A GAMBLE: Splichal took a chance developing in downtown L.A. years before it got trendy.
CULTURE VULTURE: Splichal handles foodservice for the Orange County Performing Arts Center, above, and the Hollywood Bowl, below.
SHY GUY: Not a fan of the limelight, Splichal prefers to stay behind the scenes and create.
The enterprising Splichal recently spoke with RH contributor Libby Platus.
RH: Now that you have the reins again, what do you want to accomplish?
Splichal: As a company, we were restricted against competing with Compass. With our purchase, the competition clause was eliminated. We can compete on any level: retail, foodservice, sports and entertainment. This is definitely a plus and we're receiving many calls.
RH: What will you open next?
Splichal: Maple Drive should open by September 2007. We want to grow Naples Pizzeria. There are huge opportunities out there, now that we are free, huge! Most likely, we will expand up and down both coasts.
RH: Downtown Los Angeles is becoming a real downtown after decades of decline. However, you began locating here with Nick & Stef's, Zucca and Patina, long before the current wave of development. Why did you choose these locations?
Splichal: I came downtown in 1995. We were in the midst of a recession. Real estate was depressed, vacancies were high. Everybody thought I was totally nuts! But, I have a feeling for every deal I make. If there are 300,000 people working downtown, there has to be night business. Initially, when we opened Cafe Pinot, 10-12 years ago, we were packed for lunch every day but only had 20 evening covers. Business was built through quality, service, ambience and long-term vision. Three years into it, we were taking in $30,000-$50,000 a night. Then we opened Nick & Stef's. When people talk about the restaurant business downtown, we are it. But everything is changing. Downtown will have more residents and more restaurants. It will become a city on its own with the development of L.A. Live [a $2.5-billion development near Staples Center] and Grand Avenue [a $2-billion development across from Disney Hall].
RH: Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali have a limited number of investors at $100,000 each for Mozza. Silverton says you prefer smaller and more investors.
Splichal: Investors are like public relations agents. If I have 20 investors at $5,000 each, I have 20 PR agents. My philosophy is, you invest in me, I will give it back 3 fold, 5 fold, 10 fold, and I have!
RH: Who is the biggest investor in your buyback?
Splichal: A Japanese company, Shidax.
RH: You were born in Spaichingen, Germany, and worked in Holland, Switzerland and France. How did you end up in L.A.?
Splichal: I split up with a woman in France and moved as far away as I could. I took a job with the Regency Club in Los Angeles.
RH: What is unique about the Los Angeles restaurant scene?
Splichal: Compared to New York, Chicago and San Francisco, we are a very small community, but spread out over a great distance. Los Angeles really doesn't have a lot of high-end restaurants like those cities.
RH: Did catering the Emmys and the Democratic National Convention help open the high-end clientele for you?
Splichal: This introduced us to the society circle in town, people on the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Music Center, the Los Angeles Opera and others. When we did the Emmys, we were very little and we had never done a party like this. They recognized the quality and we did it for many years.
RH: Your food is now part of many cultural institutions. Before your presence at LACMA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Hollywood Bowl and others, the food was inconsequential—no major chef or restauranteur had recognized these locations as viable. How did you get involved?
Splichal: MOCA came to me, and then, it was LACMA. When the Music Center first approached me, in 1996, we were not ready, but, in 2003, we opened Patina. These institutions understood we would add quality and create more enjoyment for their clients. We control nearly 80 percent of the cultural institution foodservice in town.
RH: The new Leatherby's Cafe Rouge at the Orange County Performing Arts Center is truly beautiful. How is this market different from Patina's?
Splichal: They appreciate quality, but it's a different market, price-wise. It is something new for that community to have a restaurant attached to a performing arts center. It's also new for them to have catering in a performing arts center.
RH: Many of today's top chefs do everything they can to stay in the public view. Why do you keep a low profile, promoting your company, but not yourself?
Splichal: I feel more comfortable running a business and being creative than being in the open view of customers. Also, I'm very shy.
RH: Traci Des Jardins, chef/co-owner, San Francisco's Jardieniere, trained under you. She has described you as "very intense, very demanding but extremely inspiring" and said you have "an unflinching standard." Is this why you've been so successful?
Splichal: She said that? That could be right! I have standards and the vision to grow. It is different running a $20-million business that has become a $100-million business. It's like a speeding train. I would like to slow it down sometimes and make this a little better and that a little better. It becomes more and more difficult. In three years, downtown L.A. will change. Who will be downtown in six years? You must always be aware of the competition and be two steps ahead. You have to rely on good people who have the same vision. I am only one person. But I am surrounded by good people.
RH: Where do you find these people?
Splichal: We go to culinary schools and bring people from Europe for 18 months. We feel training is the future. The third cook on the line, one day, will become the sous chef and the sous chef will become the chef. Look at me: I had a good culinary foundation; I was driven; I came here with nothing but a couple pairs of jeans, jackets and a some knives, that's it. I did it all from nothing. I found the most important thing in my life here: Christine, my wife, my partner. She deserves more credit for the success than I. We were an incredible team getting this business off the ground. To start a business alone is very difficult.