Corrections or additions?
This feature by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
October 21, 1998. All rights reserved.
Recipe for Success on Nassau Street?
The New York Stock Exchange is skittish, and all over
the world, securities are losing value. The Nobel Prize committee
is not sure whether the income on its equities will enable it to
offering prize money at today’s levels. Investment banker Steve Willis
remains calm. He is distancing himself from the financial markets
and, with his wife, Harriette Brainerd Willis, seeking financial
by owning restaurants in Princeton. Two of them.
Harriette’s, at 18 Witherspoon Street, on the site of the former
opened a month ago (U.S. 1, September 30). Zanzibar, one flight up
at 235 Nassau Street, the site formerly inhabited by Emerald
opened just this week; its take-out branch at street level, the Fork
in the Road, has been open for business since October 7.
Coolly assessing his new enterprises as an investment, Willis has
this to say about restaurants: "From a financial standpoint the
return on assets that can be achieved with efficient operation is
comparable to other enterprises. Last month it was a rocky road in
the stock market, but Princeton restaurants were not affected. People
thought that investing in blue chips insulated them from downturns
in the market, but that’s not true. As for capital outlay, and return
on capital in the restaurant business, Harriette and I feel good about
"Harriette and I wanted to start a business together," he
says. "We wanted to do something locally, and felt that the
could use more fine dining options. The Princeton market is strong
as a dining market. Everybody in town is doing well. We thought that
if we add something on the high end, something we could have fun at,
we could do it as a family business and it could be financially
Harriette grew up here. It’s important to give back to the
The couple’s personal impact is reflected in the names
of the restaurants. Harriette is a family name shared by Willis’ wife,
his mother-in-law, and his daughter. The name "Zanzibar" has
a more arcane origin. "It was one of those things," Willis
says. "We’ve been to many different places, but Zanzibar is one
of the places we never got to. We thought that if we can’t get to
Zanzibar, we’ll bring it to Princeton."
For the Willises, the investments imply a hands-on role. "We
to be frequently on-site," Willis says. "Harriette plans to
spend lot of time here during the lunch period. For the first time
all four kids [ages 11, 10, 5, and 3] are in school. That frees her
up. I will be spending evenings at the restaurants," Willis
"helping them get running, and seeing that the level of service
and the quality of product is up to the highest standards
Willis, 39, was born in Chicago and grew up in Weston, Massachusetts.
His father, a Boston-based senior executive, became CEO of Gillete’s
diversified industries divisions, which includes all the non-razor,
non-personal products. When Willis was 11, the family moved to
where his father faced the task of integrating Braun, the German
manufacturer, into Gillette. "That’s where my experience outside
the country started," he says. "I lived there for two years.
The family went to the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe at
a time when the wall was very much up."
"My father was a Rhodes scholar, and he used living in Frankfurt
as an educational springboard for the family," says Willis.
wanted us to see how other people lived."
After returning to Weston for high school, Willis majored in political
science at Middlebury College, where he met Harriette, then entered
Chase Manhattan’s training program. For two years he traveled around
the developing world, writing reports. "I spent a month in Lagos,
Nigeria, and it was an eye-opening experience," he says. "It
was 1982, four months before the military coup. Road blocks were up,
and kids were stationed at them with machine guns. I had a car and
a driver, an armed driver. One day the weather was gorgeous, and I
said to my driver, `Beautiful day.’ But the driver said, `No, sir.
It’s not beautiful. It’s too hot. Everybody’s malaria is kicking
"I spent a month in the Philippines," Willis continues. "I
was in Manila on the first anniversary of Aquino’s assassination.
There were hundreds of thousands of people in the streets. That kind
of experience is priceless to me. Having had these experiences, I
will do anything to bring the same kind of experiences to my own
After a stint as an investment banker at Salomon Brothers that ended
in 1992, Willis went to Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS), as managing
director and head of the Yankee Bonds operation, which deals in
instruments issued in the United States by non-U.S. entities. "I
loved my job for many years," he says. "My gradual
was not coincidental with the markets falling, but was based on an
opportunity coming up."
The opportunity consisted of the chance to buy Quilty’s, with its
liquor license. Willis continued to work at UBS while he planned what
to do with the property, "but it was too much," he says. He
abandoned UBS this year. In short order he found himself involved
in, not one, but two restaurants.
Harriette explains. "Once we found out about Quilty’s, we bought
it, even though it was a small space. We really wanted a bigger space,
and learned that Emerald Coffee was available." The Willises
to transfer Quilty’s liquor license to the larger location, but to
keep the smaller one. "We thought `Why abandon Quilty’s?’"
says Harriette. "It’s a great space. Many people want to bring
their own wine. So we’ll have Zanzibar, this fabulous restaurant
going to be everything, and also a bring-your-own-bottle place for
people who don’t want to spend as much."
She and her mother, an interior designer, are responsible for the
decor of Zanzibar. They have worked together in the past. However,
Harriette Brainerd Willis’ experience includes, besides interior
restaurants, and teaching.
The Brainerd family is from Bucks County originally. Harriette and
her sister commuted to Princeton Day School; their brother, to the
Lawrenceville School. "My mom worried about the kids doing all
that driving," says Harriette Willis, and the family moved to
Princeton when she was 14.
Harriette traces her restaurant experience to her senior year in high
school when she worked at the terrace of the Nassau Inn. During
she continued to work in restaurants. A member of the Middlebury Class
of ’83, two years behind Steve, Harriette majored in history.
She drew on the history background as a staff member at the
School, where she taught Chinese and American history, did admissions,
and coached field hockey. "I’m fascinated by the Far East,"
she says. "I did my thesis on American involvement in the Chinese
Civil War. I’ve taken advanced courses at NYU, and some day I’ll go
back." After graduation, because of her interest in politics,
she was attracted to Washington, D.C., and she managed lunch for a
Like her husband, Harriette experienced a growing disenchantment with
his work on Wall Street. "He was never home; he was traveling
all over the world," she says. On the rare occasions when Steve
was available, he and Harriette enjoyed dining in New York. "We
would say `Why can’t we do this in Princeton?’ I was very interested
in cooking, especially organic cooking, and I raised the kids on
Recounting the acquisition of Quilty’s, Harriette says, "We got
the inkling that we could get our hands on a liquor license. Once
we found out about the liquor license, that was the turning point.
When you’ve got the liquor license, you can do the kind of restaurant
you want. It would be the whole experience, the whole nine yards,
not just a matter of the revenue. We thought we had all the
"Steve and I don’t do anything half way. We went to Portugal on
our honeymoon, and didn’t just stay in Lisbon. We went all over
in 10 days. That’s our philosophy of life. With the restaurant,
warned us about the risks. Of course, you have concerns, but if you’re
aware of them, it’s not dangerous."
Adds Steve: "Many people believe that there’s a high degree of
risk in restaurants," he says. "That’s because the people
who ran them didn’t have a financial background, but had a food
He distinguishes the Willis enterprise from restaurants whose owners
chief expertise consisted in knowing how to cook. "Harriette and
I are different," he says. "I have a financial background
and Harriette has a food background. Together we expect to achieve
the right kind of financial, professional, and personal return."
Despite his sanguine approach, Steve Willis, who is a principal member
of the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD), is planning
an investment banking enterprise in Princeton. "It would be a
firm advising and executing bonds, determining the right price, and
selecting investors," he says.
"Previously, I advised clients from outside the U.S. about how
to raise funds in U.S. bond markets. I will be doing the same thing,
but it will be my own firm. I know who the bond issuers are, and who
the investors are. I have very good relationships built up through
years on the investor side. Really, the way you do it: you need a
system, whether it’s restaurants or investments, to be able to reach
people. I will be creating a weekly market commentary to be issued
by the firm, and faxed to business leaders and financial officers
throughout the world. And there will be lots of phone calls."
So far Willis’ investment bank has no name and no address. Still,
he says, "That’s my day job."
To handle the cooking at Zanzibar, the Willises brought
in Scott Swartz, whose last engagement in the kitchen was at New
Union Square Cafe, the restaurant most frequently cited as top choice
by diners participating in the Zagat survey. Swartz will be in charge
of food preparation at Zanzibar, and its take-out satellite, Fork
in the Road. He was in on things when Alex Cormier was hired as the
chef for Harriette’s. Dropping by as Harriette plays down the
risks of owning a restaurant, Swartz disagrees. "Investing in
a restaurant is the perfect way to turn four million dollars into
one," he says. A partner in the enterprise, he is happy to be
free of financial management.
Interviewed in the second floor space of Zanzibar amidst unopened
boxes the day before Fork in the Road opened, Swartz deftly handles
pre-opening details, while simultaneously talking about his role in
the Willises’ restaurant enterprise. "I met Willis through a
friend in New York who knew I wanted to move out of the city,"
he says. "I loved cooking in New York and wanted to own a
But there’s too much competition there. My first reaction was: So
there’s an investment banker who wants to open a restaurant.
a person like that could be the worst person. I didn’t want to talk
to him." After an initial reluctant encounter with Willis, Swartz
changed his mind. "Steve wants to bring in professionals to do
what he can’t do," says Swartz. "The restaurant team is like
a sports team. Steve is the owner; he’s hired the coaches, which are
us, the professionals. We have to hire the players."
The Willises soon established that they share Swartz’s philosophy
of food, and that they respect his participation in their enterprise.
"Steve and Harriette want to deal with local farmers and use
vegetables," says Swartz. "They’re not just owners who sign
checks. One of them will be on the floor every night. I’m a partner
and have a share in the restaurant. I have a vested interest in its
Swartz, 33, was born in Summit. "I’ve always been interested in
food. My mother is a very good cook. I used to help her out with
parties at home. My father is a Ph.D. chemist, retired from Johnson
& Johnson, who started as a pharmacist. My parents told me that
was not a real job," he says.
When Swartz entered Hamilton College, he earned money working in a
restaurant whose cook was a graduate of Hyde Park’s Culinary Institute
of America. Encouraged to discover food as a serious endeavor, Swartz
left Hamilton for CIA. "At culinary school the thing I liked best
was learning the how and why. When you make Hollandaise sauce you
have to understand emulsions to know why it separates. When my father
was younger he made pills. The emulsions for making pills are the
same as the emulsions used in food. We used to discuss this sort of
thing at the dinner table." Swartz also holds a B.S. in hotel
management from the University of New Haven. "I’ve worked both
the front and the back of the house," he says.
His starting job, an apprenticeship at Lutece under Andre Soltner,
catapulted Swartz into the most exalted realm of cooking. "When
I got the job at Lutece my parents realized that maybe cooking was
okay. They realized that I wasn’t going to be flipping burgers at
Denny’s. What I learned from Soltner was that there are three things
to do in a kitchen: The food must be seasoned properly, cooked
and served at the temperature it’s meant to be served at. Once you
do those three things, you can make a dish stand six feet tall. That’s
the beginning of all food."
Subsequently, Swartz worked at Feu Follet, in Mougin, France, rated
by the Michelin guide as the best bistro on the Riviera. He has spent
nine years in New York, in addition to Lutece, at the Gotham Bar and
Grill, and the Union Square Cafe. He helped open the Rialto north
of Little Italy.
"My food is contemporary American," he says. "It’s light
and focuses on a highly seasonal menu, which will change a minimum
of four times a year. I don’t like busy food. If you focus on food
that’s in season, there’s little reason to do anything to it. The
goal is to put complementary things together, and maximize their
There’s no need to cover food up or clutter it. It’s more challenging
for a chef to work with a seasonal menu. It’s hard in winter. When
spring comes, it opens your eyes up. You feel like a child again."
Swartz’s avowed simplicity is more complex than it sounds. He cites
the salmon entree on the Fork in the Road menu as an example.
salmon with local corn, scallions, and tomatoes. That’s all I add
to it. I serve it with an artichoke vinaigrette. You braise the
in extra virgin olive oil with garlic, white wine, and lemon, and
puree them in a blender." Easier said than done.
"We chefs are also teachers," says Swartz. The day before
Fork in the Road is to open, a crew is at work in the kitchen dicing
tomatoes and grilling vegetables. Swartz has prepared model portions
of the dishes to be offered for the crew to use as examples. "As
a chef I won’t make every single dish. But the more knowledge I have,
the better teacher I’ll be. I’ll train others to do what I want. Maybe
the first week I’ll go to the market with the fish man at 4 a.m. But
I need to be able to work till midnight." He estimates that when
the kitchen is in full swing for both Zanzibar and Fork in the Road,
it will have 12 to 15 cooks.
In Swartz’s mind Zanzibar and Harriette’s are not rivals. "They
will be independent operations," he says. Harriette’s, which seats
55 and has no liquor license, is about half the size of Zanzibar,
which has a full bar. "Certain things will overlap. We may
some of the purchasing. The idea is to have them not competing, but
complementing. Harriette’s will be doing a lot of walk-in traffic.
We expect lunch business to be bigger there."
Swartz is unconcerned about the battery of eateries on Nassau Street
within sight of Zanzibar. "It’s no problem that there is a Thai
restaurant in our building, and many other restaurants in the
he says. "The enlightened restaurant owners believe that all of
us will benefit because we’re so diverse. It’s a matter of bringing
more people to this part of Princeton. Everybody knows Witherspoon
Street. People don’t know this."
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