Pure Gold: This Duo Defines Nashville's Food Scene

05/12/2017 -

Pure Gold: This duo defines Nashville's food scene

By   –  Staff Reporter, Nashville Business Journal

A building with good bones. A chef with a unique vision. A warmth that draws people back.

For brothers Benjamin and Max Goldberg, those are the types of intangible factors that make a restaurant work.

That’s why Benjamin’s phone is full of photos of everyday objects that inspire him, like a paper clip or a fire hydrant bolt — not for their function, but for the feeling they suggest. That’s why the duo recently spent days sifting through types of paper, searching for one that would create the right “feel” for a printed menu. That’s why the “cursed” space at the base of The Adelicia condo building, with a litany of shuttered restaurants to its name, didn’t scare the brothers away, but instead lured them with its “quirky” layout and natural light.

“We kind of live by that expression, ‘People may not remember what you said or what you did, but they always remember how you made them feel,’” Max says.

It’s that focus on creating a certain feeling, both in a restaurant’s design and with its staff, that resonates most when the brothers try to explain the secrets to their success.

But there has to be more to it, given the extent of that success. Goldberg restaurants pop up in nearly every national media rave about Nashville, from The New York Times to Southern Living, and their company, Strategic Hospitality, boasts double-digit year-over-year revenue growth. You’ll find a who’s who of Nashville at any one of their concepts, from celebrities to business power players. The brothers have built a diverse portfolio, ranging from cheap eats and drinks at a downtown honky-tonk to some of Nashville’s most elite (and expensive) dining experiences. Their lineup of some of Music City’s hottest restaurants has established the brothers as two of Nashville’s top arbiters of taste.

Ten years after Max joined his brother to run downtown honky-tonk Paradise Park, I sat down with the duo to crack the code: What makes a concept, a neighborhood and a partnership work? The Goldbergs call their company Strategic Hospitality, so what’s their strategy?

Tapping the right talent

The brothers, who grew up in Nashville and know the city and its denizens well, insist they don’t conduct extensive market research or neighborhood studies or anything of the sort. When they’re first considering opening a restaurant, it generally comes from a “selfish” place.

“Looking back at what we’ve done together, it’s almost like a snapshot of where we were at that particular moment in our lives,” said Max, 33, who returned to Nashville a decade ago from a consulting job in New York.

Other recent efforts, like Bastion in Wedgewood-Houston and Henrietta Red in Germantown, are the result of relationships forged with some of Nashville’s hottest chefs and longtime Goldberg collaborators.

Julia Sullivan, who opened Henrietta Red with partner Allie Poindexter earlier this year, is a childhood friend of Max who helped the brothers create the menu at Pinewood Social. So did Josh Habiger, Bastion’s high-profile chef, who also previously helmed the Goldberg’s marquee fine-dining establishment in Midtown, The Catbird Seat.

Trevor Moran, another former Catbird Seat chef, is now crafting gourmet hot dogs and other summertime favorites at The Band Box, the Strategic Hospitality restaurant in Nashville’s minor-league baseball stadium, First Tennessee Park. And Matt Tocco, Strategic’s beverage guru and Benjamin’s brother-in-law, has crafted some of the best-known drink menus in the city.

Like many business leaders, the Goldbergs, who are not themselves chefs or bartenders, say their success stems largely from finding and working with great people.

That’s what stands out to Sullivan, who describes the brothers as financial partners, advisers and when necessary, “devil’s advocates” who helped make the vision she and Poindexter had for Henrietta Red a reality.

“The coolest part about them and also something that makes them successful is that they’re not just replicating concepts … and identifying trends,” Sullivan said. “They’re identifying concepts and people that they really believe in, like myself, and like Josh [Habiger].”

Likewise, for Fred Hall, a prolific area investor who first met Max at The Band Box about two years ago, the brothers’ ability to build a stable of talent is one of the qualities that most stands out to him — and convinced him to invest in their projects.

“[Max] has an uncanny ability to attract tremendous talent that he basically puts on the shelf for the future and the right time,” said Hall, CEO of Hall Capital.

When that right time comes, Hall continued, Max is able to say to the chef, partner or fellow restaurateur, “‘Here’s how I see this.’ … He presents a vision.”

Finding the right space

The brothers’ most recent restaurants are in some of Nashville’s hottest neighborhoods, but they cite Pinewood Social’s development as a time that “vision” required taking a risk on the right building, regardless of location. When they set their sights on the Trolley Barns, the project was far from the thriving streets of downtown Nashville, “on a dead-end road that ran into the river,” and “inside what some people would consider to be an office park,” Benjamin said.

But when Bert Mathews, a longtime Goldberg acquaintance and the driving force behind the Trolley Barns redevelopment, talked to the duo about opening a restaurant there, everything clicked.

“I had shown that building site to 10 or 15 other restaurateurs,” Mathews said. “Max and Benjamin were the ones that really thought about the space, understood the space and knew what it could be.”

Love for a building is another key to their recipe, the brothers say, far more important than the neighborhood.

“We feel like if we’re good enough at what we do, hopefully people will come regardless of location,” Benjamin said.

And come they have. The brothers and their restaurants have landed ample national notice, both from food and travel writers and as frequent semifinalists for the James Beard Awards, the Oscar-like celebration of all things food. That includes two straight “Outstanding Restaurateur” semifinalist nods for the brothers themselves.

Although the Goldbergs declined to share specific figures, they said Strategic’s revenue grew 19 percent between 2014 and 2015, and 20.5 percent from 2015 to 2016.

While Benjamin and Max say restaurant ownership is more about feeling than numbers, Mathews — who invested in Pinewood Social — said the Goldbergs’ business savvy is one of the factors that drives their success.

“They are really smart business guys. They are analytical,” Mathews said. “They understand the math behind a transaction. They know how to buy things, like the way they were able to pull together [Pinewood’s] bowling alley.”

Capturing the vision

Benjamin, now 37, entered Nashville’s restaurant scene at an early age, shortly after graduating from college in Miami. Along with fellow Nashville restaurateur Austin Ray, he opened and ran BarTwenty3 and City Hall in the Gulch — a neighborhood that wasn’t really a hot spot at that point.

About five years later, as those spots were shutting their doors and the Ray-Goldberg partnership had split, Benjamin asked his brother to return to Nashville.

“I felt this amazing energy in the city with people that were going out and eating and drinking,” Benjamin recalled. “I felt like I would have the opportunity to continue to do things that I found interesting and excited me. The reality, though, is I couldn’t do them alone. And I basically spent six months begging Max to move back to Nashville.”

Max remembers things differently.

“My brother is way too humble to say it: He really was a visionary. … I would not be back in Nashville if it wasn’t for my brother,” said Max, who argues his brother saw Nashville’s foodie potential before “99 percent of people did.”

“We can push further and create things that maybe are just a little bit more dynamic. … What we do is a race without a finish line, so it’s constantly … thinking what can we do to innovate,” Max said.

“For us, how people feel in our spaces is so much the guest experience. We want to make sure people always feel welcome, always feel appreciated and that they know how grateful we are that they’ve chosen to spend their time and money with us.”

I have a rule about real estate: there’s a time to buy and a time to sell.  The trick is knowing when to do that.

You just have to have feel about it.” – Bob Mathews