Restaurant owners have a lot on their plates – from keeping operations running smoothly and motivating a hard-working team, to balancing finances with short and long term improvement plans.
Imagine then adding these to the list: running a hotel and photography business, maintaining a historic building and patio garden, growing your own organic produce from seed to harvest, planning and hosting weddings — all while maintaining an infectious positivity.
Deborah Boardman-Lefevre, owner of M Restaurant in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, does all this and more. We were fortunate to snag some time to chat with this inspiring business owner on what’s she’s learned about being successful in the industry and just how she does it all.
How did you become the owner of such a historic landmark and premier dining destination in Philadelphia?
My husband, Gene Lefevre, and his partner Mike DiPaolo have focused on historic preservation and renovation for their whole professional careers. The Morris House sat vacant for seven long years, falling apart room by room. So they bought it in 2000 and spent three long years restoring it back to its original glory.
What do you think has been M Restaurant’s secret to success?
Our success is three-fold: first, our loyal customers; second, our incredible team, both on the management and service side; and third, the sense of family that permeates our principals of providing a work atmosphere of diversity and mutual respect, and a commitment to always challenge each other to be the best we can be.
I also stress when we hire that you cannot work for us and think you are above someone else. It is never NOT your job to help out: carry a dirty glass to the kitchen, fill someone’s water glass or pick up fallen leaves in the garden, etc. It is always someone’s job to help each other on so many different levels, and that is why our sense of team is so solid at M.
We recently had the privilege of speaking to some of our team about their experience at M Restaurant, and it was clear they are dedicated to their roles and the team at M.
How do you keep such a strong team at the restaurant and help them grow?
As owners, we also spend a lot of time acknowledging everyone, thanking them for their hard work and commitment, and we always give our employees new opportunities to expand their horizons and take on new challenges.
Our dishwasher six years ago showed great promise because of his love of food and creativity and he is now our sous chef. Our executive chef started out as a prep girl five years ago. Our general manager started out as a temp as a hotel concierge, and our hotel manager started with us 10 years ago when she barely spoke English, and worked her way up to manager in a few short years.
Our incredible general manager keeps it real every single day, juggling maintenance issues, finances, scheduling, HR, payroll, event planning, and general oversight of both the hotel and restaurant with professionalism and grace. She is a multi-tasking pro who helps us all to keep our sanity!
What do you think is the best part of being a restaurant owner?
The joy I get in meeting thousands of people I otherwise would never meet, knowing that we have given them 90 minutes to escape from the many stresses of this world, to sit down and have an experience that has them leaving happier and more relaxed than when they entered our restaurant.
I thrive on meeting new people, learning their story, and connecting people. My husband Gene and his partner Mike are the same way. We all love being around people and meeting new faces daily.
You not only own M Restaurant and the Morris House Hotel, but you also have had your own photography business for 36 years!
What’s your secret to running all of these successful businesses?
I thrive on being busy, helping others, and multi-tasking. Endless patience is also necessary to manage the many personalities I deal with, no matter which hat I am wearing at what hour of the day.
I think it is critical to be as optimistic as possible as well. I always make my clients feel comfortable in my photography studio since no one likes to get their photo taken, and yet 36 years later, I have never had to re-shoot anyone’s photos! It all comes down to customer service and being a very good listener.
We also have a farm in New Jersey where we grow a lot of the vegetables for the restaurant.
As someone who is really connected to the farm-to-table local sourcing trends, why do you think these trends are important for restaurants?
When we opened M in 2003, over 13 years ago, we were one of the first restaurants that wanted to focus on farm to table. We go one step further and, in fact, do a “seed-to-table” theme since we start our vegetables from non-GMO seeds. Gene and I also manage the fields ourselves. We do not have day workers or help.
We do it all ourselves from starting the seeds in our greenhouse, to transplanting them, weeding, watering, the back-breaking job of harvesting, cleaning vegetables, weighing them, documenting the amount brought in, transporting them to Philly, and then unloading the many pounds of produce and herbs weekly in our walk-in at M.
The long-term effects of using pesticides and GMO products is well documented, and taking on the challenge to grow our own organic vegetables and herbs for the restaurant is critical for all of us to live a longer, healthier life. We only use water, the sun, and a lot of TLC to grow our vegetables. We compost everything and that makes our own soil to grow these vegetables and herbs, so they are truly 100% pure gifts of nature.
That’s quite a lot of work even before you step foot in the kitchen! So how can a restaurant that has never adapted these trends start to incorporate them?
It is a step-by-step process. Contacting local farmers directly to work out a business relationship with them is critical. Staying on top of the food trends and keeping informed is also a must, since the palate of our diners changes and you have to be able to adjust regularly to maintain your market share.
With everything you do, you’re a force to be reckoned with in the restaurant world. As a woman in a male-dominated industry, what challenges does this present to you as a restaurant owner?
I think the male dominance is changing very fast as each week another female decides to join the workforce as a chef. Our own executive chef Robin entered a contest last year for sous chefs in Philadelphia and won gold in a pool of all-male chefs!
I think it all is changing and the key to success for women is to show we are just as capable as men – and to prove with talent, focus, patience, and respect that we can equally match the top chefs of the world that are male.
For a closer look at how women are navigating the restaurant world, read on: