We’ve finally found something Rick Bayless isn’t good at: anticipation. You’d think a guy who’d just won the inaugural edition of Top Chef Masters and who owns two perennially packed Mexican restaurants (Frontera Grill, Topolobampo) in Chicago would know that his next place would be instantly mobbed. But even Bayless was overwhelmed by the initial reaction to Xoco, his new Mexican street food restaurant that fits the fast casual mode. His business plan addressed every possible aspect of restaurant operations, except for one. “I hadn’t based that business plan on a line that went out the door and down the block for 4 hours,” he says.
A chef of Bayless’s skill and knowledge about Mexican street food seems like a natural to open a taqueria, but that’s not the direction he chose at Xoco. Its menu focuses on tortas—the Mexican equivalent of submarine sandwiches—filled with slow-cooked braised items that are charred in Xoco’s woodburning oven. Bayless says he’s wanted such an oven for a long time, but there was no room to put one in the Frontera or Topolobampo kitchen. Xoco, located next door to his other two restaurants, filled the bill.
The food lineup includes six tortas that come from that woodburning oven and three made on the griddle. They’re served from 11 a.m on.
A lineup of more dinner-type items becomes available after 3 p.m. Right now, this “Caldo” lineup includes Shortrib Red Chile Soup ($12); Wood-Roasted Chicken Pozole ($11.50); and Pork Belly Vermicelli (i.e., Fideos, $12). There are seafood, carnitas and vegetable/black bean versions, too.
The other signature item at Xoco is fresh-ground chocolate—the grinding takes place right in the restaurant’s front window—that’s made into hot chocolate served with churros as part of morning service.
All in all, it’s food that’s a lot simpler and cheaper than what Bayless serves at Frontera and Topolobampo, but it’s just as packed with flavor.
After six friends-and-family services, Xoco opened its doors to the public on Tuesday, Sept. 8. This restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, so it was a 7 a.m. start.
Immediately, the place went crazy. Forget about cooking the food fast enough to meet the demand. Business was so brisk that the more-pressing questions became “where will we get enough supplies?” and “how will we get more staff?” Here’s how Bayless describes the situation in his blog:
“At the end of day one, we knew we were in trouble with product. We work with a lot of small farmers: you can’t just call up and say you’d like to triple your order. They have to grow it. Nor can we call the rent-a-cook agency and say send over people who can make red chile adobo and achiote paste.
“That was the start of the wild ride, the roller coaster that never stopped to let us off until 9 p.m. on Saturday night. My anticipation of 400 guests a day needed to be adjusted to 600 by close on Tuesday, to 950 by close on Saturday. I don’t think any person on the staff has worked less than 13 or 14 hours a day since we opened Xoco. ‘We need more …’ has started practically every sentence I’ve spoken this week.”
But they made it, and Bayless says the biggest accomplishment was simply not running out of food.
Instant success like this would have most chefs immediately thinking of duplicating it with another unit right away, perhaps expanding into a chain if things work out from there. Bayless says one unit is enough for him, perhaps because he doesn’t want to go through a maxed out opening week sequence again at this stage of his distinguished career.
Business is still booming at Xoco one month in. But it might become more manageable soon, as the Chicago winter will discourage waiting in line outside, even though the food delivers Frontera-like flavors at workingman’s prices. But you can bet that someone else will take this terrific idea and duplicate it in another market. When they do, we say look out Chipotle.