Jake and Ben Lefenfeld, along with Ben’s wife, Amy, opened their restaurant La Cuchara in the spring of 2015 in the Meadow Mill complex. Two years later, they opened their second restaurant, the contemporary seafood restaurant Minnow, in the South Baltimore neighborhood of Riverside.
For the brothers, who grew up in Columbia, the genesis of the restaurants, both of which were instant successes — with critics and the dining public alike — was vastly different.
The opening of La Cuchara was years in the making, consisting of both an extensive space search and rigorous business planning. Before opening, or even signing their lease, the brothers knew what they’d have to do to survive in the competitive industry.
“I’ve always wanted to own a restaurant,” says Ben, 37, who was the executive chef for five years at Petit Louis in Baltimore, and worked in the kitchens of other notable Baltimore and Washington restaurants.
Ben credits a longtime mentor, his older cousin, Joel Somerstein, a veteran of Manhattan’s competitive restaurant scene, for inspiring him at an early age while opening his eyes to the challenges of the restaurant business.
“Owning a restaurant is a tough business,” says Jake, 34, general manager at both La Cuchara and Minnow. “The adrenaline, the excitement. It appeals to a whole different breed of person.”
La Cuchara may look like it was ordered out of a luxury restaurant catalog, but the brothers say it was incredibly hard work getting it open. The brothers did much of the interior labor themselves — part of the job included reinforcing the floor for heavy kitchen equipment — and acquired much of the restaurant’s furnishings through creative means like restaurant auctions.
The earthy yet elegant food at La Cuchara, inspired by Ben’s travels to and fascination with Spain’s Basque region, caught on with a willing public, as did the lively scene at the restaurant’s central 80-seat bar, one of the largest in Baltimore.
But it was the pre-opening planning that the brothers credit for their early and continued success. The team remains devoted to Excel spreadsheets, which, the brothers say, are Amy’s domain.
The spreadsheets involve forecasting, based on their best understanding of their patrons’ trends, and involve basic things like food and labor costs, but drill down into things that other business owners might consider minutiae, like dishwashing soap.
The partners also are vigilant about inventory. For the Lefenfelds, crunching the numbers is what keeps them on steady ground.
“It takes the guesswork out of running the business,” Ben says. “The more information you have, the more educated decisions you are going to make moving forward.”
Although they don’t bring it up, the brothers acknowledge that the timing of their opening — in the week of unrest surrounding the death of Freddie Gray — was a challenge. But they say that their first thoughts were not for their business.
“It wasn’t about us,” Jake says. “At no time did we sit around and sulk.”
The partners drove their West Baltimore employees to their homes on the night of the most serious unrest. “You have to look out for your employees,” Jake says.
Minnow has been a different sort of challenge for the team. If La Cuchara was years in the making, Minnow came together in a matter of months. Running the second restaurant is in some ways easier — the team didn’t have to reinvent its supply chain, and La Cuchara supplies Minnow with some basics like homemade bread.
Ben has remained at La Cuchara, while Jake spends part of the day at Minnow.
The main challenge for them now, is spending face-time together for daily meetings.
“It was a lot easier when we were both here all day,” Ben says.
Richard Gorelick is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.