Ben and Max Goldberg staked a claim in Nashville hospitality long before the city saw a tourism boom. Here’s how they predicted the future.
6 min read
Nashville is having a moment. Besides being named the 15th best place to live in the country and the fourth-best city for startups, Tennessee’s capital experienced a record-setting year for tourism in 2018, drawing 15.2 million visitors.
Nashville natives Ben (pictured left in the photo above) and Max Goldberg are not surprised. In fact, the brothers saw all of this coming in 2006 when they launched Strategic Hospitality, a company with 500 employees who work in nine properties, including restaurants, bars, and even a hotel/music venue/ax-throwing complex. The brothers have been nominated multiple times for the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award, and they recently announced a partnership that will give the company a 5,000 square-foot presence at Nashville International Airport.
Explaining the appeal of their hometown, Max told Entrepreneur, “Nashville has the confidence of the East with the manners and charm of the South.”
Ben and Max shared insights on how they conceptualize their properties, how they saw this tourist boom coming, and that one time they nearly got into a fistfight.
Many of Strategic Hospitality’s concepts combine multiple experiences. Downtown Sporting Club, for example, offers live music, guest rooms, a giant screening area to watch sports, and even ax throwing. What are guests looking for that you’re tapping into?
Ben: Our goal is for people to stay in our restaurants longer than they would in any others, so we want to give them opportunities other than just sitting down to eat. Expanding on their experience and their amount of fun in the city is a big part of why we do what we do.
As Nashville natives, how does the city inspire you?
Max: Our businesses have personal touches; some from the city and some from us personally. For example, Pinewood Social was named after our grandfather. He grew up during the Great Depression, and when the economy came back, the first thing he did was buy a farm so he could always feed his family. On that farm were pine wood products. He was the most social guy we know and was loved by all. Hence, Pinewood Social. Also, incorporating the pinewood on a bowling lane is a fun double entendre.
What’s it like working together as brothers?
Ben: It’s both the best and the worst. There’s no separation between work and hang, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Because our relationship is bigger than just restaurant partners, we can end up saying things to each other that are more intense.
Max: Benjamin is my best friend, my brother, and then my business partner. In that order. In fact, I engraved that on a pocket watch for him when we were opening The Patterson House after nearly getting into a small fistfight. Benjamin is the hardest worker I have ever met and sees the trees in the forest better than anyone I know. It just works.
Strategic Hospitality has over 500 employees. How do you find team members who share your vision?
Ben: It really comes down to the individual. If you’re an amazing person but lack experience, that’s okay — we want to work with you, we want you to be a part of our team.
Max: We want kind people who will do whatever is needed to make people’s days better. It’s service vs. hospitality. We have to have the service piece, but it’s the hospitality that we fight for every day. We need people to obsess over the guest experience. We get to influence people’s lives and be a part of their memories. What’s better than that?
How do you come up with your concepts?
Ben: We create spaces where we want to go. Typically they’re many years in the making, and the concepts we decide to push through are the ones we continue to come back to, year over year. We always, always conceptualize first.
Max: Good art is borrowed, great art is stolen. We get inspiration from things we see and then we put our own take on it. We’re constantly looking for little design elements, food and drink ideas, moves in spaces people make — we notice those and then apply them to what we’re excited about at that time. And while we love the creative aspect, we also have a really sophisticated back of house. It never gets boring, because we get to use both sides of our brain. I love looking at table designs, but I also find P&L’s to be really sexy.
What’s your response when potential investors, partners or even friends say, “That will never work!”
Ben: We’re told it won’t work on every project. There’s never any market research behind any of our spots. At the end of the day, we are creating spaces we think are fun and dynamic, and we hope people will agree with us.
Max: When people don’t tell us our ideas are crazy, we get worried. We structure our deals so that we have final cut and creative control on what we do. The partners we have are betting on the jockeys and hope we have the right horse.
Was there a specific moment when you knew you could make a living through your business?
Max: I knew I could make a living doing this when I didn’t want to go on vacations, I didn’t need weekends. I love what I do and I very rarely, if ever, feel like it’s work. The financial component is a benefit, but my favorite number to talk about is how many jobs and careers we have created in our hometown.
Ben: I still don’t know if I can make a living doing this! Our mom still asks us when we’re going to get real jobs.