You have to marvel at how much Howard Gordon got right during the planning stages of his new Itriya Café Spaghetti & Ssam restaurant in Irvine, CA. The food, the menu, the design, the location, the staffing, the proprietary equipment — almost every facet of this brand-new concept was good to go right out of the box.
A little too good, it turns out. Gordon, a Cheesecake Factory alum whose former title of v.p. of business development and marketing massively understates the role he played there — had positioned Itriya Café as a fast casual concept. The idea was that customers would order at a counter after first viewing the menu on flat panel screen menu boards positioned overhead, grab their drinks and find a seat. Runners would then deliver their meals to the table.
Giving the caliber of its food and décor, Itriya was set to break new ground in the fast casual segment. But early on, it became apparent that while customers loved the “casual” part of the Itriya experience, they weren't quite as thrilled with the “fast.”
“We attracted more of an upscale crowd — business owners and managers, people out on dates, lots of families. They didn't like to stand in line and order,” Gordon says. “So we changed our service style to table-service casual, doing it in one day.”
Keep in mind that the restaurant, which seats 120 including its patio, was just a month old when this change was made. There may be no greater test of a concept's ultimate viability than to put it through a change of this magnitude so soon and have it work.
Gordon describes the transition as seamless.
“Both our check average and customers counts are up” since the switch, he says. Now customers are seated as they arrive, given a menu and a book that contains pictures of each item. “Many Asian customers like to see pictures of how their food will look,” Gordon says. “Don't worry, it's not like IHOP.”
Indeed. Itriya Café is a ground-breaking concept that's in sync with a number of contemporary tastes and trends. Its multicultural comfort food menu offers something everyone is familiar with — spaghetti — with something hardly anyone is familiar with — ssam, i.e., Korean lettuce wraps stuffed with marinated and barbecued proteins. Also on the menu are “Taconinis,” a signature item that presents the flavors of a taco in a panini-style sandwich.
The primary focus is on the fusion spaghetti lineup. “We've hit on a segment that hasn't been touched,” Gordon notes.
Itriya Café's spaghetti offerings are divided into two sections, each having eight sauce options.
The “Classic” section appeals to customers who desire staples like Spaghetti and Meatballs ($11.99), Clams Vongole ($13.99) or a simple Chunky Marinara ($8.99). Patrons with a more adventurous palate head for the “Spaghetti Revolution” list. The items there break new ground with such sauces as Korean Black Bean ($11.99); White Clam Chowder Pasta ($13.99); and Memphis Chicken BBQ ($11.99). If customers want to try two different sauces on one plate of pasta, they can.
Gordon knew Itriya would need a high-volume pasta cooker, so he and business partner/fiancee Jenny Lee worked with an equipment guru to design one. Now Gordon and Lee are two of the patent holders on a machine that can crank out 60 portions of pasta in 10 minutes, each cooked in a fresh batch of water. That's a ton of capacity, but “it's been needed during the rushes,” Gordon says.
Spaghetti is just one part of the menu, which offers 46 food choices in all.
Salads, available in half and full sizes (Asian Chicken Chop, $9.99 full, $5.99 half), break no new culinary ground. The ssam lineup does. Each is wrapped in a Bibb lettuce leaf layered with a sesame leaf, white rice, green onion slaw, red spicy chili sauce and cilantro. The Korean-influenced filling options, each priced at $3.99, are Spicy Pork BBQ, BBQ Short Rib, Sizzling Tofu, BBQ Garlic Shrimp and Spicy BBQ Chicken.
The ssam are street food-like items but are menued as “Tapas Small Bites.” They share this category with the Taconinis.
Each Taconini consists of special bread layered with cheese, cucumber, slaw, red and yellow peppers and Taconini sauce. Guests choose one of six fillings that cost $4.99 apeice: BBQ Rib Eye, Spicy Pork BBQ, Sizzling Cajun Shrimp, Memphis BBQ Chicken, Crispy Fish and Tofu and Mushroom.
Equally multicultural are the pho-like Spaghetti Soups. The Spicy Beef version contains braised beef, green onion, bean sprouts, red pepper and spaghetti and goes for $12.99. It's the same price point for the Kimchi Pork with marinated kimchi, braised pork, green onion, potatoes and spaghetti.
On the beverage menu, handmade nonalcoholic cocktails made with fresh-squeezed juice have been a huge hit. At $3.95, their food cost is good, too.
It's all served in a stylish dining room that was designed by Lee, a wedding fashion designer of national renown.
“We created the concept, menu and recipes together,” Gordon says. “She designed the interior and the landscaping; I developed the floor plan, kitchen design, equipment and the back and front of the house.”
Gordon was careful to site the first Itriya in a area of Orange County whose population is truly multicultural. The Caucasian/Asian breakdown is 50-50, he says, including a large number of Koreans. Itriya Café appeals to both.
The concept is also structured to attract a wide demographic. If some members of the family want an eating experience similar to what they'd get from an edgy Southern California food truck while others are content to hit a red sauce Italian joint, Itriya has both camps covered.
Gordon says his concept can work anywhere, and we'll find out soon if that's so. Plans call for Itriya Cafe units to sprout up in downtown locations in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City over the next couple of years.
Long-term plan calls for franchising. There should be plenty of buyers if that happens. Let's face it: Who wouldn't want to get into the business with a restaurateur like Gordon at their side?