Food Story About Joe Baum

I’d like to tell you Joe Baum who created 167 restaurants in his lifetime. Among them were the four highest grossing eateries in the United States. They were Windows on the World, The Rainbow Room, The Four Seasons and Tavern on the Green.

Joe’s philosophy was simple: “Our product,” he said, “the measure of our success, is pleasure. We are in the pleasure business.  We are organized, equipped and staffed to supply pleasure, at a profit, which means that any threats to pleasure are bad for business. We must constantly ask ourselves, “What more can we give?” What will it cost you to give ’em a glass of champagne or an extra oyster? The more pleasure you give, the more you will receive along with at least temporary job security and higher fees.” Continue reading

Windows on the World Remembered

When Governor Clinton invited the owner of the Fraunces Tavern to prepare a dinner in honor of General George Washington on November 25, 1783, the population of New York City was 4,000 people.  Almost all were of European origin.

In 1976, The opening of the World Trade Center changed the economy of downtown Manhattan. By then the population of New York City exceeded eight million, uniting virtually every nation on earth.

The Twin Towers invigorated the economy of the entire region and became a vibrant vertical city so large that it had its own zip code. Fifty thousand people were employed within the walls of these buildings.

Joe Baum and the Windows on the World team, 1976

The Windows on the World restaurant complex occupied the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower. It employed 1,500 people at every skill level.

Windows on the World was launched on the day the Tall Ships sailed into New York Harbor. Gael Greene, New York Magazine restaurant critic, described it as: “The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World.”

“It took 54 seconds to ride the elevator to the 107th floor

On a clear day you could see 90 miles in every direction

In a high wind the  Twin Towers had an 11-inch sway.”

On the day Windows on the World opened its doors, this singular restaurant engaged a full-time staff of 30 to handle the 2,500 calls from guests seeking dinner reservations.

It was an extraordinary enterprise, unique in its capacity to handle the complexity of supplying first-rate food to each of its 22 eating spaces, and in its ability to serve 25,000 meals a day. Its construction budget exceeded $26 million. The money was well and wisely spent.

“Windows” as it was affectionately called, became the largest grossing restaurant in the world.

 The First Catastrophe

The restaurant closed after the first terrorist bombing in 1993 which destroyed its subterranean commissary.  It was completely architecturally re-conceived for its reopening on April 15, 1996. It cost another $26 million to rebuild Windows on the World

 The Triumph

4,800 candidates were interviewed for the 500 staff positions.

Just 18 weeks from opening night ( with the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s holidays slowing the work schedule), the creative team completed the following tasks:

  1. Make sure the custom-made tables, chairs, china, glass and knives, forks and spoons got to the restaurant on time (and worry desperately whether six 10-7/8″ plates, six bread and butter plates, 12 forks, 12 knives, six glasses, salt and pepper and flowers would fit on a 27″ table, bearing in mind orders, with hefty non-returnable deposits, had already been made for the china, glassware and tables).
  2. Hire the waiters, and order 600 pairs of custom-made pants, shirts, dresses, jackets, and other articles of clothing for 500 new employees, who had never worked together before and spoke a total of 23 languages. Buy extra jackets and ties for guests who arrive under dressed.
  3. Find four executive chefs who would operate the restaurants day and night.
  4. Create menus for The New Windows on The World Restaurant, Cellar in the Sky, Banquet Rooms and The Greatest Bar on Earth. Plan to change the menu for each location at least twice a day, each season and for all holidays and special events.
  5. Create a wine list. Order the wines, spirits and beer. And 1,000,000 (ONE MILLION!) bottles of champagne — and some tea and coffee.
  6. Hire experts to buy 20,000 pounds of prime beef to be delivered each week. Also 7,000 pounds of bread, pastry and cake flour, 4,000 pounds of fish, 2,250 dozen eggs, 3,000 pounds of poultry, 3,200 pounds of salad greens, 650 pints of strawberries.
  7. Hire the dishwashers, floor polishers, furniture movers and window cleaners. Hire four full-time florists.
  8. Take reservations for parties and banquets though there was not a piece of china or a stick of furniture to show to anyone…because the view is terrific though…
  9. Reassure guests that there are no terrorists within 500 square miles but still build the coat check center on the ground floor as a security precaution.
  10. Install emergency lighting and other security measures that had to be put in place without saying the word “safety” or suggesting that there may be danger of any kind.

And once the lights had been installed, remember to turn them off when the night staff leaves at 3 AM and before day staff arrives at 6 AM.

View from the Windows on the World

 “The new WINDOWS ON THE WORLD is a kind of architectural jazz, full of syncopation, its essence a series
of allusions to design themes that are played out in a lighthearted, yet never too whimsical way. It is
an architectural riff about cities, about urban energy, about the pleasures of texture and
color and light and about recollections of American design from the 1950’s and ‘60’s.”

Paul Goldberger, The New York Times, June 19, 1996

 It was Marcel Proust, who wrote Remembrance of Things Past.

Speech, Speech

Giving a speech for many can feel like being a deer in the headlights

Giving a speech is a hard thing to do. It requires careful planning, rehearsing, exact timing and a thorough knowledge of the audience. All these elements have equal importance, even if the speaker is simply offering a toast (particularly if a few drinks have preceded the moment).

For several years I wrote the speeches for Joe Baum, the legendary former CEO of The Rainbow Room and Windows on the World.  The procedure was always the same. He hated giving speeches and invariably canceled at least five of our first scheduled meetings.

The next step required his secretary to retrieve copies of every speech he had ever given since the beginning of time.

Then I showed up and he began by insisting certain paragraphs from his previous talks be included included in the forthcoming speech (regardless of the occasion or the assigned topic).

After dozens of drafts, false starts, whining on my part, whining on his part, my refusal to speak to him, he glowering at me…we traveled together to the meeting.

Introduction over, he’d look over at me — and wink.

Then he’d shove all my neatly typed triple-spaced pages in his pocket and say whatever came into his head.

It was always a huge success.

It took me years to understand my part in this equation was simply to help him summon the courage to accept the notion that he was loved.

The lesson I so painfully learned is that all writers are not great speakers, and speakers succeed only when they accept the original premise that a speech requires “careful planning, rehearsing, exact timing and a thorough knowledge of the audience.” These rigid rules only apply to some people though…

I love this quote from Walt Disney. He said, “I’d rather entertain and hope that people learn, than teach and hope that people are entertained.”



Risk Taker

I admire people who take risks. I speak not of those who like to jump out of airplanes high in the sky, or those who challenge us to look, or avert our eyes from their daring cleavage. Rather, I like risk takers, who dare to dream up something they’ve never done before and take the plunge.

Legendary restaurateur Joe Baum with Alan Lewis & Chef Andre Rene

Legendary restaurateur Joe Baum (right) with Alan Lewis & Chef Andre Renee

The person’s risk taking may be as simple as highlighting a Five Ingredient Fix, then elegantly presenting it in an original and charming manner. The risk taking could involve a variation, a new interpretation on a very good idea. It is also why I so admired and often speak of my friend and mentor, Joe Baum.

(He has been in my thoughts since my recent sentimental journey of Windows on the World.)

Few have taken risks and demonstrated such powers of original thinking as Joe. We would be astonished to learn that Charlie Trotter had opened a hot dog stand or that Alice Waters was presiding over a steak house. Yet this is just the sort of thing Joe did, over and over again. He produced one extraordinary stretch of the imagination after another.

Among the 167 restaurant concepts he created were Zum  Zum (a hot dog restaurant), Charley Brown’s (a steak house), Charley O’s (an Irish Pub), John Peele’s (with the menu written in olde English and beer served from yard-long hunting horns), The Hawaiian Room, The Forum of the Twelve Caesars, The Four Seasons and the Brasserie, La Fonda del Sol, Aurora, The Tower Suite, Trattoria, Paul Revere’s Tavern and Chop House, The Fountain Café and Tavern on the Green in Central Park, Spats (a twenties-style speakeasy), The Newarker at Newark Airport, The American Restaurant at Crown Center in Kansas City, and The Heartland Market (the forerunner of the now-ubiquitous food court).

Joe was also responsible for the menu at the International House of Pancakes, the restoration of The Rainbow Room, and two incarnations of Windows on the World. Each site had a distinctive regional or historic flavor and covered territory extending from the Pacific Islands to France, Italy, Latin America, Germany, England, Ireland, and Colonial America.  He targeted his places to every taste and all sizes of purses.

One of Joe’s few regrets was that he never created his own version of a genuine Jewish deli.

At first all of these restaurants may seem wildly different, but conceptually they were built from the same DNA. Just as a successful mystery writer writes the same book, with the same characters, over and over again, Joe Baum created one plot and made 166 variations on the theme.

He created his own language for restaurants and wrote it in many different dialects. All good restaurateurs, of course, share the same basic grammar. What differentiated Joe from others was the boldness and clarity of his concepts, the design of his physical spaces, the wording on his menus, his care for his guests and respect for his staff.

Joe was the kind of risk taker we should all aspire to be like–even if we must do so with both hands firmly holstering our money bags.

WOW: Fascinating Past Facts


Windows on the World iconic logo

The Windows on the World collection of restaurants and bars – WOW – sitting aloft 107 stories in the sky took a virtual village to create and maintain. Developed under the visionary leadership of restaurateur Joe Baum and his partners, here are a few facts that made “Windows” hum.

  • Windows sat 1,314 feet high in the sky; 1,274 feet above mean sea level.
  • Over 2,450 food items were ordered every week.
  • 2,000 bottles of beer were on hand at any give time in the Greatest Bar on Earth.
  • There were over 20,000 bottles of wine in the cellar. (If you laid their corks end to end, the corks would measure 3,333 feet.)
  • 700 wines from around the world made it to Windows’ wine list.
  • The Greatest Bar on Earth featured 16 different kinds of vodka.
  • Over 27,000 bottles of champagne would be sold in one year (imbibed with 51 lbs. of caviar per week!)
  • 1,000 calls or more were made to the Reservations office every day.
  • There was always a seat in the house — in one of the 2,500 chairs.
  • 3,600 eggs were bought every week (that’s a lot of chickens).
  • 700 lbs. of shrimp were consumed every week.
  • It took a lot of cooks to cook up all of that shrimp and caviar — 52, to be exact.
  • A rose by any other name would smell as sweet — 3,000 flowers were ordered every week!
  • The dishwashers would clean 3,000 forks a day.
  • Windows’ panorama of color included 145 different shades of paint, 19 fabric wall coverings and 11 custom carpets.
  • The oldest member of the staff was born in 1921; the youngest in 1978.
  • Windows had the Manhattan’s youngest sommelier — 25 years old.
  • There were more than 500 people employed at Windows on the World, speaking 25 different languages.
  • The beaded glass curtain on the 107th floor contained 430,000 imported glass beads on 1,178 strands of steel cable.
  • On a clear day, you could see 90 miles in every direction from the 107th floor.
  • In high winds, the tower could sway 11 inches.

A Sentimental Journey of Windows on the World

View from Windows-on-the-World

View on Manhattan from legendary icon Windows on the World

I can still remember.* In 1976, Gael Greene, then, the Insatiable Restaurant Critic of  NY Magazine, described Windows on the World in its first incarnation, as “the most spectacular restaurant in the world–a place where guests could woo and con each other in tax deductible splendor.”

Windows on the World first opened in 1976, under the direction of restaurant impresario Joe Baum, and in many ways represented New York City’s proud rebirth. “Windows” as it was affectionately called, quickly became New York’s most dazzling and desirable place to be. Simultaneous with its launch was the much-heralded arrival of the Tall Ships in New York harbor, bringing a new spirit of optimism.

Tall Ships passing NY's Twin Towers in 1976, courtesy of Victor Parker Photography

Tall Ships passing NY's Twin Towers in 1976, courtesy of Victor Parker Photography

When Joe (and his team) again was invited to remake Windows as that singularly magical dining in the sky experience, he accepted the challenge without hesitation–and with almost total disregard to cost. An official at Port Authority was overheard muttering, “If Joe had an unlimited budget he would find a way to exceed it.” And to no one’s surprise, Joe did.

Joe was fascinated with great urban spaces where people gathered. He viewed them as marketplaces of ideas that served a function similar to the Forum in ancient Rome. From the beginning, his idea was to create Windows on the World as an urban refuge, satisfying the many appetites of body and soul. And he succeeded beyond imagination.

And, my role in all this? Recently I was asked this very question, and I found myself unable to answer simply. In ancient times, I suppose, I would have been considered a scribe. I was Joe’s speechwriter and designated composer of menus, press materials, and scripts for everything from the correct response to a telephone call to the reservations desk, to the required wording for directions to the men’s room.

After one typically infuriating planning meeting in 1995 to discuss the re-opening of Windows in 1996, a meeting where Joe had changed the agenda to his own, he made a list of what needed to be done. The last, the 13th item, is now painful to share.

It read: “Reassure guests there are no mad bombers within 500 square miles.”

* This remembrance is excerpted from Joe Baum: An Exaltation of Larks, published in Gastronomica magazine. For a complete copy of this article, please contact me.