John McDonald Location

John McDonald at Lever House

If Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine could be brought to life in modern day New York, he might very well be reincarnated as John McDonald. A dashing entrepreneur with boundless ambition, McDonald has built an empire that includes several downtown restaurants and bars, beverage company EBOOST, internet property Tasting Table, and City magazine (to which BaseWords has contributed). We grabbed John for a quick discussion about how he makes it all work.

B: You have other partners in your businesses… if memory serves, Steve Hansen and now Bob Pittman as two examples. What do you look for in a partner? What’s the key to maintaining healthy partnerships?

JM: I brought Steve the Dos Caminos concept and helped in the early years to develop that franchise. But it was Steve’s long-standing expertise and operational power that really made the difference. As with Bob and Pilot Group, I prefer to look for situations where they can make the idea much better and fill the gaps where I know I would possibly fall short.

City Magazine

City magazine

B: City magazine—standard to rooms in W Hotels around the country—has done its own thing since day one. Graphically, it was generous when other books were spare. The content has always had a distinctive point of view that was not readily categorizable. Was it difficult in the beginning to buck the trend and do your own thing?

JM: From day one we really just did what we wanted to do. Not having to try and compete on a mass level meant that we could do whatever and I was never concerned about backlash. As I look back I know I made some major mistakes but only now do I realize that.

B: What is the future of the magazine business?

JM: In print I believe it will move to where magazines become even more niche and have higher production values that add to the physical experience of stories that need context to communicate and cannot do so online as effectively. Information magazines will have to be only online for that matter. There is no doubt that print on the whole is shrinking but you cannot replace the feeling of sitting down on a sofa or lounging poolside with a great magazine.

B: Last year you were behind the (re)opening of Brasserie 44 at the Royalton Hotel. Have you ever thought about getting into the hotel industry?

JM: For the most part, no. I used to think so but I really don’t know what I would do now that would be unique and have an impact. Just designing a pretty hotel and having great service doesn’t excite me.

EBOOST Case

EBOOST Case

B: Are there other sectors you’d like to dive into?

JM: Considering that two years ago I would not have guessed I would be in the EBOOST or Tasting Table business, I am not sure. Nothing comes to mind yet but tomorrow is another day.

B: What’s the story with EBOOST? How did it come about? How do you plan to compete against the other beverages in that highly competitive segment?

JM: I was a huge fan and user of many European effervescent vitamins and realized nobody was doing the same thing here with an aggressive branding and marketing approach. EBOOST is both a daily vitamin and ultimately a beverage company but we don’t have the negative issues that the usual beverage company would have (i.e. storage, shelf space, shipping). When you look at Vitamin Water for example, they sell the idea of health yet if you dissect the product it is closer to a soda, with 160 calories. With EBOOST, the consumer makes it happen, watches it fizz and the degree of efficacy is high. And, by the way, it’s only 5 calories.

EBOOST Packet

EBOOST Packet

B: Who are your heroes? The people you looked up to as a kid?

JM: Other than family, I was always into sports starting back at the age of like seven, so I had coaches and athletes that I looked up to and admired. It may sound too simple but I most admire people who achieve total excellence in their field.

B: How do you get your information? Weigh, for example, TV vs. online vs. magazines/newspapers vs. word of mouth.

JM: Mostly a good combo of the latter three. TV really doesn’t factor in so much when it comes to information.

B: What do you do in all that spare time?

JM: I never notice when I have spare time but there is nothing better than sitting on the bench on Mercer Street on a sunny afternoon, people-watching.

Chinatown Brasserie

Chinatown Brasserie Bar

B: Where do you live and how would you describe your apartment?

JM: Downtown NYC. I’d say I live with only the things that I really truly love and value. Zero clutter or random meaningless items but not in a zen-like manner.

B: With the recent economic problems, have there been tangible ramifications in your ventures, which tend to be high-end?

JM: There is no doubt there is going to be an adjustment. At the end it will be a matter of survival and who does their job the best will be the one standing when it turns around.

B: What does your future hold?

JM: I don’t like making plans.

Read part 1 of this interview.