Don’t put too much of the the spotlight on chefs; be open to new opportunities; help your customers connect your brands; consider your audience. Those are among the lessons shared by two of the 2014 RH25 top multi-concept operators and one of the country’s largest institutional feeders at the 2014 MUFSO conference in Dallas earlier this month.
Richard Ellman, founder and managing partner of Apheleia Restaurant Group, said his group of restaurants is expanding in part because it doesn’t hinge on the reputation or ego of a single star chef.
“Purely chef-driven is not the place to be,” said Ellman, whose portfolio includes Oak, Belly & Trumpet and Pakpao, all in Dallas.
“We’ve worked hard at Oak to make sure Oak is known for Oak, and not the chef,” Ellman explained. He thinks many similar upscale restaurants run by chefs focus too much on winning James Beard nominations and other honors, and not enough on running a profitable restauraurant.
"A lot of that revolves around the chef, but we had to be careful to make sure Oak stands on its own two legs.” He credits the success Oak has had less to who is in the kitchen and more to his and his wife’s decision to concentrate on aspects such as location, rent, managing bookings and other costs. The fine dining Belly & Trumpet was recently closed, he added, because the numbers weren't justifying the effort that went into keeping it open.
On the other hand, one Apheleia concept that is thriving thanks to help from a big culinary gun is Pakpao. This year the Ellmans brought in celebrity Jet Tila as a partner to tweak the Thai concept, which opened in 2013. Now two more units are on the way. Tila is not involved in day-to-day operations, but makes regular visits and consults on the menu.
Alan Gaylin, founder & CEO, Bread & Butter Concepts, opened his first two restaurants—BRGR Kitchen + Bar and Urban Table—in a suburban shopping center. Then he was offered a primo location at the Plaza, downtown Kansas City’s tony shopping center.
“To be honest, we weren’t really ready to open another restaurant, but we looked at it and said ‘we have to do this,’” Gaylin recalled. His team created Gram & Dun, an upscale gastropub with a Southern-inspired men. The high-profile spot has becomes a flagship for the company, which now has four concepts.
Gaylin, a top exec at Houlihan's, T.G.I. Friday's and other large chains before striking out on his own, said corporate experience Houlihan's taught him the importance of creating strong brand identities and tying them together. “A lot of people in our market don’t know that we own all these brands,” Gaylin says. To help forge the relationship, Bread & Butter has developed a gift card and a mobile app that work in all of the restaurants. The company has also promoted a “go local” week spotlighting products from nearby Kansas and Missouri suppliers.
Restaurant Associates, one of the country’s largest institutional feeders, has brought restaurant-style dining to a who’s who of corporations, museums, arts organizations, colleges and other clients. Eating healthier is a top priority in many of the markets they serve.
“A lot of smart people are eating a lot of our food, so we try to make it good—and healthy,” RA's v.p. of marketing and communications Gina Zimmer told the MUFSO audience.
“I think wellness is on everyone’s mind,” Zimmer explained. Restaurant Associates’ response has been to hiring a former Cooking light editor to develop menus, add superfoods, create local food festivals at some locations and other steps.
“It’s really about incorporating good food that is minimally processed,” she added. In many instances, she noted, it’s also likely about lowering insurance premiums.
“People are interested when it’s not thrown in their face,” Zimmer observed.