Stratis Morfogen talks new book and Phillippe Chow history
Stratis Morfogen is a name that may not fly off the pages. However, Stratis’ name is a powerful one in hip hop. Anyone who has ever heard Phillippe Chow shouted out in a rap, Stratis founded the iconic restaurant chain. Now, Stratis Morfogen is the genius behind the Brooklyn Chop House.
Stratis Morfogen is a self made success. With Brooklyn Chop House, he is enjoying his second run of success. While Stratis had incredible success with Phillippe Chow, some unfortunate circumstances forced him out of his own company. As a result, Stratis Morfogen had to dig deep down inside of himself in order to pull himself out of an impossible situation.
Stratis Morfogen demands people to never give up, above all else. After all, Stratis says he is living proof that dreams can come true. In addition, Stratis Morfogen is proof that life goes on, after a storm. Recently, Stratis Morfogen took time to speak to Hip-HopVibe.com about his new book, Be a Disruptor: Streetwise Lessons for Entrepreneurs―from the Mob to Mandates.
Stratis Morfogen talks new book and Phillippe Chow history
Read the entire interview below:
Stratis on how to navigate doing business in NYC:
Stratis Morfogen thank you for taking time to speak to us. Congrats on your new book, by the way. The part of the title where it says From the Mob to Mandates is an attention grabber. Can you explain?
I have had a 35 year career as a New York City entrepreneur. It’s endless how many obstacles restaurateurs and small business owners have to face trying to make it in a big city like New York City.
From the late 80’s to 90’s, we were dealing with organized crime in every aspect of our business. We call that “The Giuliani Years.” Everything from the garbage to the fish, to the produce was controlled by organized crime. Then the worst part of it was when you became very successful, you basically get shaken down by gangsters. I was very successful with restaurants and nightclubs, back then.
Stratis on his first business obstacles:
All of a sudden I had to start paying a mob tax on alcohol sales. It was always a huge obstacle. The message of this book is that it doesn’t stop being a challenge to be a restaurateur and small business owner in the great city of New York. We had the mob putting their hands in our pockets. They were threatening our livelihood, threatening our lives, beating up our management team. Now, we’re dealing with MBA Wharton type fortune 100 CEOs that started investing heavily in restaurants right after 9/11.
Now, we are dealing with all the politicians with all the mandates. We have always had to deal with anti-business corrupt groups of individuals and that’s the life of a restaurateur. These are the exact type of things I talk about in my book. You’re never going to find a business book that’s supported by real life stories and not just boring analytics.
Stratis on the mafia:
Yeah, that NYC/mafia world has stories for days, but you survived (laughs). Now your name has been ringing in NYC for some years now. So what were the keys to survival?
To not be afraid, and to learn the three special words “Go F**k Yourself.” That was something that I used quite often and still use it today. They are three great words that express my anger, conviction, and mood at the moment. They are the best three words you can think of “Go F**k Yourself.” So that’s what I did to a lot of notable figures on NYC’s crime scene. Then, that became challenging for us as my managers, director of promotions, and other staff members were getting beat up.
One of my employees happened to come from a wealthy family. So they were able to get two private security guards to follow them 24/7. They had guards because they were afraid for their life. I then naturally grew an alliance with the Genovese family. The bosses of the Genovese were Barney Bellomo and Ralph Coppola and these guys were like my adopted uncles. You had to pick which side of the fence you wanted to be on in those days. You were either an ally or an enemy.
Stratis on having an alliance with the mafia:
I was kind of both because I started as an enemy. Then, I realized my true friendship with Barney, Ralph and Bucky Carbone. These guys were really powerful people in the mob world and they grew to like me as a customer. Then, from there they protected me. The beautiful thing about that, which is against all the mob lore is that they never asked me for anything but friendship. I didn’t “exchange one devil for the other” which my father would say.
Basically, they never asked me for anything and always protected me. As you could imagine, as the years went on, I had bigger and bigger organizations coming after me trying to shake me down. They were threatening me, showing me a bullet or $10,000 and telling me to pick one. I had mobsters coming as far as Los Angeles trying to shake me down. I was making a lot of money with my restaurants and nightclubs. Of course, they wanted in.
Stratis on the protection from the mafia:
I was a target for organized crime, so it was good to have these guys as my adoptive uncles. They never involved me in their organization, but were there to protect me when I needed it. It was nice to have them in my back pocket, because I definitely had to use them a few times. Indirectly, later I found out that they were my business partners. When I opened Rough Night Club, I went to my attorney, Patty Stiso and asked him to be a partner. He also represented the Genovese family. I know when he wrote a check for $500,000 or $600,000 that the check came from him. But I know, indirectly, that those guys were involved.
Unfortunately, later on Patty was indicted for money laundering. That proved my suspicions, but I still love Patty to this day. At the end of the day, though, I had a protection for me. The FBI and NYPD weren’t going to be there to protect me.
Stratis on working with corporate figures:
Your new book has been out for about a week now. The main message from watching your interviews and doing research is “don’t quit.” Can you give us some insight on what that motto means to you, throughout your years in the hospitality industry with its many ups and downs?
I will give you a small chapter from my book. When I created Phillippe Chow, in 2005, it became the highest grossing restaurant in America per square foot.
My original partners were then bought out by the heads of Credit Suisse, basically a Fortune 100 company. These were the Wharton MBA types. So I was like “wow okay I’ll exchange my mom and pop partners for these guys because these guys will take me to the promise land. “These guys will basically allow me to expand my concept of Phillippe Chow all over the world. So I was like, I will go with that. After all, they have endless amounts of money that will help me grow my business.
Stratis on a good business deal gone bad:
Then 2008 hit and we were still doing pretty good numbers. However, a couple of our seven locations were not doing that well. After that, we got the Mr. Chow lawsuit where he was trying to sue us for $28 million. We took the case all the way through for seven weeks in federal court and he lost the case. Basically, with all that said when the new partners came in, who paid millions and millions of dollars to buy out my former partners, they were basically fraudsters. Again, we’re talking about MBA Wharton types that are running Fortune 500 companies. They came in and their only goal was how can we get this company away from Stratis and own the whole thing.
Stratis on how it fell apart:
So, what they started to do was close down good Phillippe Chow restaurants. The restaurants that were making a little money or breaking even. They did something that sounds like something from The Producers. They started closing good restaurants just to set up the ultimate goal of stealing my company. How they did that was when my partners were bought out, the three of us used to sign personal liability on every lease. My lawyer made a huge mistake when the transaction took place. He didn’t remove my name from all personal liabilities with my other two partners.
The guys who are running Phillippe Chow now basically had a plan to close these restaurants. They were going to let me be on the hook because I had personal guarantees on them, and they didn’t. Then, they forced me into involuntary bankruptcy, so they could buy my shares for pennies on the dollar. That was their scheme form day one. These guys were worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and they wanted to steal my $10 million. Basically, they manipulated the bankruptcy courts, even the trustee couldn’t believe everything that was listed on the bankruptcy. This included produce guys, landlords for Phillippe Chow, all different types of restaurant related creditors that they screwed on purpose. But I had the personal guarantee on it
Stratis on bankruptcy:
Even the trustee couldn’t believe that the bankruptcy courts were being used as a sword and not a shield to steal my company. Technically, it was not illegal, but they stole my company by manipulating the bankruptcy courts. If anyone says that success is a checkmark, they are wrong. Success is a ball of yarn, it goes up as fast as it goes down. Also, you have to be preprepared for all these challenges. At this time, I didn’t even know what involuntary bankruptcy was. I had an 800 credit score and was making seven figures. I had never heard of such a thing. But they did it to me because they basically figured out a way to manipulate the bankruptcy court to use it as a sword when it was originally designed to protect people who are going through bankruptcy.
Stratis on going through depression:
At the end of the day, when that happened to me I went through three years of depression. I thought I was useless. Even after buying my company for two cents on the dollar, I had a non-compete clause that I couldn’t be in the food business for three years. They used these laws and twisted them to try to make my life as difficult as possible. After that, they even went as far as trying to steal houses from my children. They said the money for those houses was made based on my salary or dividends from Phillippe Chow.
Putting that all aside, I remember days where I was cool if I didn’t wake up. It was that bad. I was being threatened to have my house foreclosed. I lost everything. It was so bad that I couldn’t even take my kids out to lunch. All my money was frozen, I was looking at millions of dollars in legal fees. Overall, the message I want people to take away from my book is never ever give up. Just when you think you’re about to give up is when the miracle happens.
Stratis on meeting celebrities via Phillippe Chow:
In addition Phillippe Chow, you were behind Club Rouge and course Brooklyn Chop House. Major spots. Were they heavily frequented by celebrities?
How does that happen to build a brand or spot so big where word gets around where A-List celebrities come to eat? In 1994, my first introduction to the New York press was by accident. I was just a kid from Garden City, Long Island. The only celebrity I knew was soap opera star, Susan Lucci. She lived on my block. So, I didn’t really know what a celebrity was besides watching MTV. When I opened Rouge NightClub in June of 1994, our first event before launching to the public was a black tie birthday party for businessman, David Koch.
During that night, I warned everyone that this was a private event and that the door would be closed. I was really just worried about my sixty first cousins from my big fat Greek family showing up. Basically, I wanted to make sure that no outsiders were coming into this exclusive black tie event. It featured the who’s who of Park and 5th Avenue. Everyone from Henry Kissinger to the Murdoch’s were there. While the event is happening, I get an alert on my phone telling me to come to the front to make a call. At this point, I’m 25 years old, I’m indulging in my success, I was drinking that night and was a little intoxicated.
Stratis tells hilarious story of how he met Tupac:
When I got to the front door, I saw a shorter black male with gold chains and a young blond girl in a Yankee hat and jacket. I quickly told them we were having a black tie event going on and that there was no way they were getting in. The next day, I wake up to my cell phone blowing up with messages from people saying what did you do to your nightclub. So I quickly went down to the local deli and grabbed a copy of New York Post. I opened it up to see the headline “New Kid On The Block Rejects 2Pac and Madonna.”
Stratis names more celebrities he met:
After that, I suddenly became this cool and mysterious night club. In addition, every week we had people like Michael Jackson, Prince, Oliver Stone, Charlie Sheen. I even hired David Blaine to do magic in the VIP room for $100 a night. Every night, the place was packed with celebrities, mobsters, socialites, fashionistas, athletes, musicians, everyone was there. As a result, I became this mysterious kind of guy. Everyone wanted to know who this new guy was who came onto the scene.
But the truth is I wasn’t mysterious. I was actually kind of nerdy. Honestly, I had just made a mistake and didn’t recognize them. If I did, I would have been starstruck and invited them to a private table in the back room and hung out with them all night.
Stratis on Jay-Z co-sign:
This went on for me as I continued to open a nightclub and restaurants. However, it really exploded with Phillippe Chow when I met Jay-Z for the first time. Jay-Z loved Phillippe Chow so much that he told me he was gonna do something cool for me.
He’s saying that in front of Bob Johnson, Kobe Bryant, and Magic Johnson. This is within the first two weeks of us being open. I responded to him and told him his presence alone at the restaurant was cool enough. Then, I thanked him for the support. Fast forward, a couple of months later and Jay-Z and Fabolous came out with their hit song “Money Goes, Honey Stay (When the Money Goes).” On the song, Jay shouted us out! After that, the hip-hop culture embraced us with open arms. A slew of songs followed with more references to Phillippe Chow. Rick Ross said “She Thinking Phillippe, I’m Thinking Wing Stop.”
Stratis on Phillippe Chow’s being embraced by hip hop:
It became an onslaught of an amazing beautiful thing of the culture embracing us with open arms. I was gonna make sure that I embraced it. At the time, there were a lot of restaurateurs who didn’t want 80-90% of their customers being black. I couldn’t care less. All I saw was beautiful people enjoying themselves at my restaurant. I was just so thankful for being embraced by the hip hop culture. They are one of the most loyal communities and they want you to win.
Going further, when I created Brooklyn Chop House I partnered with Dave Thomas and Robert “Don Pooh” Cummings. Don Pooh is a legend in the music industry. So all of a sudden, I finally have two partners who are delivering something other than just money. They are delivering credibility as well as their personal databases. That has helped the success we have at Brooklyn Chop House. The culture is connected at the hip to the restaurant.
Stratis on how he got his start:
In your interview, a few years ago, on The Breakfast Club, you definitely give the vibes that you love your job. You are the epitome of “Do a job you love and never work a day in your life.” Why is it so important to chase your dreams, knowing the money will come but you have to love what you do?
Like my father said, as soon as I stepped out of the womb, I knew I was gonna be in the restaurant industry.
I knew from the age of 6-18 years old, that as far as education, I wasn’t going to go any further than high school. In high school, I didn’t even take my pre-SATs. Also, I knew that the restaurant industry was gonna be my education. I worked every weekend from 6 years old until my senior prom. That’s when I took my first weekend off, working straight from 6 years old to 18 years old.
Stratis gives advice to the young people:
To me, half days are twelve hours and if you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life. One thing I try to teach university students, when I guest lecture in my free time, is when kids ask me the big question of why my parents are spending all this money on college, but I still don’t know what I want to do. I would tell them you’re 22 years old, you’re not supposed to know what you want to do. When I was young I was told by 20 years old you should have a job making money and that by 60 you should retire, but that was written in 1902.
First, the truth is you should really f**k it up in your 20s, take high risks and embrace failure. Second, then learn from it in your 30s. Third, start making real money in your 40s. Finally, then be able to retire in your 80s. I say that because the rules that were created in 1902 say that you should retire in your 60s, when the life expectancy was no more than 62. The new life expectancy is somewhere around 82 years old now. I say this, because I have seen people who have retired in their 60s comfortably but are broke by the end of their life because people are just living longer these days.
Stratis on the success of Brooklyn Chop House:
That LSD plate looks tempting. that seems to be the one everyone is crazy about, especially that three pound salt and pepper steak (laughs).
When I created Brooklyn Chop House, with my partners, I wanted to create the ultimate surf and turf. I wanted to do something that had never been done before. Most steak houses, or chop houses, at least have great steak. However, everything else around it tends to be an afterthought. So, I came up with concept of LSD where I would combine the great Chinese food I had created with Phillippe Chow, where we would have salt and peppered ginger flower lobster, with a three pound dry aged porterhouse steak, and marry that along with authentic Peking duck.
There’s no place on earth where they have put these three things on one table, where they have married Beijing Chinese with an authentic American steakhouse, both staying true to their cultures. It’s not like this is a Chinese steak house. It’s a chop house with Beijing Chinese Chefs, along with American Chefs. #LSD was actually put under investigation by the FBI for the promotion of narcotics.
The #LSD was used over 4,000 times in a year from our location, so now Instagram has removed #LSD until they can do an investigation to make sure we are not promoting narcotics. My response to them was an emoji, of a lobster, steak, and a duck with a “F**k You.” What this means is you reach marketing legend hood when Instagram takes down your hashtag because they don’t know what it means.
Stratis on friendship with the late Kobe Bryant:
HHV is obviously a hip hop publication. That being said, in your line of work and many major rap figures stopping by your place. Can you tell us who was your favorite to meet and why?
I can say that Fabolous, Ja Rule, Maino, Busta Rhymes are all personal friends of mine. At one time, Jay-Z was a friend but I haven’t seen him in years, since he moved out to LA. I don’t make it out there very much. But really, we were embraced by the whole Hip Hop Culture. Not only rappers, but also people like Bob Johnson who created BET. Johnson is a hero of mine, we have become personal friends.
I also became personal friends with the late great Kobe Bryant. The music and sports industry, as a whole, have really had a nice impact on my life. I was thinking back about sitting with Kobe at Philippe Chow in Los Angeles. He was teaching me Italian and talking to me about soccer. Who would have thought that would be the last conversation we had over dinner together? But that is a special memory. I have met some really great people from all different industries throughout my career. It’s also pretty cool to be able to say that I have fed every living president.
Stratis on how to book reservations:
Your place is a major landmark and more. Atlantic Records and their staff are frequent customers at your place. How many days or months you have to book in advance to do an event there? (laughs).
When we opened Brooklyn Chop House FiDi, it was only 180 seats. So the wait for a reservation for 4 or more was over 6 weeks in advance during prime time. With our new location in Times Square, we have 700 seats. The wait is a little shorter at 1-2 weeks in advance for a party of 2-6 people. But for larger parties of 10-15 we book all day long. We have seven private dining rooms with over 25,000 square feet at our new Times Square location.
As mentioned before, the music and sports industry are really a large part of our business. We have built everything off of relationships. Just today, I’m having dinner with the heads of Def Jam Records, but these are my friends. Putting that all aside we treat all our customers the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re from the music or entertainment world. As long as you’re a good person and are respectful to our staff, we welcome you. We really don’t give preferential treatment to celebrities over the average guest. In our restaurant nobody is average and everyone is VIP.
Stratis on Brooklyn Chop House’s meals:
Your first book, Damn Good Dumplings, is a classic by the way. The Brooklyn Dumpling shop brand appears to be doing well. Love how you use your father’s influence, from his Hilltop Dinner, with some of his specials and turning them into dumplings at your spots.
Going back to Brooklyn Chop House, when I say no place on earth, after LSD when we got down to appetizers. I wanted to combine the two that were near and dear to my heart. One was the Greek diner I grew up in. The second was Chinese food. When it got down to the appetizers, I didn’t want to do a bacon cheeseburger or French onion soup that you could find at any steak house.
Stratis talks dumplings:
So, I first came up with bacon cheeseburger shumai. Second, I came up with a French onion soup dumpling. It’s done like traditional Chinese soup dumpling, but filling them with diner classics. Once we did that, we created the pastrami dumpling, a gyro dumpling and more! The dumplings became so popular at Brooklyn Chop House that I wanted to create “The House of the 2 Ounce Sandwich.” Some people are confused by the terminology, but that’s just what our dumplings are: two ounce sandwiches, carbohydrates filled with protein and that’s what a sandwich is. With that we came up with the model for Brooklyn Dumpling Shop with 30+ dumplings including, PB&J, Buffalo Chicken, Tex-Mex, and more!
Stratis on the technology:
With all that said, I also fell in love with the automat growing up. I knew that the technology could help us eliminate the hassle of placing an order with a cashier. It could be the same way that EZ-Pass has eliminated toll booth clerks on bridges and tunnels. When going through the midtown tunnel, I used to have to wait 30 minutes in line. After that, you’d hand the person a $20, and get $10 change. Then, I would be able to go through the tunnel. But now we have used technology to improve that process, so I never have to stop and wait. Well, the same can be done with the implementation of the automat. It allows for a faster and easier ordering experience at Brooklyn Dumpling Shop.
It’s time to embrace technology and there’s no better way than doing it than bringing back the automat. To me, the automat was one of the greatest inventions of all time. It failed originally in the 70s, because technology failed the automat. There were no dollar bill receivers or credit card processors. As a result, people had to wait to get change. That just slowed the ordering process down.
Now, with the new automat, the consumer can control the whole buying process through their phone. That makes it a seamless transaction. With this new technology, we have implemented a model that with we can service at least 600 consumers a day. The amazing part is that we do it with three or four employees. This is down from the industry norm of eight to ten employees. I believe that if we are successful with the model, we will be able to save the industry as a whole.
Stratis on his partnership with Patti LaBelle:
Congrats on the partnership with Patti LaBelle. Can you give HHV some insight on that?
COVID has delayed this rollout, but how this partnership came to be was through Patti’s son, Zuri. He came to Brooklyn Chop House when we first opened. Zuri told me, “Stratis I know you’re gonna want to push your dumplings, but my mom hates dumplings, so no dumplings! She likes salt and pepper lobster, she likes chicken sauté, but no dumplings.” Well, I sent her about five orders of dumplings anyway. All of a sudden, Patti called me to sit with her. She told me that “these are the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted. We have to introduce these to Walmart.”
Stratis on the Walmart partnership:
At that point, she was doing more than $50 million a year at Walmart with her sweet potato pies. So, I knew she had all the connections to get me in. Lo and behold, I went with her son and the presidents of the company Charles Suitt and Alex Thompson, down to Bentonville, Arkansas to meet with the buyers of Walmart.
I did a presentation of all the dumplings to them, and they said, “welcome to Walmart,” and this was 2019. They put a massive order in with us, totaling over seven figures. The plans were to send it out to over 16,000 Walmart locations. But then COVID hit, which delayed the rollout. But the last I heard was that we should be hitting stores around November or December of 2022. None of this could have been done without Patti Labelle, who is now my partner in my grocery business.
How to contact Stratis Morfogen:
Thank you, Stratis Morfogen, for speaking with Hip-HopVibe.com. How can people get in touch?
Follow me on Instagram @stratis_morfogen.