A toast to Margittai and Kovi: happy 25th – Tom Margittai, Paul Kovi of the Four Seasons Restaurant – column
Where can you pay $150 a couple for dinner and come away thinking you’ve just enjoyed the greatest bargain in history? Each person probably has a personal preference for such unique experiences, but the one place in the world where most everyone might universally agree that the statement consistently holds true is New York’s Four Seasons.
To some, it’s a gastronomical palace; to others, a perfect environment of decor and food; still no others, a place to be seen with one’s peers in a power-broker atmosphere where $5 million deals are routinely consummated over lunch; and to a wide element simply a luxury place that they can afford only once or twice a year. Yet always, the elusive orchestration of all the elements of true fine dining excellence is achieved here to an amazing degree.
In many ways, it is a small miracle that the Four Seasons is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month (see feature article, page 39)–and celebrating it with over $12 million annual sales and a bottom line that is a good deal stronger than the two owners like to publicly admit.
How did it happen that the Four Seasons–a brilliant, creative idea spawned at the Seagram Building in the late 1950’s by Jerry Brody’s financial genius and Joe Baum’s genius for being 10 years ahead of the times–was even able to survive in the horribly difficult New York City times of the early 1970’s when so many great restaurants went under? How was it possible for a restaurant that was losing money for Restaurant Associates and doing only $2 million annual sales in 1973 under Tom Margittai and Paul Kovi to emerge and prosper beyond anyone’s imagination under the leadership of none other than Margittai and Kovi.
Yes, their refinements have been brilliant in shifting five different menus daily and changing the menus every three months; in building an incredible stock of European and domestic wines; in launching the Grill Room as the first absolute “Power Lunch” bastion for publishers and other “elite” groups; in gearing the Pool Room for other types of customers and thereby pulling in the most varied clientele; of promoting the restaurant with a bevy of special wine dinners and overwhelming food presentations for every course.
But none of these represents the real answer to the paradox of the same two men apparently failing at the restaurant under the corporate environment of Restaurant Associates and then succeeding far beyond their own or anyone else’s expectations after buying it in 1973.
Actually, the main answer is overwhelmingly simple: Margittai and Kovi, each powerful in his own right, have thrived and prospered over the last 11 years in an entrepreneurial environment–innovating and taking chances as they could not under the conservative corporate RA atmosphere of the 1970’s.
Any time of the day or night that one goes to the Four Seasons, at least one of them and most often both can be seen moving from one table to another, greeting customers constantly and engaging in small talk as friend-to-friend rather than owner-to-customer. They inspire and encourage their extensive and talented kitchen staff and front-of-the-house personnel to perform at their best consistently.
The Four Seasons at 25 represents continuity (most of the staff people along with captains and waiters have been there 10 to 20 years), boldness in sticking to a basic concept and building off it, and a vision of what can truly be a brilliant blend of all the elements of a restaurant.
But it couldn’t possibly have happened–and it didn’t happen–until Margittai and Kovi were free to do it their way under their own ownership. And even given freedom, an individual restaurant can only rise to the top when a Margittai and/or a Kovi have the inspiration and desire to constantly reach for greatness.
We can all drink a toast to these two miracle men today because when so many others said no, it couldn’t be done, they said “yes, we still do it.” Because they believed and persevered, the Four Seasons today provides a culinary and personal inspiration to the entire industry.
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