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A pasta dish at Porano Pasta.

Ryan Hux, Niche Food Group’s new chief operating officer, discusses plans for Porano Pasta

The chain restaurant veteran explains how to expand a restaurant concept

When James Beard winning chef Gerard Craft realized that he wanted to return to the fast-casual pasta concept he had in St. Louis from 2016 to 2018, he knew that it wasn’t going to be about one restaurant. He had faith that the popular menu at Porano Pasta, which focused on highly customizable pasta bowls, Detroit-style pizzas, salads, and grain bowls would be the ideal thing for a replicable concept, and that the relaunch could be designed with expansion in mind. But he knew if he was going to tackle that kind of broad thinking, he would need to bring in a chief operating officer who had that kind of vision. Ryan Hux, the new COO of Niche Food Group, is just the person the acclaimed chef needed. With more than 15 years of experience at chains like Raising Cane’s and Shake Shack, Hux was ready to take on a new challenge, and Porano Pasta was the perfect concept at the perfect time.

“We are bringing back Porano with expansion in mind.” Craft said. “Ryan’s extensive experience in opening fast-casual restaurants and his people-focused leadership style make him the perfect fit for what we are hoping to accomplish. Hux recently discussed his move to Niche.

What drew you to Niche Food Group in general and Porano Pasta specifically?

Ryan_Hux.jpegI actually met Gerard Craft when I moved to open Shake Shack in St. Louis, the hometown of restaurateur Danny Meyer [Shake Shack’s founder], and we did a pop-up event at Porano. Fast forward five years and here we are.

Niche Food Group’s company culture is really what stands out for me. My love for the restaurant industry stems from my desire to be a part of a team where everyone is learning and teaching with the intent to improve character. The core values of Niche Food Group nurture this sort of environment with the mission to extend hospitality to everyone, highlight honesty, and embrace failure as a means to growth. Porano carries these values while highlighting fresh, high-quality ingredients with the convenience of a fast-casual service, which just isn't all that common. 

What do you think is especially exciting about the fast-casual segment today?

The fast-casual sector of our industry gives a lot of room to improvise in the moment. The needs and demands of consumers are consistently evolving. Consumers are embracing sales channels that didn't exist just a few years ago, with a lot more takeout options arising from COVID. Expectations around ingredient sourcing and menu innovation continue to grow. I thrive on the challenge to meet these demands while inspiring my team to embrace innovation. These days, fast casual patrons want their favorite restaurants to accommodate different needs at different times, whether it’s a gathering place for families where parents can relax while the kids enjoy themselves or it’s a meal on the go, or an alternative to cooking after a long day. Even more, successful concepts need to have a menu that can be scaled up for catering. Porano holds the inside lane as a brand that can check these boxes while not losing identity. 

How do you approach strategic expansion of a concept, and what elements do you think are most essential to thoughtful growth?

First, the concept needs an identity that is consistent across multiple locations while connecting to each specific neighborhood. Restaurants have an opportunity, perhaps an obligation, to reflect the local community, find opportunities to give back, and explore partnerships. To successfully grow a brand, you've got to understand what the consumers view as the foundation and always ask yourself what value you are bringing to the area you come to next. Secondly, you can only have successful expansion if you have a concept that employees, consumers, and vendors all want to see succeed. For us, that’s high-quality customizable bowls, salads, and pizzas with unique flavor profiles. Consequently, you have to create a culture of personal engagement from each group. All decisions need to be filtered through the question of "who is benefitting from this?" And you need to be willing to let the best ideas override egos. The goal is for each group to have established pride for what you are doing. 

How do you see your role at the company, and what are your top initial goals?

My primary role is one of servant leadership. My success will be measured on my ability to understand what the brand needs, and what the team members need. I've witnessed restaurant concepts become so focused on the horizon that they lose the connection to the workers at the restaurant level. Every member of the team is responsible for how it feels to dine at a restaurant. It doesn't matter if someone is washing dishes, serving their own family, or pitching an idea for the next limited menu offering, every person on the payroll should feel valued. My top goal is to ensure this is the case. Most of us have been on teams where titles and egos become roadblocks to good ideas. I want Porano to boldly stand in contrast and ensure all voices are heard and valued. This is the only way to ensure they have the tools and resources they need. 

What do you see as your biggest challenges in today’s fast-casual scene? 

In a lot of ways, the industry is still recovering from the pandemic. Specifically, fast-casual concepts saw the augmentation and acceleration of sales channels. We aren't far removed from just dividing our operations into dine-in or takeout. Now, a single kitchen could be executing up to six sales order modes at once, including dine-in, take-out, drivethru, mobile, curbside, and delivery. Doing this successfully while maintaining food quality and employee happiness is something I see a lot of brands struggle with. This gets back to ensuring the best ideas are generated by those who have to execute. Some of the best operational ideas come from the entry level workers, but too often they don't have a seat at the table. We've got to continue finding ways to make their jobs easier so we can get back to having an industry that people are excited to be a part of. 

What are you most excited about in this new role?

I get the opportunity to grow and nurture a brand that can inspire its workforce to value the power of hospitality. It's not just about the power to make an impact on a guest, or power to inspire a career path to someone who just needed a job. It's the unique nature of our industry where we merge diverse groups onto a single team and encourage them to pay close attention to how everyone in the building feels. I am most excited to be a part of a restaurant group that not only understands this, but makes it a point to lean into it.     

TAGS: Operations
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