At the recent MUFSO Conference in Dallas, Restaurant Hospitality managing editor Megan Rowe moderated a panel discussion with three top-flight restaurant operators who have successfully explored the chef-casual category. On the panel were Kent Rathbun, the Dallas chef/owner of upscale Abacus, the more casual Jasper’s and Hickory, which offers an elevated take on burgers and barbecue. Also on the panel was Tim Byres, the executive chef and partner of Dallas-based Turn the Tables Hospitality, which operates several casual concepts, including Smoke, Chicken Scratch and Spork. Completing the panel was Mike Donahue, the cofounder and chief brand relations officer for LYFE Kitchen Restaurants, which offers a healthful take on favorite customer menu items.
Rowe got the conversation rolling by explaining how the chef-casual segment has infused vigor back into the fast-casual category, which has struggled in the last few years. She asked Byres about his interest in the more casual restaurants and the chef-casual category.
Byres: I wanted to get back the spirit of hospitality, where there’s energy in the dining room and I did that, in part, with firewood in the dining room at Smoke. It was the complete opposite direction I was going in (upscale) and Smoke is what got my company going. From there and sticking with the spirit of hospitality, and trying to focus on the experience, we created Spork, which we put in an old Sonic space. We overhauled the building and put in a bar and created a courtyard in the drive-in area.
Rowe: Tell us about the menu.
Byres: The idea was to build off the old Sonic idea and create great burgers and build your own sandwiches. We use Niman Ranch for our hot dogs, but we also grind our own meat in-house.
Rowe: You also grow your own vegetables and herbs?
Byres: We have herbs on our patio, but it’s difficult to do the garden thing. We aspire to do an all-natural meat program, we aspire to grow our own vegetables, but we can’t grow the volume we need. But it makes us think seasonal and fresh. At Chicken Scratch (wood rotisserie, fried chicken), we have a garden out front and customers have to walk through a path in the garden to get into the restaurant. It reaffirms fresh.
Rowe: What fine-dining ideas do you carry over to your casual concepts?
Byres: Our current customer is really knowledgeable and there is a demand for smart food and healthier choices. My upscale background allows me to provide higher quality in a more casual setting.
Rowe: Kent, tell us a little about your restaurants.
Rathbun: Abacus has been open since 1999. Before that I worked at Mansion on Turtle Creek and several other high-end places. My intent with Abacus was to open a world-class restaurant. Within two years I was asked to duplicate Abacus in another location, but I didn’t want to dilute the concept, so we came out with Jasper’s, which encompasses the food I grew up with in Kansas City. I wanted to create a restaurant that was still chef-driven, but the tag for it is gourmet backyard cuisine. That’s pretty much what it is—smoked ribs, prime rib, rotisserie chicken, beautiful fish off the grill. The thing is everything is done very upscale with very nice products presented in a very nice way. It’s right in the zone of the market where I like to be.
Rowe: How does Hickory fit into the picture?
Rathbun: Hickory is a more casual version of Jasper’s, but it combines Texas’s favorite foods, which are burgers, barbecue and tacos. It’s designed to be more country modern; we have televisions for those who want to watch sports, craft cocktails and beers. Hickory is a step up from what you’d expect at a lot of barbecue places. We do a different level of side dishes, but you still get rotisserie chicken and ribs.
Rowe: Because Hickory has lower price points, how do you keep costs down?
Rathbun: It’s all about volume. When you have a check average that is lower than the others, you have to watch everything very closely. We have to make right choices in where we buy our products. I always tell my chefs that I’m not concerned how much they pay for a product as long as it’s what we should be paying. It’s about how much are we selling and are we selling it at the right price.
Rowe: What are the pros and cons of running a casual restaurant versus an upscale restaurant?
Rathbun: We opened Jasper’s with the intent of having things like burgers and turkey sandwiches with very quick service, but that didn’t happen. We were open two weeks and I got a call from the c.e.o. of J.C. Penney. He said I ate in Jasper’s last night and it was really, really good, but I’ll never be back unless I can get a reservation. I told him we were trying to keep things casual and he said that if I intend to do business with people like him (affluent), we’re not going to wait for a table. I had to rethink it. Our clientele drove the restaurant higher up than what we wanted it to be. Now we take reservation, and we have a better wine program. It was a lesson learned: You have to know who your clientele is going to be.
Byres: Kent is right. Our success in this category is because we’re super flexible and the ability to change when you have to change and not being afraid to change.
Rowe: Mike, you launched LYFE Kitchen a little differently, creating an organization first and then bringing in a big-name chef.
Donahue: The first outside person we brought in was chef Art Smith, Oprah’s chef for 12 years, a Southerner who cooked Southern comfort food. He had gone through his own transformation, losing 150 pounds. His father had died of diabetes. He was the symbolic chef for us, someone who could produce great-tasting food that was—I don’t like using the H (healthy) word— but everything is under 600 calories, 1,000 mg of sodium, all organic. Art brought in our second chef, Jeremy Bringardner, who had worked for Charlie Trotter. Then we found the greatest vegan chef in America, Tal Ronnen. We brought them all together to create the menu with the specifications we required.
Rowe: When you’re creating a chain that preaches local, sustainable, organic, how do you pull that off as you continue to grow?
Donahue: I believe consumers are always ahead of the marketplace. They’ve been asking for these products for a long time. Finally the marketing is catching up to them and therefore, the supply chain is catching up.
Rowe: So the menu is not exactly the same from unit to unit?
Donahue: No. Here in Dallas chefs like to use a little more heat, while in Chicago we have more steak and proteins, but what’s served is all grass-fed.
Rowe: I know you avoid using the H word and it’s a concern every restaurant operator has because it can turn off customers.
Donahue: We didn’t set out to create a restaurant that served healthy food. We set out to create a restaurant that served delicious, affordable food that just happens to be healthy, too. For us to be preachy and talk about health would be deleterious to the masses. People who want to eat better will find us.
On the path to growth
Rowe: You’ve opened 17 units in four years. Have you had to make any tweaks in the concept?
Donahue: Oh, yes. We’ve put items on the menu that we thought were going to be incredible and the customers told us in no uncertain terms they didn’t like them. For example, we served kale with every single meal, but not all customers wanted that. You have to listen to your guests.
Rowe: Kent, you have some big news: an airport location on the horizon. Do you see any of your brands as growth vehicles?
Rathbun: We were just awarded a contract at DFW Airport to install a unit of Hickory there. It will be our first airport concept. The growth vehicles for us are definitely Jasper’s and Hickory. Hickory can certainly go many places throughout the Southwest. For that matter, any place in the country that likes good barbecue would be a good place for Hickory. The trick is that when you have a concept like this that has a lower check average, you really have to drive the volume. That’s not easy because even today many people won’t pay for a very nice product like Niman Ranch. Their attitude is: What do you mean charging this much? It’s just a pork chop.
Rowe: Tim, do you have plans to open Spork in more "unloved" locations?
Byres: Hopefully. Spork came around at the right time with the right people in the right space. The lease was cheap. And there was a hole in the community that needed to be filled with a nonchain. And we’re connecting to the right customers who want a higher level of eating out. When we find the right space where we can set the right price, we’ll do it.
Rowe. Mike, I know LYFE is on a growth trajectory.
Donahue: We’re in the process of lining up 10 hospitality experts who have the cash and the means to help with our expansion and mission to change the way America eats. We have 17 restaurants now and we hope to have another four by the end of the year, and another 10 to 15 next year. We’re developing a franchising model that will help us expand this concept far beyond that.
Rowe: Kent, can you tell us more about your logistics of running a restaurant in an airport?
Rathbun: The expansion into airports is huge for us because it shows growth and growth in a nontraditional location. We’ve hired a management company to handle most of it, but we’ll have access to everything anytime we want. We’re actually working on three other concepts for DFW. One is an offshoot of Abacus, but it won’t be Abacus because I won’t dilute the concept. It will probably be small plates, which are easier to execute.
Question from the audience: Kent, what are your check average and annual sales at Abacus vs. Hickory?
Rathbun: Hickory is new and we don’t have enough history to be precise, but Abacus’s check average is about $125 per person and it’s dinner only. Annual sales there are over $5 million. We do a lot of private dining. Unbelievable, after 17 years Abacus shows two to four and a half percent growth each year. Hickory, on the other hand, has a much lower check average. We budgeted for its check average to come in around $22-$25. We are going to be thrilled if we hit $3 million in sales, which is pretty impressive for a $22 check average from a menu of burgers and barbecue. The interesting thing here is that we try to achieve a certain level of excellence, which means the cooks at Hickory are expected to be as good as they are at Abacus. All the food is expected to be at a very high standard, no matter what the check averages are.
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Presenting sponsors are: Dinova, Fishbowl, The Beef Checkoff and The Coca Cola Company
Keynotes/general sessions are presented by: Avocados from Mexico, e*Restaurant from Altametrics and the Texas Restaurant Association.
Pillar sponsors include: Heinz Soups, Sweet Street Desserts and Tyson Foodservice (Culinary); Ventura Foods (Entrepreneur); Smithfield Farmland Foodservice Group (Ideas); and Paytronix (Marketing).
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Coca Cola presents the Shake, Sparkle & Stir event, and Texas Pete® are sponsoring the MUFSO Kitchen Hero Cook Off, benefiting Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry Campaign.
Hot Concept/Best Concepts Celebration is sponsored by e*Restaurant from Altametrics.
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MUFSO Room Key is sponsored by Arby’s; Badge Holder Necklace is sponsored by Service Management Group.
Welcome Package is sponsored by Whirley-DrinkWorks!
Refreshment breaks are sponsored by Emmi Roth USA, Royal Cup Coffee, Saputo Cheese USA and Wrigley Foodservice.