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Begin Anyway: Patrick Cullen

”I wanted you to see what real courage is. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

-Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird.

My story is not only for restaurant owners and entrepreneurs, but for anyone who’s had a dream, took a bet on themselves, and leaped where there was no net. My day-to-day experience might be slightly different than yours, but I believe that my journey can inspire anyone to take action, no matter how far down from the “top” you might be.

In my experience, the keys to success are genuine humility, a persistent desire to learn, and a drive to continue working no matter how tough or discouraging things may become. I believe that no one is truly “self made,” and that we all stand on the shoulders of people who pushed us, believed in us and gave us a shot.

If you ask my mom, she will tell you I’ve been a planner my entire life. I set goals, am very deliberate with my actions, and love to check the boxes on my to-do lists. But in these last few years, I’ve learned that fluidity is just as important as long-term vision. As we all know, leaders are definitely not born. They become. And I continue ‘becoming’ every day. I learn not only from the good experiences; but the bad ones too (and the good and bad bosses for that matter). Every experience — positive or negative — has guided how I act as a leader, and how I respect and empower the people I work with. I am still learning every day, I am still growing, my vision of leadership is still evolving, and that’s exactly how I want it.

Let’s take it from the top.

In 2008, I graduated from law school with a Real Estate Law focus. Let me reiterate this: I started my legal career in real estate at the height of the global financial crisis. My first job out of law school was at an accounting firm in the Chicago Loop where I spent most of my time helping our clients (mainly municipalities, charities, and developers) apply for government loans through the stimulus packages: a far cry from what I envisioned “following my passion” to look like.

In 2011 I reached an impasse. I knew that my day-to-day was in no way fulfilling or mentally stimulating. I also felt very strongly that I had great potential but I couldn’t find the proper direction or outlet for that potential. I had a law degree and plenty of professional experience in an array of fields. I was a natural leader and wanted to work in a career where my intelligence, professionalism, and leadership abilities would allow me to excel. My problem was figuring out what that career was. What was the right direction and how the hell was I ever going to figure out what my “passion” was? In retrospect, I was paralyzed both by the fear of failure and the uncertainty of where I fit in the professional world.

Begin Anyway.

Ultimately, I decided to quit my nine-to-five job with, quite frankly, no plan. I had been unemployed for a couple of months, leading up to my sister’s wedding. I knew that all the questions about what I was doing with my life would be coming fast and furious at the wedding. But I had absolutely no answer.

My mom comes from a large family and many of her siblings are in the hospitality industry. Most got their start working in restaurants around San Francisco and the Bay Area when I was younger. Visits to these restaurants — where my super cool aunts and uncles worked — were always highlights of any trip to the city.

At the wedding reception, my Aunt Jackie approached me and we started to catch-up. I knew what was coming. She asked the usual questions; but then she began to really press me to just SAY what I would do if I could do anything and nothing else mattered — not money, education, or experience. If I could start over from scratch and do absolutely anything, what would it be? I told her that I loved the experience of visiting a restaurant, the hospitality, and the great food and drinks. I told her I felt it was a career to which I was naturally attracted. I realized that it was in my blood and creating such an experience was something I could be passionate about.

Begin Anyway.

From that moment, I started thinking of reasons why I could enter the restaurant/hospitality industry rather than reasons I couldn’t. It was like flipping a light switch and reversing my course of thinking. Being forced to spit out what I wanted, regardless of anything, was the pivotal wake up call. And my passion was on the other end. (Thanks, Jackie!)

Then the bottom…

I spent a good portion of that summer game planning ways to get started in the bar/restaurant world. Eventually, I started working at a bar where a few friends of mine bartended. In order to get my foot in the door, we all lied about my experience. (I had none). The job was far from glamorous and there were more than a few people who wondered what the hell I was doing with myself; but, I was happy. I was excited to go to work each and every day. I would even study note cards and quiz myself on basic (read: shitty) cocktail builds before work each night. That’s how much I cared. That’s how badly I wanted it.

About a year later, I was introduced by a mutual friend to Arturo Gomez, owner of Rockit Ranch Productions. I will be forever grateful for the game-changing opportunity he gave me. He took a huge chance on me with my limited experience and operational knowledge, but he offered me the role of head bartender at his newest concept. From day one, I did everything I could to take advantage of this opportunity. I wanted to show Arturo that he made the right decision. I put in the hours and proved my commitment. I also took advantage of the opportunity to continue to learn and expand my knowledge base.

I learned a great deal and grew tremendously under Arturo’s guidance. Eventually, I left his company to take another step in my hospitality career. My next role exposed me to the world of spirits and serious cocktail making. And, I met two guys who I would eventually build my restaurant with. My vision and what role I would play in the food and beverage world became much clearer during this time.

This ever-growing-clearer vision pushed me to seek a new opportunity where I could continue building on and diversifying what I had to offer. I received an opportunity to interview with a large hospitality group in Chicago, and over the course of one week, I interviewed several times with this group. At the end of this process, I felt pretty discouraged. The interview process and the general lack of respect and professionalism displayed by the operators of this outfit left me thoroughly unimpressed. These people possessed many qualities I never wanted to emulate in this industry or any other.

I felt strongly that if I stayed on this path, I was going to continue to work for (or gravel to) people that I didn’t really respect or admire; I would ultimately end up where I started- unmotivated and unhappy with my work.

This interview made me realize: why aren’t I doing this for myself? Given what I had experienced in the past few years — the good and the bad — I had a clear vision of how I wanted to structure something that was totally my own. I finally embraced the idea that opening my own establishment was what I had been intending to do all along and that it was time to take the leap.

Begin Anyway.

So I started game planning, brainstorming, and networking. I reached out to friends, former co-workers, and people in the industry who I had worked with on my journey. I put all of my focus into officially becoming a restaurateur.

How to turn nothing into something.

From the moment we did the initial walk through at the former Bluebird space in Bucktown, I knew it would be the location of my first restaurant. I had lived in Bucktown during my first five years in Chicago so I was very familiar with the neighborhood. Having friends and connections in the area as well as understanding what Bluebird meant to the neighborhood were all helpful in the initial planning stages.

Another part of the initial planning phase was very easy. I ate and drank at as many places in Chicago as possible. I’ve always liked sitting at the bar with a few cocktails, some great dishes recommended by the bartender, and my notebook — writing down thoughts from the day or making my next list of boxes to check.

Tip: find a great bar with solid food and drinks in your own neighborhood, or a neighborhood where you are traveling, get to know the team, (tip well) and pick their brains about great local spots for eating/drinking/partying. They will always lead you down a great path!

I took many “R&D” trips to NYC, San Francisco, Nashville, Portland and a few great small towns in between. Many of the places I visited inspired the design and menus at Presidio. One of the best aspects of the food/beverage industry is that we all have the opportunity to visit other businesses in our industry to see a bit of how they operate whenever we want. I took full advantage of this opportunity for insight.

I also read, a lot. Biographies and autobiographies by big names like Meyer, Bourdain, Bastianich, Achatz, etc; really dry text books like “Principles of Food, Beverage, and Labor Cost Controls;” all types of blogs, articles about restaurateurs in Chicago and around the country. I did a lot of “studying.” Some great advice someone gave me along the way was to study those in your industry who have done something that you are inspired by or would like to emulate — get to know their story and study their success.

From there, I continued networking. I sought out friends I had worked with in the past whom I knew I could trust and rely on. Additionally, I wanted to make connections and to engage professionally with other small operators. I was particularly focused on working with others who were building their own brands within certain segments of the hospitality community. I knew I wanted to work with people who were in ‘build-and-grow’ mode, much like I was. By working together to build our respective brands, we could achieve unified success.

Now We’re Here.

Overall, in building Presidio, it was important to me to not to be too overwhelmed by the big picture. Yes, I was going to open a restaurant. And yes, I only had a handful of years in the industry, but I couldn’t let that thought intimidate me.

I Began Anyway.

I’m very proud to be celebrating two years of Presidio this month. The journey has certainly just begun and sometimes there are more setbacks than accomplishments. But I know that I’m finally on the right path.

So here we are.

I was a lawyer living a comfortable life and I took a jump into the unknown because I hadn’t found my passion and I knew I needed to make a change. Starting at the bottom of the restaurant industry was intentional. I wanted to gain experience from all levels — from a bar back, to a bartender, to a manager — so that I could better understand these positions when I eventually became the leader. More importantly, I constantly learned and observed and took mental notes. Above all, I learned that I never wanted to dictate to my team — I wanted to create an environment where their skills sets could shine through — somewhere they were proud to work and could feel a sense of ownership. I see Presidio as a place for my team to learn, to grow, and to feel empowered to do not only what’s best for our operation, but what’s best for them. I strongly believe that a rising tide raises all ships, and an empowered team is going to make Presidio shine.

Thank you to all the people who supported me on this journey. I am forever grateful — we’ve only just begun!

Cheers to beginning,

-Patrick

1 Comment

  • Zeus Arreguin

    July 27, 2017 at 6:51 pm

    Awesome Patrick. I related to this article in a variety of way! Thanks for sharing.

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