Kathy Sidell on Family Harmony, Comfort Food, and Being a Female Business Executive Now

The MET Bar and Saltie Girl owner and her older sister of Stephanie's restaurants just banded together as Sidell Hospitality.

(L to R) Kathy Sidell and Stephanie Sokolove in the Lenox Hotel's Judy Garland Suite

(L to R) Kathy Sidell and Stephanie Sokolove in the Lenox Hotel’s Judy Garland Suite. / Photo by Ian Travis Barnard

Twenty-four years ago, two thirtysomething Sidell sisters were both on Newbury Street, but they were on different paths.

The women had been involved in the restaurant industry for a lifetime—their father, Jack Sidell, was a banking executive who financed the early dreams of restaurateurs who would go on to open hundreds of Boston establishments, including icons like Hamersley’s Bistro, Biba, Au Bon Pain, and more.

After a decade of running a catering company and the U.S. Trust Corporate Dining Room, Stephanie Sokolove debuted an eponymous market and café in 1994. Meanwhile, Kathy, three years her junior, had opened up her own film production company just a block away.

Sokolove took over a corner storefront in 2002 and expanded with a larger bar and a 100-seat patio on an iconic Back Bay corner. She now operates additional Stephanie’s locations in the South End and South Boston. In 2004, Sidell made the move into the industry with the Metropolitan Club in Chestnut Hill. She has since pivoted to the more casual MET Bar & Grill brand in Dedham and Natick, MET Back Bay, MET on Main in Nantucket, and the delightful Saltie Girl.

Last week, Sidell and Sokolove announced they have combined their businesses as Sidell Hospitality. With a combined $35 million in annual revenue, it has become one of New England’s largest female-owned hospitality groups. Boston caught up with Kathy Sidell about the decision, and being a female executive at this particular cultural moment.

When you decided to open your own restaurant, why that decision instead of going in together then?

[Stephi] had been at it for a long time. In the back of my mind, I [always thought I] would do something with food. My dad had, for a minute, opened Pomme Frite in the space I ended up going into in Chestnut Hill. He had sold it, in part, to Tom English; it was a Figs. When Todd wound up wanting to sell, my dad said to me, ‘If you’re ever going to do something, this is the time.’ [Like Stephanie,] I, too, really felt that I had to take the corner. Without that corner, there wouldn’t have been enough visibility. There was a travel agency there for a long time, and I thought, ‘This probably won’t happen.’ Needless to say, my father, in his dogged way, ended up negotiating the corner, and voila, there I was in the restaurant business.

So, why is now the time to join forces with Stephi?

We discussed it two years ago, we discussed it four years before that. Either I was building another brand, or she was expanding and doing something else—it felt like it wasn’t quite the right time. For a confluence of reasons, this felt really like great timing for us. There’s no better time for women to own businesses. The recognition of their accomplishments today [is] way more visible, and also way more compelling.

I’m not saying that was the nudge forward—it was the right time in each of our careers—but that provides a lot of momentum for all of us. The power of that makes you look at something, fortunately, in a different of way then you might have looked at it 10 years ago. It’s big, and I love that. I feel really blessed to have a sister that I have such like-mindedness with.

Hopefully family business is a good thing for you.

It’s very different when you’re 60 years old than when you’re 40, or you’re 20. We are both seasoned professionals and are very clear about what we do and what we do well. We have the utmost respect for each other. If someone is important [to you], you really understand how vital communication is.

As business owners, how have you already been collaborating over the past 14 years?

Had I not seen Stephi go in to the restaurant business and become as successful as she became, I’m not sure, as a younger sister, I would have been as seduced by it. She’s always been an incredible mentor to me, and always been someone I’ve counted on to give me sound judgement and advice.

Is there anything specific that you do at MET, or at Saltie, that you took from Stephi’s playbook?

Our sensibilities are similar in terms of service and hospitality. And we have painfully similar palates. It’s crazy—we’ll go to the same restaurant months apart, unbeknownst to each other, and order the exact same thing. It’s kind of hilarious. It happens over and over again to us. And we spend a lot of time together, so we’re continually discussing the business, management styles, training approach, philosophies.

What are some things Stephanie does that you’re excited to apply to your company?

It’s helpful for someone who hasn’t been in the thick of it to take a look at what you do, and identify what you do well, and really make it more of that, and vice versa. That will be exceedingly helpful for each of us. Stephi is known for sophisticated comfort food. I have maybe a little bit more of a modern sensibility.

What will this merger mean for your employees?

There are holes in each other’s organizations for a variety of reasons, whether it’s that people have left, they’re on pregnancy leave, [or whatever the reasons are]. We’ve taken a hard look at each restaurant and what the needs are. The good thing about having a big company is that there’s a lot of opportunity for people, when you go from five to eight [restaurants].

What will the merger mean for your and Stephanie’s roles?

I will continue to do what I’m good at; I’ll just have more of it. As will she. We’re both crazy maniacs about the food, for sure, but I am very driven, I have a bit of that side of my dad in me. I’m very marketing, social media, brand-oriented. I know all my employees, and I’m in the restaurants every day. I’m very hands on. Stephi has run a very successful business for a long time. She’s business-oriented, she could read a [profit and loss statement] in her sleep. The combination is a strong one.

What will it mean for your guests?

I’d be hard-pressed to see if they notice anything tomorrow. It’s business as usual. [But this is] an opportunity to take a look at your business in a way you maybe would not have otherwise, and I think that’s really vital. Sometimes you are so busy actually doing the daily grind, you don’t take time to pause and reflect. You [can] kind of go back to your original aspirations and become more of who you are. Give it a month, or give it six weeks. We’ll address our operations first, but then, yeah, slowly at first, I think you’ll see changes, particularly in the food.

Do you think there will be shared branding at all?

No, no, no. The brands will stay very specific to what they are. I don’t think you’re ever going to find a tin [of fish] on Stephanie’s menu. But I think in the future, there could be some concept we do together. I would never rule that out.

So, what is the five year plan?

Saltie Girl is so lovely—I just actually had lunch there—I kind of want to just pause. It’s like when your kid turns 18 months. Finally you’re over the whole maintenance thing, they have some character and sense of humor. You just don’t want it to change. [Laughter] Particularly with Saltie Girl, I get approached [with new business opportunities] an awful lot. [Stephi] gets a lot, of course, too. Saltie Girl feels like it has this international appeal, [but] I want to be very smart about how I move. This is a very big moment for Stephi and me. We’re both really committed to having a restaurant group that really is very strong in [its] operation. That’s really where my focus is going to be for the next stretch. I don’t know if something could distract me, but I doubt it.

MET Back Bay, 279 Dartmouth St., Boston, 617-267-0451, and other locations, metbackbay.com.

Stephanie’s, 190 Newbury St., Boston, 617-236-0990, and other locations, stephaniesrestaurantgroup.com.

Saltie Girl, 281 Dartmouth St., Boston, 617-267-0691, saltiegirl.com.