Co-Owner & Founder – CUSHMAN CONCEPTS
A ll along, our motto has been, “Do it right, or don’t do it at all.” My name is Nancy Cushman. My husband, Tim Cushman, and I are the co-founders of Cushman Concepts, which now includes five restaurants located in Boston and New York.o-ya.
When my career began, I loved all things advertising. I particularly loved the mix of creativity and business strategy. In my account management role, I was the liaison between clients and the advertising agency. This allowed me to touch every aspect of the advertising process, from creative conception to the strategic rollout.
Then, the economy turned, and I shifted into more of an HR role in which I was forced to fire a lot of my friends. I walked in one morning and waiting for me was a list of 40 people to fire; people I knew well.
At that same time, Tim and I had really started developing the “o ya” concept in our house. Every night, we’d create two or three dishes for the possible menu, and document them. Eventually, we’d logged up to about 900 recipe ideas.
Tim had always consulted or been part of other restaurants, but he never had one to call his own. I looked at him and thought, “It would be an absolute shame for him to not have his own restaurant,” and suddenly we had this idea baking. o ya.
The personal yardstick I use to judge my choices is to ask myself if I will regret not having done something. Would I regret not taking a risk and starting a restaurant? I looked ahead and was sure I absolutely would.
As an entrepreneur, you have to accept the fact that you’re going to have a door slammed in your face. You’re going to be told no, told that’s stupid, or told not to do something. You’ll have to endure people trying to talk you out of things, into things, and influence you into making impulsive decisions. You have to maintain a strong compass because other people will be distracting, and sometimes even persuasive. You have to keep true to your vision, your original intention, and never let that get diluted down. It’s important to listen to feedback, consider it, and have an answer for it, rather than blindly follow the influence of others.
From the beginning, Tim and I knew that we did not want any investors in o ya. We knew we had a very specific vision for what we wanted to do, and that meant we would have to take on all the financial risk ourselves. So, we put together a business plan and talked about getting financing from the bank.
The first thing we did was sign our house away as collateral. (Sounds fun, right?)
I still remember the feeling to this day; signing paperwork with my address listed on it, knowing that it would be the first thing the bank would come for if we failed as a business. To do that, your stomach has to be lined with steel. We knew this was the way we wanted to go, so again, we stuck to the mantra of, “Do it right, or don’t do it at all.” That takes a lot of fortitude, a lot of perseverance, and a lot of resilience, but every decision along the way contributes to what you end up with in the final product.
“You have to maintain a strong compass because other people will be distracting, and sometimes even persuasive. You have to keep true to your vision, your original intention, and never let that get diluted down.”
Another huge obstacle was to secure a liquor license as a very small, independent owner. We did not even realize on the market we’d have to pay $200,000 for a beer and wine license. All of these big chain restaurants can definitely afford them. But for a mom and pop with a budget of only $700,000 or whatever we started with…that’s a huge chunk of money that we didn’t have, and hadn’t planned for. So we lobbied to our local representatives, testified at the statehouse, and ended up getting a local license issued to businesses planning to open in areas that the city deemed up-and-coming.
We had to delay opening for six months. Six. Months. Because of a liquor license.
So, we started paying rent for those six vacant months. The money was flowing out sooner than it was trickling in. While we could have easily operated without a liquor license, we knew we had to offer alcohol to our patrons for them to have the full o ya experience.
Again, it was, “Do it right, or don’t do it at all.”
About a year in, we were just about two payrolls away from not being able to stay open. We had been funding the payroll ourselves. Unlike my time in advertising, we never let go of any of our staff. We 100% believed in our concept and we believed that things would pick up; we just needed our break. The restaurant was steadily gaining acceptance and traction. People were loving it, but it still was not enough.
Then, miraculously (I still get chills thinking about our luck), we had two very big press hits.
Frank Bruni, a food critic for The New York Times, did a cross-country “best new restaurant” tour and o ya ended up being his #1 best new restaurant in the country. It was UNBELIEVABLE.
In the same week, we also got a call from Food and Wine Magazine saying that they had named Tim as one of the best new chefs, of which they select only ten each year. Since Tim had previously not had a restaurant to call his own, at 55, he was the oldest best new chef ever selected.
Those two articles converged by the grace of God. I don’t know how it happened, but we are so lucky that it did. We were desperate and on the verge of saying, “Oh my God, maybe this isn’t going to take off,” yet we always believed in what we were doing and that we would find the audience for it.
“About a year in, we were just about two payrolls away from not being able to stay open.”
Throughout the whole process of starting and running o ya, I think it’s important that we made some adjustments but never veered from the vision. We kept going, we knew that the feedback we were getting from the guests was good, and we knew we just had to find an audience.
Those two press hits definitely helped us find that right audience we had been preparing for.
We didn’t cut staff, we didn’t change the menu—instead we stayed true to the vision. Tim always says, “You have to prepare to be busy because once you are, if you can’t deliver when guests come in, they’re not going to come back.”
Interestingly enough, we later heard from Frank Bruni that Boston was his last city. He had already made up his mind about how he wanted to rank the restaurants he had visited, but then he went to o ya. One thing that he wrote about in the article is that he absolutely loved the food but something else struck him.
I happened to be at the host stand when he came in and waited for his table. Another group of guests preceded him and since we weren’t able to seat them; I, as a practice of hospitality, offered them a reservation somewhere else—which to us is standard. We always help people dine somewhere else if we don’t have the seats. He happened to be standing nearby and overheard our conversation. He said that in New York that would never happen, and he was kind of blown away by our level of hospitality. But that’s the kind of personal touch that we try to have at o ya.
You just never know when your break may occur, so you might as well strive to be your best professional self each and every day. Who knows, the Frank Bruni of your career could be just around the corner.