Any restaurant operator will tell you that opening one restaurant is difficult, let alone opening two or three. But as Victor King and Kristen Hall prepare to open their third spot in Birmingham, Ala., they found a silver lining they hadn’t expected: clarity on their existing concepts.
King and Hall are putting the finishing touches on Bar la Fête, a 65-seat Parisian wine bar opening soon in a 2,000-square-foot space at the Mercantile on Morris, a commercial development in downtown Birmingham.
It joins the duo’s two other concepts: The Essential, an all-day American bistro, and Bandit Pâtisserie, a bakery focused on French pastries.
When Bar la Fête opens this summer, it will feature a 130-bottle wine list, with roughly 60% to 70% French labels. The food menu will initially offer 10 to 12 items, highlighting dishes with French roots that also draw inspiration from the Mediterranean and the American South. Sample dishes include beef cheek au poivre, potato pavé and a Génépy sundae made with the French liqueur of that name.
As King and Hall work to get the doors open — they’re still waiting on the final CO and liquor license — they can’t spend as much time at their other restaurants, so they had to shift their mindset and operations.
“We’ve had to home in on what we really want out of The Essential and Bandit,” said King. He used to tinker with The Essential’s menu weekly, creating new dishes and adding new wines and cocktails.
It pays to consider who you’re making changes for, yourself or the customer, he said.
Now, the menu evolves with the seasons and as ingredients come and go, but the changes are fewer. He’s content to serve the greatest hits, giving diners what they’ve shown they want over the past four years.
“There’s comfort in that, for the customer and operator,” he said. “We used to change the sandwich all the time, but now it sticks around for a few months. And we have two summer pastas dialed in that really appeal to everyone, rather than making new ones all the time.”
King and Hall are also applying what they learned from their first two concepts to Bar le Fête, including having patience with the opening menu. They’re planning a soft opening for the first couple weeks, so they can iron out any kinks in the kitchen and get customer feedback. Also, the management will be in place, trained and ready to go. This seems obvious, but King said that restaurants often feel pressure to open as soon as possible, which leads to green staff and ensuing operational issues.
“We’re going to get things as right as can be from day one,” said King.
King and Hall are busy with their current concepts, but they’re always looking forward and have more ideas in the pipeline, though nothing they’re ready to share yet.
King has some advice for anyone in his shoes, who may be thinking of expanding their footprint.
“Always start small, and build from there. It’s a bad look to start big and take things away,” he said. “Learn what you’re good at, and do what you know you can do well. Nail that before branching out.”