SMOKIN': Jasper's recreates backyard cooking in a comfortable setting.
TRANSITION: Partners Michael and Liz Symon (below) think Lolita better suits the gentrified setting where Lola was a pioneer. Lola is expected to lend some cachet to its new home as well.
GOURMET CASUAL: Cafe Express has a totally different focus than Cafe Annie, but food standards remain high.
TWO MOODS: Kent Rathbun's Abacus (above) caters to the expense account crowd, while Jasper's appeals to frequent diners.
GROWTH CONCEPT: Majority owner Wendy's is likely to expand Del Grande's idea beyond Texas.
EVERYDAY FOOD: Icarus' Douglass (left) cooks for "people like us" at Ashmont Grill, while the affordable menu and casual vibe at San Francisco's Bocadillos pull in a younger crowd.
Don't mess with success. If Michael Symon had a buck for every time some kind observer has dispensed that unsolicited advice in the last year, he could walk away from the business a wealthy man. But Symon wanted to expand, and he wanted to do it his way, which meant considering the unthinkable: shutting down his acclaimed and popular Cleveland restaurant, Lola, which was on a roll, replacing it with a whole new concept and carving out a new Lola in a downtown that needs a shot in the arm.
Transforming the fine-dining space into the more casual Lolita, and swapping out the menu from Midwestern comfort food to Mediterranean, took about six weeks. At $30, checks run about half what they did at Lola. Closing for six weeks, keeping the essential staff busy (and paid) during the nine months or so that Lola is out of commission and taking the cash cow out of the picture has strained the wallets of Symon and his partners and generated some stress, not surprisingly. But no one is crying the blues.
"So far, we're pretty comfortable with the way we went about it," he says. How Symon and others in his shoes have dealt with an important crossroads offers a number of business lessons.
Chef/owners and operators decide to branch out from a single restaurant for a mix of reasons, usually not one driving factor. A big motivation is financial. Chris Douglass, who operates Boston's highly regarded Icarus, realized that fine dining yields a respectable income, but didn't leave much after paying the bills to save for the future. He's banking on lower tabs and higher volumes at his new neighborhood place, Ashmont Grill, to provide a bit more long-term security. "It's not that we'll do better than we do at Icarus, but we'll do more. Icarus provides one income, while this will provide a second source," Douglass explains.
For Kent Rathbun, who had won praise with a Dallas upscale restaurant, Abacus, a backyard barbecue when Abacus was still in the planning phases provided the ultimate inspiration for Jasper's, which specializes in "gourmet backyard cuisine."
"One night we had people over at my house and we did some nice steaks, fish, salad and vegetables for dinner on the patio; it was a great evening. One of my guests said 'If I could eat food like this in a restaurant, I'd be there twice, three times a week,' and I said, 'This is nothing.'"
It wasn't exactly "nothing," as it turned out: Two years ago, he opened Jasper's, which almost from the get-go landed a spot on Esquire's Best New Restaurants list. The 230-seat operation earns about $5.7 million a year on $17 lunch and $42 check averages (versus 150-seat dinner-only Abacus, which makes $4.2 million annually on $95 checks). Jasper's recently opened a second location in Houston, and Rathbun is eyeing additional sites in Austin, Dallas, Houston and Denver.
For Rathbun, Symon and others, another factor driving expansion is keeping good staff members loyal. "We'd like to build the company to the point where people who have been with us have a place to grow with and prosper from--and we'd like to prosper, too," Rathbun says.
Gerard Hirigoyen, executive chef and owner of San Francisco's Piperade, decided he wanted to expand expression of his Basque ethnic heritage beyond the more formal Piperade, which spotlights French Basque cuisine, to reflect his Spanish roots (he's from a border town) and more laid-back atmosphere.-So a year ago he opened a tapas place called Bocadillos, which translates into "little sandwiches."
Bocadillos' price points are about half those at Piperade, which encourages multiple visits throughout the week. "It's the kind of place where I would like to hang out, to be honest—it's good food and wine, and it's casual," Hirigoyen says.
That same motivator—a desire to offer everydaystyle food—drove Robert Del Grande to branch out from Cafè Annie to Cafè Express. The "fast-gourmet" menu includes the kinds of homey foods the Cafè Annie staff would prepare for a staff meal, along with an extensive wine-by-the-glass program and an upscale condiment bar featuring items like extra-virgin olive oils, Dijon mustard and sun-dried tomatoes. Checks average $10, and the atmosphere encourages quick bites and takeout. He opened the first Cafè Express in 1984; eventually he sold a majority interest in the concept to Wendy's International, which last year upped its stake to 70 percent. Today 20 are open in the Houston and Dallas markets.
The Devil's in the Details
Taking an idea to reality in an expansion plan can be tricky business. Just ask Symon.
When he opened Lola in 1997, the Tremont neighborhood was was a culinary wasteland; today, the area is filled with upscale eateries, shops and new residential construction. "We never wanted to leave, because we love that neighborhood. We're building a house there and have lived there over the years," Symon says.
But developers have been approaching Symon and his wife, Liz (fellow Tremont restaurateur Doug Petkovic is also a business partner with the pair) for the last five or six years to build another restaurant. A particularly tenacious developer on a rising center city block "made us a really good offer that we felt we couldn't pass up," he says. The partners decided downtown was potentially a better location for Lola— which would be able to attract more expense account business and start opening for lunch—and that another more casual Mediterranean concept that had been on the back burner, Lolita, would be a good replacement for Lola in the artsy Tremont neighborhood, which had attracted more residents. The transformation started this past spring; Lola is scheduled to open around holiday time.
"So many people thought we were nuts when we said we were closing Lola and moving downtown," Symon recalls. "We took something that was arguably the most successful restaurant the city ever had and said we were closing it." The partners actually mulled over a number of scenarios and in the end decided that this approach was the only way to give proper attention to Lolita and the new location for Lola.
Symon and company took the road less traveled when it came to financing the two new restaurants as well. "The easy way would be to say we're opening Lola and doing a new concept, and we're going to sell 40 percent of the business to raise the money to do both. I think we would have had less financial stress," Symon explains. But between incentives from the new landlords for Lola and business loans, the trio have managed to remain the owners.
Chris Douglass received crash courses in financing and construction after he decided to buy and gut a building in his own Boston neighborhood and open Ashmont Grill there. In the end, he lined up with a bank loan, a $100,000 development loan from the city of Boston, 32 fellow investors and $35,000 in grants. During the seven-month project, which was completed this past August, he had to contend with a $14,000 tab for asbestos removal, $25,000 in new flooring, untold costs for unexpected repairs to an old, crumbling structure, $20,000 in legal fees and more headaches. He and members of the Icarus kitchen staff took up tools and paintbrushes to help renovation crews get the project done.
Cafè Express showed Del Grande and his partner, Lonnie Schiller, that they might be equipped to start a brand, but they weren't ready to handle the logistics of a chain.
"Once we got past 10, we realized it was a different operational animal." Del Grande and Schiller sought out a partner with operational expertise. "When you have one restaurant, it's called ordering; with multiple restaurants, it's called the supply chain," Del Grande says. "You have to think about the ordering, the distribution, how it's going to get there."
Toning Down the White Tablecloth Image
One would think turning down a notch from high service levels and premium-quality ingredients would be a simple matter, but that's not necessarily so. "You think it's going to be easier if you go to a more casual atmosphere, that you won't have to be so particular about the service and the food," Rathbun says. But the staff in Jasper's kitchens is held to the same standard of production, knife techniques and sanitation as at Abacus, he points out. "The only difference is that one is serving lobster and foie gras and caviar, and one is serving pork and steak and potato chips."
As for service, while the well-heeled crowd at Abacus is settling in for a relaxing evening of gastronomic delights, Jasper's draws from a wide audience. "The servers need to read the table. Some people want to pop in and have a sandwich or piece of meat and want to fly to a movie. Others want to be here for an evening and have a dining experience."
For Hirigoyen, there's no mistaking Piperade for Bocadillos; in fact, they draw very different customers. Piperade, where a dinner averages $50-$60, isn't necessarily a formal place, but it is compared to Bocadillos, where high tables and stools, a small-plates menu and checks averaging about $30 in the evening are just the ticket for a much younger crowd.
When the first Cafè Express opened, Del Grande had to battle the preconceived notion that it would be a simpler, cheaper Cafè Annie—which it's not. He also had to win over patrons who expected him to be manning the kitchen every night. "We needed people to understand the food and systems were in place to get the product done," he says.
Opening a second, more relaxed place provides chefs a welcome respite from the intensity of fine dining and lets them cook food they like to eat. Toning down to please everyday diners at Ashmont Grill was a breeze, Douglass says; the menu is filled with universal favorites like macaroni and cheese or meatloaf. The hard part is keeping food costs in line. "We are trying to buy high quality, but not the more expensive cuts," he says. "I probably think about food costs for both equally... but it's colored by the ultimate price we can charge on the menu," he explains.