Food & Wine Classic: Successful chefs approach growth with caution
There was a time when the notion of owning a chain restaurant was something high-caliber chefs cringed at — they thought of the TGI Fridays and Olive Gardens of the world and knew they needed to do something very different.
Two panel discussions at the American Express Restaurant Trade Program on Friday as part of the Food & Wine Classic brought in big-name chefs to talk about the fine-casual trend in the restaurant industry as well as growth strategies for their businesses.
Danny Meyer, the restaurateur behind the global Shake Shack brand, said it was difficult for him the first time he heard someone refer to his restaurants as a chain. He also recalled being “freaked out” when he thought of opening a second or third restaurant.
But present-day chefs and restaurateurs such as Meyer aren’t so smug about chains anymore — mostly because so many of them operate chains now.
In an intimate setting at the Hotel Jerome, attendees heard how many great chefs have struggled with their decisions to grow or not to grow.
Gabrielle Hamilton of the famed Prune restaurant in New York City, which opened in 1999, still operates just the one restaurant. Moderator Andrew Zimmern asked Hamilton and other chefs during the morning panel about their decision-making process — when do they say “yes,” and when do they know they need to say “no”?
For Hamilton, she has put a lot of thought into why she doesn’t want to expand.
“At this point, it’s just not what I want to do,” she said. “I do want to write books, pat my children on the head and see them. That’s a full day — that a full, low-paying day.”
For Jose Garces, who operates 19 restaurants, growth began when the right opportunities presented themselves. He’s raising two children and puts family first, and he said he’s been doing the restaurant thing long enough that he’s still able to live a pretty relaxed life.
But nothing about the restaurant business is relaxed. New York chef/restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson admits that growth is difficult.
“I admire that,” he said to Garces. “I cannot live a relaxed life at all.”
Hamilton said she felt reassurance from the group, which featured Garces, Samuelsson and Michael White, about the anxiety she heard regarding expansion and growth.
Samuelsson said that five years after opening Red Rooster in Harlem, New York, it’s still a struggle.
“Every day is a fight,” he said. “It’s taken five years, and we’re not more stabilized today than when we opened.”
During the fine-casual discussion later in the day, Meyer joined Bobby Stuckey, Ashley Christensen and Rick Bayless for a chat about the explosion of fine-casual restaurants such as Shake Shack. Growth and expansion remained a major topic as the chefs talked about listening to their customers and delivering what they want.
Meyer said Shake Shack was a complete accident. He didn’t consciously build a business with the hopes or plans to turn it into a public company.
“We were told for years not to have more than one restaurant or we will not take you seriously as critics — that’s what we grew up in,” Meyer said.
But about a decade ago in the very room they were sitting in Friday, Meyer said someone had the vision to put someone from Cheesecake Factory, Applebee’s and IHOP on a panel at the trade show.
All of a sudden, he said chefs realized they needed and wanted what they had and vice versa.
Customers started defining the equation that would work for them. Rather than cheap, fast, low-quality food, they wanted to spend a little more time and money if it meant better quality.
“You get the quality and you’re willing to pay 80 percent less than a full-service meal, but maybe three times as much as fast food,” Meyer said.
Stuckey, of the fine-dining Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, talked about the decision to open and expand his fast-casual Pizzeria Locale.
“We didn’t build Pizzeria Locale to do more — we did that one. We didn’t ever think of it as a multi-unit,” he said, adding that the company is just now adding its third location in five years. “You have to meditate on what you’re doing.”
Everyone nodded in agreement at that statement. These are chefs who are constantly thinking about quality not only in their food but also in their businesses.
“I had no real growth plan — I don’t really believe in long-term growth plans,” Bayless said. “They can derail you and encourage you to miss the good stuff along the way.”
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