Will Tigertt: Owner of Freemans & Freemans Sporting Club

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Detroit-native, William Tigertt is a serial entrepreneur and brand builder that has founded half a dozen successful companies over the past two decades. Tigertt launched his first successful venture, Sigma6, a multi-media design agency, while still an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in 1994. Tigertt later sold Sigma6 to Appnet in 2000 and served as Division President in Detroit and then Vice President of Client Services in New York, until his departure in 2001.

William founded Freemans and Freemans Sporting Club (both in 2004), an iconic NYC restaurant and suiting company, as well as Fellow Barber (2006), a men¹s grooming and lifestyle brand. He successfully built these businesses over ten years before focusing on the wine and spirit industry.  His most recent ventures have been Gothic Wine (2010) and ENTER.Sake (2012), and he currently serves as managing partner of Third Leaf Partners, a wine and hospitality consultancy based in San Francisco.

How did you get into the Culinary industry?

By accident.  I was studying for Fiction MFA at NYU and wanted to open a bar and I ended up with a restaurant.  I had this romantic idea of being a owner/bartender at night and a writer by day.  In reality, Freemans took over my whole life.

Tell us about Freemans. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the restaurant?

The idea for Freemans was my partner’s, Taavo Somer.  He found the space in the end of the alley while looking for a place to throw a Halloween party in 2003 and thought it would make a ideal location for a secluded getaway.

What strategic partnerships/marketing strategies have you implemented that have attributed to Freeman's success?

Freeman's has never conducted deliberate marketing campaigns, but we have partnered with other great food companies, media properties (Purple, Vogue to name a few) and events, like James Beard, etc. We've also never stopped tinkering and expanding.  We’ve renovated the restaurant three times now in ten years.  With the second floor we added in 2010, it’s now four times the size of the original restaurant. While we are a constant, we always want to be fresh as well." 

What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?

Dining out as theatre is a big trend and something that we’ve been on top of since the start.  People want an experience, when they go to a restaurant: big entrees for whole table, high-end mixologist, hidden or unique locales.  More and more, restaurants are becoming the focus of NYC social lives.  Before they were someplace you went to before the show.  Now they are the show.

Life Motto?

Every time you start to get comfortable - re-invent yourself.

Freeman's Motto?

Classic American decor, food, and cocktails never go out of style.

Your greatest success as Proprietor of Freemans? Most difficult moment-how did you overcome and what did you learn?

Our greatest success would be having survived and thrived for ten years in the competitive NYC restaurant scene.  NY Times did a article on the restaurant class of 2004 with:  Momofuku, Spotted Pig, Shake Shack, Blue Hill, and Freemans.  I was very proud to be on that list.

Most difficult moment would’ve been the first four months we were open.  We were so small, so unexperienced, and suddenly we were the new hot thing downtown.  It was like drinking from a fire hose.  What I learned was when you’re caught in the current, never stop swimming.  You might not get exactly where you intended to go, but you won’t drown.

Your advice to an aspiring restauranteur?

Buy the building or at spend a lot of time and care negotiating your lease for the restaurant.  Your restaurant as a business is only as good as your lease.

Describe the ideal experience at Freemans.

Walk down the alley on a warm night and discover the space for the first time with someone that you’re just getting to know.  Then have a seat at the bar and enjoy a cocktail.  Move to a table in the back and talk over a long meal and wine.  Lose track of time.

Most popular dishes/drinks and your favorites?

Our most popular dish is the Artichoke Dip and the Freemans Cocktail, which is a rye whiskey cocktail with sweetened pomegranate molasses.  These days, I drink more wine than anything.  When I’m eating the restaurant, I don’t tend to eat any one things.   I’m always eating the specials - you have to always be tasting what’s new.

How do you motivate your employees?

Don’t overstaff.  Keep everyone busy and engaged.  We have a lot of long-term employees that have stayed with us, because they’re continually challenged and the money is good.

One food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?

Tough one.  Either Oysters and Chablis or Nigiri sushi and sake.  It would depend on the month and what was in season when the world ended...

What literature is on your bed stand?

The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson and the Sake Confidential by John Gauntner

Role model - business and personal?

Danny Meyer.  He went from a single restaurant with Union Square Cafe to a public company with Shack Shake.  He’s also a mensch.  You never hear people talking ill of him.  You can’t say that about a lot of people in the restaurant world that are super successful.

Current passion?

Sake.  We don’t serve it at Freemans, but I’ve been working on a sake project called ENTER.Sake for a few years now.  Sake has so much history, but many of the best breweries are disappearing in Japan as the owners retire and no one replaces them.  There’s so much to learn, it’s an art form at a cross roads.

Favorite travel destination?

Japan for the food, the style, the service, and the sake.

What's next for Freemans?

Not sure.  We might bring it back to where we started and open a Freemans bar somewhere.