Paul McCullough started out in hospitality as a very small fish.
“I was 19 when I went to work as a runner for the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group,” says McCullough, partner in thriving Saratoga Springs restaurant, 15 Church.
“Eventually I moved up to back waiter, then to assistant, and then to captain in three-person teams,” he says. “What an experience! I worked for 15 years learning the ropes of a premier and cutting-edge restaurant group created by a man I consider to be my mentor, Pano Karatassos.”
Fast-forward past fine-dining experiences in Florida, where people lined up 30 at a time to get a seat, to the grand opening five years ago of 15 Church in Upstate New York, and you get a culinary mission promising the very best of everything, including the incredibly fresh fish.
In this week’s Q&A with Boxerbrand blog Recipe for Success, McCullough talks about what it took to build a thriving, year-round restaurant, along with his partner Thomas Burke, near the historic Saratoga Springs Race Course.
Q: Why Saratoga?
I grew up in Albany and I basically came back home to Upstate New York.
After I was with the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group based in Georgia for 15 years, I decided to try something new, and moved to Florida and opened Gastronomia in Sarasota. It was an overnight success. I had lines 30 people deep waiting to get in, and I remember we used to use yellow pads to make our reservations. I think it was in Florida that I really found the secret to my success was my love of people and my ability to surround myself with really great talent.
In the end, I decided that I wanted to come back home to be closer to my family, my mom and dad, sisters and brother. So, I sold my shares in Gastronomia and intended to open a restaurant in Albany when my friend and partner Thomas Burke asked me if I wanted to start something in Saratoga Springs.
I was skeptical at first, because I thought it was a seasonal town. But it’s not! We’re booming all year!
Q: Tell me more about the physical space.
My partner’s son Tom, Jr. used to shovel the sidewalk outside the front steps of this beautiful, traditional Saratoga building. And he used to hope he would own the property one day.
By the time we came along, it was a condemned building being held up by one brick! We loved the address and the bones of the building, so we purchased it and spent $1.5 million restoring it. We completely rebuilt the interior, transforming it to contemporary and sleek setting. A central part of the interior is the addition of a wall using Italian stone, which anchors the look of the bar area.
We seat about 54 guests and about eight at the bar. And a year ago, we added capacity by building a patio with retractable ceiling and a florescent waterfall, and added seating for an additional 80 guests and a 14-seat bar.
During the summer, those seats are all taken. We average 300-400 dinners a night during peak. And we host a number of events, including an annual Kentucky Derby Party, which is $150 per person top-of-the-line experience, and basically, our guests want for nothing during that party, and we sell out within a half hour.
Q: How did you attract your first customers?
It was completely word of mouth. I don’t think we’ve spent $100 on advertising. We created the best hospitality environment and we have the best of everything. Our chef Mike Mastrantuono is fabulous! He started cooking in his father’s restaurant when he was little kid who had to stand on a milk crate to reach the grill. And he’s James Beard all day!
Q: What’s your niche?
We’re a restaurant with a very high-end approach that insists on the most pristine seafood, the very best. If it doesn’t meet our standards, we send it back. We have Ipswich clams, softshell crabs from Chesapeake and prime beef. It’s an elegant, hopping atmosphere.
Q: What advice do you have for budding restauranteurs?
Well, it’s worked out well for me, and it can work out very well. I’d say you need to be a person who pays close attention to the details. Then you need to buy the best product and make sure it tastes even better once it’s prepared. And surround yourself with the best people! — 15 Church uses Boxerbrand’s Slenders line in its table presentation. Thank you!