Top Chef Star Karen Akunowicz Spills the Beans on Running a Restaurant in Boston

We catch up with culinary celebrity Karen Akunowicz at her hotly anticipated Boston restaurant, Fox & the Knife.

By Amy Traverso

Feb 19 2019

Karen Akunowicz is on a roll. Fresh off a 2018 James Beard Award win as the Northeast’s best chef, she opened her very own restaurant, the Italian-influenced Fox & the Knife, which Food & Wine named one of the country’s most anticipated new restaurants of 2019. And the Top Chef alum (season 13) recently returned to the show’s 16th season to guest-judge a quick-fire challenge. It’s a busy time, but — in between kitchen prep — she chatted with us about the glories and perils of being an indie restaurateur in Boston.

Chef Karen Akunowicz, owner of Fox & the Knife in South Boston.
Photo Credit : Matt Kurkowski

How difficult is it, really, to run a restaurant in Boston?

To some degree we’re all singing the same song: rent, liquor licensing, and lack of staff. It’s wildly prohibitive for independent chefs or restaurateurs to open a small restaurant in the city. A liquor license for only beer and wine costs anywhere between $80,000 and $120,000; a full liquor license is $250,000 to $400,000. Plus the renewal fee is a few thousand every year. Meanwhile, a beer and wine license is almost free in San Francisco. You pay about $750 for one, and you can open your doors.

It’s a paradox. Being able to sell alcohol and cocktails is how you’ll make your money back and pay your rent, but when you have to pay that much money up front, it’s a hurdle. My new restaurant, Fox & the Knife, has a beer, wine, and cordials license. We’re an enoteca, an Italian wine bar, so it makes a lot of sense — we’re focused on spritzes, amaros, and low-alcohol cocktails.

It’s also a financial decision. I don’t have a big, shiny, fancy new restaurant. I went into a smaller space in South Boston and feel really lucky to be there. I renovated it on a really strict budget. I bought all the equipment from the restaurant that was here before us, so I could tell you the price of everything: how much it cost to reupholster a chair, because I couldn’t buy all new chairs, or how much the tile cost that went into my bathroom.

How do you think running a restaurant in Boston differs from running one in, say, Portland, Maine?

I know that a lot of people make that comparison. And Portland is doing such fun and cool things. For two coastal cities, Portland has always made great use of its waterfront location. In Boston, we’ve just come into the Seaport, and that’s developing, but no one can afford to go into those spaces but corporate restaurants. Someone offered me as space in the Seaport, and I almost thought it was a joke. The price per square foot was so astronomical there was no way I could come in as an independent restaurateur.

I spend a lot of time in Portland. I got married in Wiscasset, and we love the food and the restaurant scene and what folks are doing there, so I don’t take anything away from that. And when you compare the price of rent, and a build-out, and a liquor license, you can’t help but think about what you’d be able to do if your overhead were a little bit less.

My spouse and I actually talked for a long time about opening a restaurant in Maine, because we have family there and we love it and thought it would be perhaps a little less challenging. But the thing that kept me here is the people. Without a doubt, the people in Boston have supported me and cheered me on, and I couldn’t imagine doing this anywhere else.

Some diners find Portland’s smaller size appealing, because Boston can seem overwhelming. How should they navigate that?

A great thing to do in Boston is to choose a neighborhood and go deep. Each one has its own unique quality, and I would challenge, with so much development happening, that you could base your lodging on which restaurants you want to go to. Any neighborhood would have enough good restaurants for three days of good eating.

Where would you start?

South Boston, of course, where Fox & the Knife is located. Not far from us, Asia Mei’s Moonshine 152 has the most incredible chicken wings ever, and Fat Baby is a really cool spot for sushi. Then I’d go to Union Square in Somerville for wine at Rebel Rebel, empanadas at Buenas, and Peruvian food at Celeste. I also love the Fenway in Boston, where Tiffani Faison and Kelly Walsh have had a huge hand in making the neighborhood a food destination with Sweet Cheeks, Tiger Mama, and Fool’s Errand. I love Hojoko for a night out, and the wine bar Nathalie is great new addition to the neighborhood.

What other trends in Boston are you excited about?

I’m excited about the rise of natural-wine bars. Rebel Rebel is doing some of the coolest things. Haley.Henry is a jewel in Downtown Crossing. Boston has some amazingly talented curators of wine — Theresa Paopao, Lauren Friel, Kristie Weiss, and Liz Velardi are just a few.

Boston has long had more top restaurants run by women, at least compared with other cities. Why do you think that is?

We have always been ahead of the curve. I moved here 20 years ago and we already had restaurants owned and operated by Barbara Lynch, Jody Adams, Lydia Shire, and Ana Sortun. For whatever reason, maybe because we’re tough New England stock, that has been part of our story. I’m hopeful that everyone else catches up soon. Jody always says, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” I did see it when I was starting out. I was able to turn that into something for myself.