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The Smile's Matt Kliegman | Q&A

The always cool restauranteur talks hospitality and more

a bunch of food on a plate on a table

Matt Kliegman is the co-owner/operator of The Smile, Black Seed Bagels, and The Jane Hotel Ballroom in New York City. Over time, thanks in large part to the casual, friendly atmosphere that keeps guests lingering during daylight hours, The Smile has developed a reputation as a sort of unofficial clubhouse for the city’s creative class. Here, we talk to the restaurateur, along with chef Melia Marden and marketing director Lindsay Todres, about the nature of hospitality, keeping staff happy, and the last thing he cooked at home:

a person sitting at a table in a restaurant
Photo via guestofaguest.com

Tell us about your previous career and how you ended up getting into the hospitality industry:

Kliegman: I went to school for finance and ended up working at JP Morgan for four years after college. Within the first few months, I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do forever, though I didn’t necessarily think it would take this long to figure out my next step. While I was working on Wall Street, my partner [Carlos Quirarte] and I would throw these parties, for fun, that were always really well-attended. We figured that if we could get 1500 people to a Halloween party, we could get a few hundred to a restaurant. 

It wasn’t that easy. When we opened The Smile in March 2009, we weren’t busy at first, and we were missing a lot of the really basic things that we should have had, like, for example, an air conditioner, or a walk-in refrigerator. There was a tattoo shop operating in the basement, which the Health Department definitely did not like.

How do you keep good staff around and staff morale high?

Marden: Our staff tends to come back to the Smile a lot even after they leave. Because it’s always growing—we’ve improved this location, and we’ve opened other locations. There’s room to grow here, and everyone who works here treats each other like family, so when people leave I think they miss that aspect of coming to work every day. Our kitchens are respectful, and Matt and Carlos are understanding of the fact that people have lives outside of work.

Kliegman: We try to create an environment where we hang out with people we like at work. Empathy is an important thing here. I think people leave jobs for three reasons: because they either don’t like the people they work for or with; because life takes them elsewhere; and because of money. I try to take out the first factor entirely, accept that the second one will happen, and control the last. It’s worked out pretty well so far.

What does hospitality mean to you?

Kliegman: We all take joy in helping facilitate good experiences for people—that’s at the foundation of why I enjoy this business. We get pleasure out of helping people enjoy their own lives.

Marden: I agree. The best part of this business is having people enjoy it.  It’s great to be able see that you’re constantly doing something positive.

Todres: For me, hospitality is about anticipating—thinking about what people need and getting it to them before they even know they want it. It’s about being on top of the details and staying ahead of requests.

What’s the last thing you bought online?

Kliegman: Fireplace tools.

What are some of the apps on the first screen of your phone?

Kliegman: I like to keep my screen pretty streamlined. I just have a few apps—one to control my Sonos speaker system, Chase banking, Uber, Pinterest, and a security camera feed.

What’s your go-to coffee order?

Kliegman: I drink green tea from morning until afternoon. Then I make myself a cappuccino. If I work at night, I’ll have a double shot of espresso.

What’s the last thing you cooked at home?

Kliegman: Two days ago I made salmon and a salad with beets and feta. Tonight, we have some friends coming over, so I’m making beef tenderloin and mushrooms and asparagus.

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