Oct. 29, 2014

Confidence propelled NYC restaurateur's career

Jeff Zalaznick
Kathy Hovis
Jeff Zalaznick '05 offers students career guidance on campus Oct. 23.

Jeff Zalaznick’s working day begins around 9 a.m. and usually doesn’t end until the wee hours of the next morning, but with a job he loves so much, he doesn’t seem to mind.

Zalaznick ’05, co-founder of Major Food Group, which owns and operates seven restaurants and plans to open another five in the next year, said the skills he gained as a psychology major and a student have served him well as an entrepreneur.

Zalaznick visited with students Oct. 23 as the Arts and Sciences Career Services Munschauer Speaker.

“Confidence is key,” he said. “Then you have to have the drive and the ability to back up that confidence with knowledge and execution.”

Zalaznick said his company takes the “liberal arts approach” to the restaurant business: dreaming of an idea or narrative for a restaurant that intrigues them, then doing research (including looking up old restaurant menus at the New York Public Library) and working to develop that story. That process involves “obsessing over the details” about décor and service and, especially, the menu, he said.

Zalaznick said his restaurant career might have been foreshadowed in an entrepreneurship class he took while an undergrad. In that class he developed a business plan for “The Fryer’s Club,” a restaurant based solely on fried food, with menu items that share many similarities to his restaurant, Parm.

Though his first job after graduation was in investment banking, Zalaznick said his confidence served him well when he decided to leave that world and enter the hospitality business without any experience.

“I was working at J.P. Morgan, but spending all of my free time building this giant Excel spreadsheet of all of the restaurants I’d been to and the ones I wanted to go to,” Zalaznick said. “I realized that I loved food and hotels and needed that to be what I did with my life.”

So one day he simply walked across the street to the new Mandarin Oriental Hotel and asked for a job, adding that he would do whatever they needed.

He got a call the next day and took a position as a guest relations manager, making slightly more than minimum wage. But he brought along his restaurant spreadsheet, and it was useful in that job and the next, when he started two websites focused on the New York food and restaurant industry.

Eventually he decided to open his own place and joined with chefs Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi to found Major Food Group. The company has become an industry leader with many popular New York restaurants, such as Carbone, Torrisi and ZZ’s Clam Bar, all awarded Michelin stars.

Their casual sandwich shop concept, Parm, is the winner of two stars from the New York Times; additional locations in Williamsburg, Park Slope, Battery Park City and the Upper West Side set to open in 2015.

“I’m a big believer in the idea that everything happens for a reason,” Zalaznick said. “I look at the paths I took and realize that they led me to other important paths. You need to work hard and follow your passion and put yourself in a position to succeed.”

The Munschauer Career Series was endowed by the former director of the Cornell Career Center John Munschauer to provide funds for graduates of the College of Arts and Sciences to return to campus to benefit current students’ career education.