Glen Coben is the founder of Glen and Company, a New York City-based architectural and interior design firm. Glen and Company has designed restaurants for celebrity chefs Mario Batali (Del Posto), Jonathan Waxman (Washington Park), Marcus Samuelsson (Riingo) as well as 57 Restaurant and Bar, a 5,000 square foot Lounge, Bar and Restaurant in the Roponggi District of Tokyo.
FE&S: How does designing for the foodservice industry compare to other industries?
Glen Coben: The stories are so much more interesting! Plus, the apprenticeship process chefs go through is very similar to the apprenticeship architects go through. I worked for some amazing architects...true visionaries. I learned their way of thinking and problem solving and developed my own philosophy built upon what I learned. I think the chef culture is very similar.
FE&S: After designing a new restaurant, do you ever get the itch to cook at home?
Glen Coben: I love to cook at home. I work out my menus during the week and shop on Saturdays with my daughter and we cook from the elaborate to the simple every weekend. I have signed cookbooks from many of the chefs we have worked with and I am humbled by their skills.
FE&S: What keeps you working in the foodservice industry?
Glen Coben: We have the amazing opportunity to tell a new story with each project. There is nothing cookie-cutter about what we do. Each project is a personal reflection of its menu, the chef's background and passion as well as the restaurant's location. Restaurants are deeply personal projects. I love designing them because each project affords us the opportunity to learn about new people, places, and cuisines. We are here to interpret a chef and owner's dreams into a reality. It's not about me; it is about them. My team does not lose sight of this fact each time out.
FE&S: When working on a new project, where do you turn for inspiration?
Glen Coben: We look at the project's location, the menu and most importantly, the chef's vision. We are hired to translate their culinary vision into a room or space which complements the food and makes service easy and seamless. We love design...but we are geeks and want to make sure the restaurant functions.
FE&S: Would you encourage your children to work in this business?
Glen Coben: Design? Absolutely! My daughter has a penchant for baking...I hope she finds something else!
FE&S: Who was the person that influenced your career most?
Glen Coben: Probably my dad. He designed materials handling systems for the US Postal service and I was able to see how he solved problems.
FE&S: Who in the foodservice industry do you admire most?
Glen Coben: Joe Bastianich. I am not sure the world fully understands how brilliant he is!
FE&S: What aspect of your career gives you the greatest sense of accomplishment?
Glen Coben: When I get a phone call from a chef or restaurateur who says, "I heard about how easy you were to work with. Let's meet, I have a new project."
FE&S: What type of charitable activities are you involved in?
Glen Coben: I am on the Board of Advisors of Culintro, which is an amazing culinary organization which promotes growth in the culinary world...from kitchen to front of house to design. I am also involved with my Temple in Westchester, serving on a Committee charged with a major renovation program of the facility.
FE&S: What do you look for in a business partner?
Glen Coben: Someone who is technical and great at math and can let me be creative. Left brain/right brain!
FE&S: What's the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Glen Coben: Learn to say "no."
FE&S: What's the most important lesson you've learned in the foodservice industry?
Glen Coben: Check my ego at the door. The project is not about me...it's about the chef/restaurateur/owner. As architects and designers, I always strive to make sure we remember that we are in a service industry. The other lesson I learned when I worked at Nike and is based on sports: Even though one team won the championship the prior year, at the beginning of each season, every team starts out with zero wins and zero losses. Each project we work on is a new season, a new opportunity to prove ourselves. I love that idea.
FE&S: When traveling for business, what is one of your favorite past times?
Glen Coben: Trying new cuisine...visiting different places like the bouqueria in Barcelona or going to the fish market at dawn in Tokyo.
FE&S: Other than your own, name the foodservice company that you admire most and why.
Glen Coben: I love the way Rockwell Group designs restaurants. They are amazing at solving problems and telling stories!
FE&S: What was your first job in foodservice?
Glen Coben: The first restaurant I designed was for Jonathan Waxman called Washington Park. Jonathan was opening after a long sabbatical and the pressure to deliver was pretty intense. He was calm through the process and focused on what his vision for the place was. We delivered and I will always be grateful for the experience!
FE&S: Knowing what you now know, would you still pursue a career in foodservice design?
Glen Coben: Absolutely! I am so fortunate to live and work in New York City, I see amazing things every day. My team continues to inspire me with their ideas and their dedication. I taught in the interior design department at Pratt Institute last year, and was inspired by my students. Our clients inspire us—chefs who create and assemble dishes and operators who put their trust in us to create their dreams. And last but not least, my daughter inspires me every day; she sees things for the first time and tells me how amazing they are...and I am filled with joy.
FE&S: If I were just starting out in the foodservice industry, what advice would you give me?
Glen Coben: Stay true to your ideals, but keep your ears open and stay open and flexible to learn. Be a sponge and learn from everyone you come into contact with.