You may not know this but there is a good chance you love fast-casual food. You may not even be familiar with that term, but it's basically those restaurants where you can get delicious food but you don't have to sit down for two hours to get it (think Chipotle, Sweet Greens.) One of the rising stars of the industry is 30 year old Samantha Wasser, the founder of hit restaurant chain by Chloe, which after only opening in 2015 in New York, now has five locations (they recently opened in Rock Center) in the city, as well as stores in Boston and California and London, as well as another fast-casual restaurant called Sosta and the Middle Eastern fast-casual Dez opening next year. This woman is dominating.
by Chloe is considered to be one of the defining restaurants of the fast-casual genre and Wasser is at the forefront. She credits much of her success to her teams which are all led by women. The head chefs for by Chloe (Chloe Coscarelli who has since left the company,) Sosta (Ali LaRaia) and Dez (Eden Grinshpan) are all women, as are the majority of the design teams for each venue-which arguably get as much attention as the food-as well as the branding teams, restaurant managers, much of the kitchen staff and her PR team. This is even more impressive considering that the restaurant industry from top to bottom is notoriously male-dominated and known for its rampant sexual harassment problem.
Though Wasser is the daughter of famed ESquared Hospitality CEO Jimmy Haber (BLT, The Wayfarer, Tavern62 by David Burke) many people thought she had her career handed to her on a plate (no pun intended.) But Wasser actually found this familial connected knocked her down a few pegs. And being a mid 20-something woman trying to pitch a relatively new kind of dining experience adorned with neon signs and millennial pink, proved to be hard in a room of suits. "I'd walk in a meeting and no one would take me seriously. It was only once by Chloe took off that I got attention or they answered an email. But today I still even get that up down look," she told Levo. "I really had to learn to be assertive."
Wasser was seeing glimpses of an industry that as of 2014 was the largest source of sexual harassment complaints, according to the Restaurant Opportunities Center United Together (ROC) (though that study has been disputed more recently.) In addition to servers dealing with sexual harassment-close to 80% of women have said they experienced it from customers-over 65% of women said they were harassed by management and nearly 80% by coworkers. "They have all seen it," Wasser said referring to her chefs. Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg described a horrifying work environment in her 2015 heated op-ed on the conditions some female chefs face. "Slapping with tongs, snapping bras, relentless grabbing — women chefs learn quickly to crouch, never bend over, when picking up a pot," Agg wrote.
This is part of the reason Wasser has been so driven to work with women. Not only just the chefs that design the menu, but throughout all parts of her company. Her female assistant is actually the one that came up with the name for Dez after they had an open brainstorm...for months. "I want to hear everyone's ideas." The result of her and her team's collaborating and hard work has paid off. GrubStreet named by Chloe '2015's most surprising restaurant success' giving them the green light to expand and start new chains. And that Instagram friendly branding and design has also made the by Chloe account (which Wasser is responsible for) a must-follow with 85,000 followers.
Wasser credits her staff for dealing with her in the three years leading up to by Chloe's launch as she says she second-guessed every decision she made to a debilitating extent. There were many sleepless nights where she called her staff going back on a decision or changing her mind.
But no amount of second-guessing herself could have prepared her for the nightmare situation she faced last year. Coscarelli, the vegan chef who created the recipes with the Esquared Hospitality corporate chefs and served as the face of the brand, parted ways with the company after months of reported turmoil. An arbitrator claimed Coscarelli to be “grossly negligent" with actions including losing leases on new spaces and sabotaging deals with business partners. The press centered in on the battle between these two young women, but Wasser remained unwavering. "I just stayed strong. Just knowing that you are looking out for the best interests of the brand was what I focused on. I wanted to protect the brand and make sure nothing changed for our customers," she said.
And the brand didn't miss a beat as it has continued to thrive and grow. Learning to trust her team to help her build this brand was a huge part of that and not micromanage everything. "You can't be everywhere at once, you have to trust them," she said. "I can't open the store every morning and be everywhere at once. It's not realistic. I had to learn to ask them what I could do to make them be able to get their job done." Though she says she will still visit one of the stores and take pictures of things and send back notes to the team. After all, the work is never done.