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Consultancy focus: Next Step Design

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Russell Stilwell FCSI and his team at Next Step Design discuss the projects they have worked on in some of the best restaurants across the US

Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Daniel Boulud. Paul Kahan. Most recently, José Andrés and Sean Brock.

These are just a few of the acclaimed, celebrity chefs for whom the team at Next Step Design (NSD) have designed kitchens. With little self-promotion or marketing and a more than 90% rate when it comes to referrals and repeat business, the firm’s continued success is due to the fact that almost everyone on the team has a background in the hospitality industry.

“We spend our money where we make it; we are our chefs’ customers, too,” says NSD founder J. Russell LeBow Stilwell FCSI, when asked how the firm is able to continually bring in such high-profile hospitality clients. A Culinary Institute of America graduate and longtime restaurant chef who started the firm back in 1987 as a one-man-show, now boasts 50 associates and an array of chef-driven restaurant, boutique hotel and resort clients as well airlines, food halls, cutting-edge corporate dining and upscale senior living developers.

“Chefs are a tight-knit group and with our strong culinary background we are able to be a part of those opportunities for networking,” he says.

Growth every year

Headquartered in Annapolis, Maryland, the firm also has offices and associates in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Ottawa, Canada and El Paso, Texas, with two more offices opening this year. Other than the recession years of 2009 and 2010, Stilwell says the firm has experienced both employee and financial growth each year.

A former designer for an equipment dealer, Stilwell eschews cookie-cutter approaches and prototypes in favor of creative, yet functional designs with a culinary-driven approach. Case in point: after designing healthy restaurant chain Sweetgreens’ first stores in Washington, DC, he turned down an offer to design more locations around the country to avoid being forced into the pigeonhole of a standardized prototype design.

“We look at menus and concepts from a chef perspective, and focus on creating something unique for the client,” Stilwell says. Call it chefs designing for other chefs.

Stuart Davis, a former executive sous chef at a premier Chicago fine-dining restaurant, was recruited by Stilwell to build and head up that city’s office seven years ago. He strongly agrees with Stilwell’s vision. “I love the fact we are purely hospitality-based,” he says. “It’s great to work with chefs I grew up with on the line and also bounce ideas around with the associates on our team; this sets us apart.”

In Chicago, Davis says he has been fortunate to work with the premier restaurant groups in the city, including Boka Restaurant Group and Paul Kahan’s group, One Off Hospitality, on multiple restaurant concepts as well as the city’s newest, hottest, boutique hotels.

Working with the world’s best

NSD’s New York office design lead Leif Billings says the chef-driven approach is his favorite thing about working at the firm. “We get to work on the most exciting projects that are happening in the industry with some of the world’s best chefs and culinary teams,” he says. “While we bring a lot to the table from our long history of working on chef-driven projects we always have an opportunity to learn from these amazing chefs and develop new details with them that we can then implement on other projects. Top it off with a high energy, fun work culture with great people that are not only enjoyable to work with but are also committed to the success of our projects.”

Stilwell admits he’s fortunate to have a staff that’s youthful, in age and in vision. People want to work for NSD. Stilwell has a stack of resumes, each showcasing exceptional talent, on his desk.

Jason Russo, one of NSD’s newest recruits, is another chef and catering company partner from New York with experience working for a dealer as a kitchen equipment contractor and consulting chef. “I am always learning from our chef clients, and open up new market sectors,” he says.

Other than the culinary- and hospitality-driven approach, what’s also unique about NSD, Stilwell says, is the level of control the firm has over projects. “We don’t have general contractors taking over and managing margins and making substitutions wherever they want. It also helps that the chef-driven restaurants and hotels we work with respect the kitchen designer.”

NSD manages projects the whole way through, from the schematic design and equipment selection stages to construction document development, bidding and negotiation, construction administration and follow-up.

Drawings are extremely detailed; during this phone interview, Stilwell excused himself to briefly answer questions about shelving size for a new hotel project. NSD also offers many services beyond just kitchen design and equipment, including RFP assistance, laundry consulting, professional peer review, HACCP flow charts and more.

Non-traditional hospitality projects

However, according to Stilwell, the world-class, chef-driven restaurants account for just 20% of NSD’s 200 projects a year, which also include luxury resorts and major hotel companies such as Hyatt and the Four Seasons as well as workplace dining at the likes of Google, single-operator food halls such as Aster Hall in Chicago and even Restoration Hardware’s newest retail-meets-restaurant locations in Minnesota and Ohio. The firm has also branched into club kitchen development at airports for airlines and high-end senior living.

Linda Callahan is in her first year at NSD as director of this growing group of non-traditional hospitality projects, complete with her own team for drafting, layout and working with architects and interior designers. Most recently, she has been working with her team on Delta Air Lines’ expansion of its clubs at airports around the country. “We are working with the airlines to cater to the growing traffic at these clubs,” says Callahan.

Her other current big project is outfitting The Mather at Tysons Corner, a new, high-end senior living facility with a full-service kitchen capable of offering farm-to-table food as well as sushi and other fresh fish options. Like Stilwell, one of her favorite things about working at the firm is the integrity of its designs and drawings. “We won’t cut corners, though we might find other ways to help our clients save money,” she says.

Lately, in addition to staying on top of technology and sustainability, NSD has focused on improving the working environment of kitchens. “We try to design kitchens that are not too noisy by using flooring that makes the kitchen softer and gentler, not putting in a bunch of florescent lighting, and making sure the makeup air is well conditioned to keep the heat levels down,” Stilwell says. “We want chefs to be comfortable and enjoy themselves at their craft.”

Again, it’s all about chefs – for chefs.

Amelia Levin