Students Get a Bird’s-Eye View of the Food Business
Faculty Spotlight: Drawing on his relationships throughout multiple industries, Phil Colicchio shows students in the master’s in Food Business program that building a successful restaurant venture truly takes a village.
Phil Colicchio’s career in the restaurant industry is a testament to the power of building strong relationships. He found his way to the business in the early 1990s, when he was working as an attorney at a white-shoe law firm. His cousin, the chef Tom Colicchio—yes, that one, but not quite a celebrity yet—sought his legal advice, and Phil happily obliged. He helped Tom develop “an intelligent model” for a restaurant business, as he described it, one that deftly navigated the intersection of commercial real estate, employment, intellectual property, and media law.
Colicchio may not have known it yet, but his ability to navigate this particular intersection would prove quite valuable. As Tom’s star rose, he passed Phil’s name along to his colleagues. Soon enough, Phil found himself working with a litany of chefs, restaurateurs, and other industry professionals at a crucial moment in restaurant history. “It was before anyone had ever heard of celebrity chefs,” he recalled. “The Food Network had not yet been created. There was no such thing as Beat Bobby Flay, there was no Top Chef. All of this was going on right at the time that chefs were coming into their own as independent personalities.”
Then came the Las Vegas restaurant boom of the early 2000s, when Colicchio’s expertise attracted clients in the hotel and real estate development industries. This clientele continued expanding as hotels went through their own transformation, leaning on third-party food and beverage providers to distinguish themselves from the competition. In 2008 he founded his own consultancy, Colicchio Consulting (“very creative,” he quipped), to curate thoughtful food and beverage programming across a diversity of markets. The firm was eventually acquired by Cushman & Wakefield, under whose umbrella it operates today.
In short: Colicchio brings more than a little experience to his work as an instructor in the Culinary Institute of America’s prestigious master’s in Food Business program.
Learning How to Think
Colicchio teaches two courses for second-year master’s in Food Business students: Legal Strategies and Challenges for the Restaurateur, and Real Estate, Capitalization, and Partnership Strategies for the Restaurateur. In both, he leverages his industry relationships to lead students through the wide range of domain knowledge that it takes to build a successful restaurant venture.
“Most of what I do is to bring other highly specialized professionals into the course, and I interview them and deploy those recorded video interviews as class teachings,” he explained. “During the time that I was representing restaurateurs, I found that there were an awful lot of other professionals that lent a great deal of value to the restaurateur that many didn’t understand. So I bring in real estate professionals, construction professionals, architects, insurance professionals, intellectual property lawyers, lawyers who specialize in labor issues.”
As Colicchio sees it, his classes aren’t just about building a foundation of disciplinary knowledge, but also mastering essential analytic frameworks. While he often finds that students can be nervous to give incorrect answers in class, he stressed that he’s not really interested in right or wrong. “I’m interested in the analysis and how you defend your proposition,” he said. “If you do that, it doesn’t matter to me whether or not the answer to the question is yes, no, or maybe. It means that you’ve identified the issues, you’ve analyzed them, you’ve shown me that you weighed two to three, sometimes four different sides or factors, you’ve made a conclusion, and you’ve defended it.”
In other words, Colicchio hopes to teach students how to think: how to recognize, disentangle, and ultimately navigate the complex challenges they’ll face as restaurant industry professionals.
Preparing for Success in a Complex, Competitive Field
With decades of experience and keen insights into every corner of the restaurant ecosystem, Colicchio isn’t speaking lightly when he says CIA’s master’s in Food Business program—whose curriculum, incidentally, he helped design—has much to offer prospective students. Perhaps most important to him is what’s right there in the name: its laser-sharp focus on the food business itself. “There was no master’s in professional studies when I was coming up the ranks,” he said, recalling his initial research as he helped CIA Provost Mark Erickson formulate the program. “The idea that if you had a particular focus of interest or an industry of interest, you could get a degree in that narrow field—to me that seemed brilliant. Because a lot of people can’t afford the time or the money that it takes to get an MBA.”
Unlike traditional MA and MBA programs, he added, an MPS program’s faculty must be at least 50% composed of educators actively working in the field. “That doesn’t mean that professional academicians don’t know the real world, but no one knows the real world like somebody who’s in it every day,” he said. “To me, that’s the big value-add in the MPS program. At least 50% of these professors are out there every day in the mud: toiling, continually learning, continually refining their expertise in very real and practical ways.”
This means the program is well-suited to prepare students for the industry’s latest trends, like one Colicchio focuses on in his consulting work: the rise of food halls. “I devote two classes to the unique nature of the food hall movement and the unique economics and occupancy structures that are involved,” he explained. “There’s a whole series of lectures that relate to capital raising: five, ten years ago, there was no such thing as crowdsourcing, there were no such things as B-corporations. So, identifying different business entity structures is super important.”
The Toolbox and the Tools
What advice would he offer someone considering the master’s in Food Business program? Simple: do your research. “Please go through the curriculum. Please go through biographies of the professionals who are teaching you, because I think they’re uniformly excellent,” he said. “The ability to prepare yourself for a very competitive field—that is, frankly, fraught with challenges to your actual survival in the industry—makes this program a very important consideration for anybody who’s thinking about entering the food and beverage industry, particularly the restaurant industry.”
“It’ll provide you with what all good education provides you with,” he concluded. “The toolbox, the tools, and a number of other people who will become your colleagues, who will be able to assist you for the rest of your career.”