.
Drinks in hand, diners waiting to eat sit on couches in the entryway and outdoor tables. The bar is at full capacity.

The restaurant’s reservation book is booked solid every day of the week. Steven Spielberg, Ina Garten and Jerry Della Femina and his family are already regulars.

Gilles Baudin, who tended bar at Della Femina for 17 years, misses the old place. Everyone knew each other as was evident by the caricatures formerly hanging on the walls. “We were a group of people that worked together for so many years that it was effort- less and well run by the management. Everyone was taking care of each other, and we loved our job and being part of Della Femina restaurant. We made it a smooth and happy place to work.” Steph- anie Wade who worked at Della Femina for 18 years says she was sad, too. “You know how a restaurant can create a sense of community for the staff and customers so I miss that,” she says. “I hear the East Hampton Grill is very nice but it’s not going to replace that.”

The executives say East Hampton Grill was created for the community, with neighborhood in mind. Time will tell to what extent the non-corporate corporation will embrace East Hamp- ton, and to what extent East Hampton will embrace the new joint. And while the Grill’s design may seem more clubby, the feel, at least for now, is a bit more touristy. It is summer after all.

But after spending some time with the people that run the Grill, Della Femina’s words ring true: The Hillstone Group are people pleasers who genuinely seem to want to be a part of the community.

Della Femina’s personality may have been replaced by a huge corporation, but his and his wife’s caricatures still hang on a wall looking into the open kitchen. His friends and family still plan to come and eat along with many others.