Margie Goldsmith interviews New York restauranteur and artist Sheldon ‘Shelly’ Fireman
Sheldon ‘Shelly‘ Fireman, Founder, President and CEO of NYC’s Fireman Hospitality Group, is an accomplished restaurateur with 1,600 employees and nine restaurants: two in National Harbor, Maryland, and seven in NYC, one of the most demanding restaurant markets in the world. But just as important to him as his passion for excellent food and hospitality is his quest for knowledge. His personal library exceeds 10,000 books.
Fireman is also an artist and an art collector. His homes in Bedford, New York and Camaiore, Italy include not only his own works but also pieces by such artists as Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Julian Schnabel, Leroy Neiman, and Peter Max. His restaurants, too, incorporate original art commissioned from Red Grooms and Milton Glaser. As an artist, Fireman’s first sculpture on display in National Harbor is one of the most photographed pieces of art in Maryland. At his newest Italian hotspot, Florian Cafe in Manhattan’s trendy Union Square, three of his life-sized bronze female nudes dominate the room.
Born to a poor family in the Bronx, NYC’s toughest borough, Fireman was additionally handicapped with a severe stutter and was too shy to talk to people. Perhaps that’s why, at the age of six, he became interested in art and spent countless spellbound hours at a nearby museum. As a teenager, he taught himself to sculpt and attended art school, which made him feel much closer to his true self. But Fireman didn’t want to be poor; he wanted to make money, be married, have children and take care of them and not his soul. He quit art; but knowing he’d either end up driving a truck or working in a factory if he stayed in the borough, Fireman left the Bronx.
When Fireman went to Europe for the first time, attempting to be a movie producer, he says, “I was exposed to the sophisticated and successful people in the world beyond what I grew up with and realised then that I could compete with anyone, even though most people said I couldn’t, basically because they didn’t look beyond my stuttering.”
Fireman is presently a highly successful entrepreneur whose net worth, he says, is “a hell of a lot more than I ever dreamed when I started my first restaurant, but a hell of a lot less than some of my really billionaire friends”. He grins mischievously and adds, “And it’s a hell of a lot if I can afford the prices of private jets.” We caught up with him in his spacious Manhattan offices where a sign by the door reads, ‘WE’RE ALL FAMOUS, NOW WHAT?’
Q: What did your father do?
A: He was a factory worker who loved going to museums and taking me because he had a deep appreciation of art. My mother, no matter how broke we were, was a compulsive reader. I learned if you read 10 books on anything you could lecture on it, that’s how the world is, and that’s how I learned about art. I met this girl, a ballerina. I felt so stupid because what does a guy from Bronx know about the ballet? You read five books on ballet and you can talk to anybody about it.
Q: What was your first job?
A: I’ve been working since I was seven when I used to sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door in my building. Then I sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door at age 17.
But before that, I was the delivery boy for the butcher, the florist and Nat Sherman cigars. I was also a soda jerk. My first real job, at 19, was selling advertisements for a newspaper. I worked on commission and was so good that in two months I was making more money than anyone in my family.
I’d go out there and call on all the stores and that was the greatest high, because when your father works in a factory, who are the guys with suits and ties who are successful? The salesmen! Those are guys who could pick up the cheque and had a few dollars in their pocket. So I became a dress salesman in the garment centre. After three or four months I was making so much money that the boss said, “Shelly, I want to put you on a straight salary.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because you’re making twice as much as my brother-in-law who’s been with me 15 years and his wife is complaining.”
Q: How did you get into the restaurant business?
A: Around 1963, I was hanging around MacDougal, the hippest street in Greenwich Village. Some guys were talking about opening up a coffee shop – those days, beatnik poets hung out in coffee shops. I said this is the stupidest idea I ever heard. If I were doing anything today I would take a bagel and make it hip. I went to the library and spent three months reading about the restaurant business. You don’t have to be that smart; you just put it all together and you’ll have a business. That’s who I am. So when I said I’d make the bagel hip, I took Italian food and put it on bagels and played jazz. I got a fancy Tiffany box and put the bagel with no card in the box and had it delivered to every DJ in town. They were asking on air, “Who sent me a bagel in a Tiffany box?” After about 10 days, when I revealed it was me, I heard one of the DJs repeatedly telling his listeners, “Go down to The Hip Bagel.” Then, everybody started showing up: the jazz musicians and all their hip friends. And that’s how it started.
Q: What was next?
A: In time, I wanted to get out of MacDougal Street because who wants to stay up till three o’clock in the morning every day? I wanted a straighter life. I could have bought Rothkos and Rauschenbergs and Warhols because those guys all came in to The Hip Bagel. I didn’t know anything about art, especially since you’ve got to have money to buy it, but who knew how successful they would become?
Q: How did you get from The Hip Bagel to uptown?
A: One of my regular Hip Bagel customers was from a successful restaurant family. He thought I was smart and liked my creativity, and asked me to join his group.
In 1968, we opened The Tin Lizzie, a steakhouse. I hired Peter Max to help me design the restaurant. At that time, he was unknown. The restaurant became the ninth-largest grossing restaurant in the United States.
Q: What happened to it?
A: We were so highly leveraged and then came the crash of ’75.
Q: And after that?
A: I saw a space that I loved on the Upper West Side and begged the landlord to give it to me, but he wanted a big name player. I did a market analysis and showed him page after page after page why I was going to be successful at this spot. I wore him down with my enthusiasm and his son saw my market analysis – that was before personal computers. And he said to his father, “Gee, that’s what I do at Harvard, Dad.” And his father, who never went to college, said, “I’ll show you you’re wrong.” So to prove his son wrong and to half joke, he made the deal with me.
I called the restaurant Fiorellos. New York Magazine named it the best thin crust pizza in New York.
Q: What came next?
A: I opened a restaurant on the East side that I kept open for a long time because I’d been told you’ve got to have five successful restaurants before the finance people will trust you. This was stupid, and I wasted a lot of time with that restaurant. You shouldn’t do that.
Q: And then came Trattoria Dell’Arte, right opposite Carnegie Hall. What was the concept?
A: In 1977, I was vacationing in Capri. I went into a restaurant and saw the chef was not in the kitchen but was in front of the diners, preparing a buffet of only vegetables. I knew then that a presentation of vegetables would be a major part of my next restaurant. So I opened Trattoria Dell’ Arte, the first restaurant in New York City with a humongous antipasto bar. Do the homework. Steal. That’s what Picasso said. You don’t have to be smart, just work. I don’t go out to eat to have a good time, I go out to steal. Now, all of my restaurants have huge antipasto tables as you walk in, and this has become my trademark.
Q: Why did you decide to open other restaurants: the Red Eye Grill, Brooklyn Diner, Bond 45, Brooklyn Diner in Times Square, and this August, a new Bond 46 right across the street from Broadway’s hottest show, Hamilton?
A: Why do you do anything? That’s what I do. It’s like having one object of art and staring at it. After a while it gets boring. Otherwise, what do I do? Watch a soap opera?
Q: When you open these restaurants, is it about the food, the decor, about being in trendy places? What is it?
A: It’s about being successful and focusing on what will make the guests happy and smile so they’ll return. Remember, what’s a stuttering kid who’s messing up in school going to do? Drive a truck? Work in the factory? Become a pattern maker? I say no, I hate driving and I can’t work in the factory anymore. You can do anything if you really apply yourself.
Q: What is the culture of Fireman Hospitality Group? Is there one?
A: It’s basically to make the guest happy through genuine hospitality, genuinely caring more and really focusing on somebody else, not yourself.
Q: When you travel, you charter. Which company do you use?
Q: Have you used fractional shares or jet cards before?
A: I’ve used NetJet. The funny line, when I leased Net Jet, I used to send them big cheques. My wife would say, “Where are we going? We have nowhere to go.” I used them for a few years. It’s a quality operation but not cheap. I’m fortunate that I often I hitch a ride with a friend who has many private jets.
Q: Have you thought about buying your own jet?
A: I once almost bought one, but once I get to my house in Bedford or Italy, they’re such wonderful places, why would I want to go anywhere?
Q: If you were going to buy a jet, which one would it be?
A: The safest one. After doing homework, the friend on whose jets I hitchhike used to buy the Dassault because the Dassault never had an accident. Just get me there safely.
Q: Why do you fly privately?
A: My body is spoiled. And I find the American commercial airlines’ hospitality, food, and cleanliness to be so lacking, and there’s no graciousness towards the customer.
Q: When you fly, which FBO do you use?
A: Westchester, New York or Teterboro, New Jersey. Since it’s the same distance, wherever it’s US$12 cheaper, I’ll fly that.
Q: If you could decorate a jet any way you want, would you do something different?
A: No, I think they decorate them clean enough in some nice grained woods that make you feel better. The snacks could be healthier. I bring my own food generally; I just pick it up from one of my restaurants.
Q: Do they offer you a choice on Sentient?
A: Sentient treats people quite well and catering comes with every flight.
Q: How much time do you spend in Italy every year?
A: Two and a half months.
Q: You have two studios there and you use one of the same foundries as Botero. Do you bring your sculptures back on Sentient?
A: If it’s a big piece I put it on a boat. If it’s a small piece I fly it over.
Q: Do you have any new restaurants in the works?
A: I just turned one down. They offered me $24 million to build it and it’s not a good deal.
Q: Why not?
A: With $24 million, I could drown. It’s not enough to do the job. Don’t fall in love with what people offer you, because you’ve got to pay back some way, and this one is too hard to pay it back.
Q: What’s the worst mistake you ever made in business?
A: Making mistakes is part of being on earth. A mistake is a mistake. I can’t rate them.
Q: Over the course of your life what are the most important leadership lessons you’ve learned?
A: I’ve learned the importance of genuinely listening and understanding how others feel about a situation; and then, with their thoughts as well as mine, I try to lead them into the best decision for the entire company and everyone. Even though they might want it their way, they have to see that you have their best interest at heart. We have a big responsibility, and if we do it your way, I think we’re going to mess it up and hurt a lot of people, so it’s got to be my way.
Q: Why do you have to be so successful? Aren’t you successful enough? Or will you never be successful enough?
A: I don’t know what success is. It’s not financial, it’s like, “Can I do it?” It’s like a runner. Can you do better? I want to do it calmer and more sensibly. That’s the goal today.
Q: And are you succeeding?
A: I’m trying – working my butt off to succeed – putting every mindfulness app on my computer, really trying hard. And trying hard to absorb in a reasonable, rational way the insanity that’s going on around us in the world. It’s a job. I’m working hard every day.