Emon Reiser
Digital Producer
South Florida Business Journal

Long before Chris Artinian led TooJay’s Original Gourmet Deli, he made $4.13 an hour in an entry-level position at Morton’s Restaurant Group. He would eventually become CEO of the steakhouse chain and credits his success to the “great people” who surrounded him over the years.

After he climbed to the top of the ladder at Morton’s, Artinian went on to become CEO of Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill, then CEO of West Palm Beach-based TooJay’s.

His leadership style is centered on cultivating an industrious and positive company culture that brings out the best in the people with whom he works. And with a great team in place, he says, Artinian has mapped a path of comparatively rapid growth for the 35-year-old brand, with three to four locations opening each year.

Artinian told the Business Journal more about what drew him to the restaurant industry and his favorite TooJay’s dish.

What was your first job in hospitality? I parked cars for a restaurant, and the owner of that restaurant needed help one day. And the next thing you know, I found myself in the kitchen. Then I went from the kitchen to waiting tables. My first position at Morton’s paid $4.13 an hour, and eventually I ended up CEO. I can’t explain exactly how it happened, but I was surrounded by great people.

Where did you get your passion for the restaurant industry? My mother was an amazing cook and, growing up in New York, I was sitting around some sort of dining room or kitchen table all my life. I learned to cook with my mom early on. Sitting down with great friends, family — the socialization and experiential piece of the industry continues to drive me today. I worked in restaurants as a teenager, but when I came out of school, I was actually working with mutual funds. I was drawn back to the business because of the hospitality piece.

How do you compare your goals and challenges at TooJay’s to that of Morton’s or Smokey Bones? I find the restaurants to be very similar. All are aiming for growth and delivering on quality, even though there may be different price points. The approach to the business is the same. It’s about a great guest experience with quality food and making sure all the systems are in place to make that consistent.

What do you think is the most important thing about leading a restaurant company? I spent a lot of time at Morton’s, and what I learned there is how important company culture is. I’ve been doing this all my life, I know great people make great things happen. With TooJay’s having a 35-year history and people with lots of tenure at the company, it gives me a lot to work with to leverage growth.

What trends are you seeing in the restaurant industry now that you’ve never seen before? There’s more competition today than ever. Every year, it becomes tougher and tougher to stick out and break out of the clutter. It kind of leads to my favorite part of the business: How do you get your restaurant concept to stick out? Displaying the core culture of that concept to those guests can draw them in. With the onset of the Food Network and all this exposure to culinary sophistication, we have a more educated consumer, and that makes it a little more exciting, too.

What’s your favorite dish at TooJay’s? I was a longtime customer before I came to the company, and it’s the Reuben. Being from New York, those New York-style deli sandwiches appeal to me.

How do you find balance in a demanding business like the restaurant industry? I’m very fortunate that my family has grown up in the restaurant business because this is all I’ve ever done. We share a similar interest in restaurants; we’re always going out to try great restaurants or taking pride in the restaurants I’m leading. It’s a very difficult business to find work-life balance in, but with my family being so involved — I’m married with five kids — everyone really enjoys sitting around the table. The kids are a little older now. They travel with me sometimes. It really helps.

Have you ever thought of opening your own restaurant concept? I’d be lying if I said it’s never crossed my mind. I don’t want to say I’ll never own my own restaurants, but I thoroughly enjoy taking someone else’s creation and having it realize its full potential. No real desire to open up a concept from scratch right now.

Age: 47
Birthplace: Queens, N.Y.
Residence: West Palm Beach
Current position: CEO and president, TooJay’s Original Gourmet Deli

Emon Reiser is the digital producer for the South Florida Business Journal. Get the latest local business news with our free daily newsletter. Click here to subscribe.