Chef, author, and co-owner of Ciudad restaurant in downtown Los Angeles as well as the Border Grill restaurants in Santa Monica, CA, and Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas
Meet Mary Sue Milliken February 4 in Los Angeles at our “Launching an Edible Life” event.
If there’s just one thing you need to open a restaurant, it would have to be a stove, right? Think again. When Mary Sue Milliken and her best friend/fellow chef/business partner Susan Feniger opened City Cafe in Los Angeles in 1981, they had no stove or oven, only a hot plate and a hibachi out back in the alley.
Humble digs, especially for two professionally trained chefs—Milliken had attended Washburne Culinary Institute, while Feniger studied at the Culinary Institute of America. Their resumes included stints at three-star restaurants in France, Spago in Los Angeles, and Le Perroquet in Chicago, where they met in 1978—the first women working in that restaurant’s all-male kitchen.
Rich in experience and vision, but not in funds, they were happy to have a restaurant to call their own and quickly began perfecting a unique, multicultural fare, which incorporated recipes from Greek, Indian, and Thai cultures, as well as their own mothers’ recipes. Once they expanded to City Restaurant in 1985, they became culinary icons, recognized for their fresh mix of refined culinary technique and exotic Third World flavors, all dished up with down-home charm and playful enthusiasm.
Now overseeing 375 employees between the Border Grill restaurants in Santa Monica and Las Vegas and Ciudad in downtown Los Angeles, the partners have also found time to write five cookbooks, including the recent Mexican Cooking Essentials for Dummies; host the popular Food Network shows “Too Hot Tamales” and “Tamales World Tour”; and launch the Border Girls brand at Whole Foods Market.
What we learned from Mary Sue: Not every venture will be successful, but every experience will be worthwhile. “You’ve got to bounce back and just keep going. They’re all great lessons to learn.”
Words of Wisdom
“I think we both subconsciously were willing to start in a really meager setting, just because it was an opportunity not to work for a man.”
Penniless But Passionate
“We had come home [from France] with the intent to open a restaurant together, and we didn’t have a penny to our names. I was 23 years old. I had not been to college. I had no idea how to launch a business. None. Susan had a degree in economics and had been to chef’s school. She’s five years older than me. But she also didn’t have any idea how to launch a business.”
Cook What You Know
“First of all, you just copy things. But then, it starts to be a very personal cuisine, which is what we basically used those three-and-half years at City Cafe for—to create our own personal style of food. And it was so well-received. It started out as country French food, and it kept expanding all the time.”
Eclecticism, Not Fusion
“We did some really groundbreaking stuff. This was in 1984, and still, when our City Cuisine cookbook came out in ‘87, people said there’s nowhere to put this book on the shelves of the cookbook aisles, because you guys are all over the map. And there just wasn’t that kind of integration of different culinary ideas. We never called what we did “fusion.” We always felt like we stayed very true to the Greek cuisine, or the Indian, or the Thai, or the Mexican, or the Scandinavian, or whatever it was.”
“We slowly started learning about business, so when we launched City Restaurant, which was really the thing that put us on the map, it was a 125-seat restaurant with a full-on kitchen. It was on La Brea. We raised the $660,000, and had to do a whole prospectus. I’ll never forget, my net worth was $12,000, and Susan’s wasn’t much more. But we were able to learn by the seat of our pants, and we’ve been learning ever since.”
How Much Is Enough?
“We were just making educated guesses—or uneducated guesses. In the end, $660,000 was not enough money at all. We were completely short, and we had to get an angel to come in and sign a guarantee on a bank line of credit for us. Really, it was a stressful opening, because we only had like two-and-a-half days in the kitchen with food before we had to open the doors to the public because we were so broke.”
Hindsight Is 20/20
“If I knew then what I know now, I would have somehow found some financial bridge so that we could have had a little more practice before we opened. I mean, literally, the first couple weeks, there were nights that we didn’t even go home, and we were really burning the candle down to zero.”
It’s a Man’s World
“I think we were both ready to be on our own. And the prospect of working under men, and working our way up, and trying to fight through all of the barriers, looked less fulfilling than just starting out [on our own]. Even though we didn’t even have a stove, we still opted to start out calling our own shots.”
Know When to Grow
“The growth … it’s a really personal thing. It depends on how equipped you are for the challenge and stress of growth, and how your business is doing. I mean, we’ve grown where things worked out really well, and we’ve grown where it’s created a big strain on the existing businesses, and the new businesses didn’t work.”
On Losing Money
“When I look back on it, I think, ‘Well, I didn’t go to college. That’s about how much college might cost me. I’ll just chalk it up to experience.’ Now I have an even better understanding, and luckily, it didn’t happen at a time when I really couldn’t afford it. But I’ll tell you, being an entrepreneur and being in business is a real roller coaster.”
A Thankless Job Has Its Rewards
“When the Food Network came asking for us to come and promote our second book, and they noticed we were funny and how we finished each other’s sentences, they said, ‘You girls should have a TV show.’ The reason we should have had a TV show was that we did all of this really thankless teaching before that, and I’m not even sure it brought bodies into the restaurant. A lot people might have looked at it as a waste of time. But I think you never know what skill you’re going to develop, [and our teaching gave us the skills we needed to do the Food Network show.]”
Be a Great Boss
“We learn a lot from our colleagues, and from other companies that we want to be like. We’re always looking for innovative ways to really make our workplace so phenomenally attractive that we can’t lose good people, and we can attract the best. Those are big goals for us all the time.”
My Most Rewarding Business Moments…
“… are when one of our past employees mentions how working for us made a difference in their lives. It’s the best feeling in the world!”
Be Good at Everything
“You have to be a great leader, as well as a great cook, as well as organized, because it’s a business of so many details. I think there are a lot of restaurants that fall through the cracks because they’re missing the boat on something, and customers just don’t come back.”
All Work and No Play
“You have to be willing to walk away when you have a pile of work on your desk and stuff that you really should get done. You’ve got to be willing to walk away and clear your mind and be in the moment with your children or your husband, or whoever. You have to convince yourself that it’s equally, or more, important than your job.”
This Featured Lady was profiled by Sarah Tomlinson, a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.