How to Find the Right Business Partner, from the Team Behind Lilia and Misi

Best New Chefs 2019 Mentorship
Photo: Melanie Hansche

Every spring, life changes radically for ten chefs from all across the country–-there are media requests to field, partnership opportunities, an influx of warm wishes from friends, family, and colleagues, and of course, a title to accompany all of the commotion: Best New Chef.

This year's class enjoyed a beautiful lunch of arroz de pato (rice with chorizo, black olives, crispy duck skin, and orange), codfish with ramps, and Portuguese egg custard tartlets at 2011 BNC George Mendes' restaurant Aldea (which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year)alongside industry leaders like Tom Colicchio, Missy Robbins, Becca Parrish, Phil Baltz, and Jordan Salcito. The discussion included advice about how best to use press coverage, why it's important to take care of yourself in an industry where taking care of others often comes first, and the value of building a strong team.

To start the conversation, Editor-in-Chief Hunter Lewis introduced the Best New Chefs class to chef Missy Robbins and Sean Feeney, whose success at Lilia and Misi has earned them a reputation for being one of the strongest partnerships in the business.

"I always wanted a partner. And I knew that I never wanted to do it on my own, and I wanted a partner who mostly could support me and be by my side more than anything," Robbins said. Here is the advice Missy and Feeney shared about how to find and build a long-lasting business partnership.

Make sure you partner with someone who shares your values.

"At the end of the day, our partnership and what we've been able to build one-hundred percent has a foundation in values of respect for one another. We want to grow a team, and we want that team to be a part of what we're doing and really have a culture that's inclusive and a little different than the cultures that I necessarily grew up in in this business." –– Missy Robbins

Keep in mind that a great partnership doesn't develop without hard work.

"The partnership that Missy and I have built is easily the hardest thing I've ever worked at, and worked for, in my life. And, besides my family, it's what I'm most proud of in my life...And as great as things seem, and as loud and busy as our restaurants are, and how long the wait list is, it is a constant challenge to be the best partner to the other partner every single day." –– Sean Feeney

First, find someone you're comfortable talking to––then, consider them as a business partner.

"We allowed our relationship to grow naturally without any intentions of ever doing anything together, other than being happy in each other's presence. And so, during that course, it took time. And during that time we also got to know [each other] and allowed ourselves to see each other be vulnerable. We allowed each other to understand each other's struggles, in personal life, and also in professional life. That's why we've been able to digest the last three and a half years of Lilia and Misi and really enjoy it together, because we both knew where we came from." –– Sean Feeney

Don't blindly partner with the most experienced person you can find.

"'I think at the end of the day you ask: what are your values? What do you stand for? Why do you want to be my partner? What do you add as my partner? What can you do differently than me as my partner?' And I think you can find your way really easily. I think I probably wasn't asking the right questions when I was looking for a partner. I was looking to get the best restaurateur I could. That was meaningful to me, and that was the wrong approach. And what I've learned over the last several years- four years- especially with partnering with Sean, and opening a restaurant in Williamsburg, which I never thought I'd do, is to stay open minded." –– Missy Robbins

Partner with someone who compliments your skillset.

"I thought that I wanted this mastermind who would have been within the business doing wine and service for the last twenty years. And it turns out that that was really not important; it turns out that Sean was able to complement my skills from a financial perspective, from a business perspective, and from a hospitality perspective, without having done it for twenty years. Sean really understands the art of hospitality and he just sort of understood me…There are things that Sean gets really excited by that I'm less excited by, but that I know are really important to him, and vice versa. And I think that is a really important component of partnership, and of our partnership, is that is just the listening and hearing because what I wanted four years ago has changed, too." –– Missy Robbins

Ask if you're proud to be associated with that person

"I was in my apartment in my pajamas watching the James Beard awards livestreaming...And what happened was many of my peers and people that I loved, were winning that evening. And every single one of them got up and thanked their contributor, and very emotionally thanked their partner…And I knew, it hit me, and I said 'I'm going to be proud to stand next to this guy if I ever win an award.'" –– Missy Robbins

Make sure you let your partner take some ownership.

"I don't question what Sean's doing with our company financially, because I implicitly trust him. He doesn't ask me when a menu's going to change, because he implicitly trusts that these decisions are going to benefit the restaurants." –– Missy Robbins

Prioritize the long-term.

"I think what has worked in partnerships––and I would want everybody to really think hard about this if you don't have your own restaurant yet––would be to try to plan for long term happiness. This is hard for young professionals because you just want to start. You want to open. You want to go. And I think the beauty of what has happened with Missy and I was that our partnership was always long-term." –– Sean Feeney

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