“Hey Eric, do you think anyone in your entire company is doing anything as cool as this right now?” Peter Karpinski asks me from the back row of Farmer Lee Jones’ white Ford Excursion. I’m in the middle row, along for the ride, literally, with five members of Sage Restaurant Group. They’re in Ohio sourcing and sampling products for their Urban Farmer restaurant scheduled to open next April in Cleveland.
It’s a warm day in late August and Jones is taking us on a tour of his Chef’s Garden farm-to-kitchen business, which has worked with some of the industry’s biggest names (Keller, Trotter, Boulud, to name just a few). We’ve already gotten a look at the indoor facilities, tasting micro greens and herbs, heirloom vegetables, specialty lettuces and more. Now Jones has the six of us crammed into his truck and is driving through his 300-acre farm, pointing out different crops and growing methods.
The bow-tied farmer, now a regular on the Food Network, is pitching his company to Karpinski, who should be running on fumes. The cofounder and head of Sage Restaurant Group missed his direct flight out of Denver the night before, where Sage is based, and instead flew into Detroit. He landed after midnight and drove a rental car through the early hours of the morning to catch up with his team, which is in town for research and development.
They’re getting a feel for the area, from competitors to potential customers to the kinds of products they might use for inspiration, decoration or the food that ultimately ends up on the table. I’m tagging along because Sage is one of The Coolest Multiconcept Companies in the Land, and the company just happens to be opening a restaurant in the building connected to our offices. (So it’s a pretty easy commute.) I plan to follow the project from now until Urban Farmer opens, providing an inside look at how a restaurant is created, from design and construction to hiring and training to marketing and promotion to sourcing and menu development.
Back to the beginning
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The project began two years ago when Sage Hospitality, the hotel development and management parent company of Sage Restaurant Group, partnered with Optima Ventures to buy the dated and decrepit 472-room Crowne Plaza Cleveland City Centre for $9 million cash.
Work really got underway last December, when the $64.5 million renovation—“almost a complete gut job,” Karpinski says—began. The all-in cost for the whole project now totals closer to $80 million, he says, adding a good estimate for the price tag of the restaurant is $300 per square foot.
At 7,000 square feet, that adds up to $2.1 million, which sounds like a modest number for everything the restaurant will entail. But that’s the beauty of Sage’s approach. The restaurant division is afforded luxuries and efficiencies most competitors are not, with obvious examples being this early access and start on a project within a hotel, and the shared resources available in the Denver office, from personnel to procedures to products.
If history is any indication, Urban Farmer Cleveland will become one of the top dining spots in a city with an already strong culinary scene. The outpost in Portland is critically acclaimed (named one of the best steakhouses in the U.S. by Travel + Leisure), as are Sage Restaurant Group’s eight other concepts. This will be the company’s first sequel, after what Karpinski describes as a phase of creating a “library of great concepts” that could be replicated. The dynamic young leader brought the restaurant division to Sage in 2005 and he’s now ready to start building out individual brands.
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This transformation will be completed in April when the 481-room Westin hotel and the 220-seat Urban Farmer are scheduled to open. The restaurant, described as a modern steakhouse, will have another 45 seats available outside on a new patio being built and will feature several other touch points intended to distinguish it from the competition.
There will be a charcuterie station and dry aging room visible to the guest, a butchery program, a cheese cart delivering local and artisanal products through the restaurant and a canning room, or what Karpinski calls a working pantry. It will feature several tables surrounded by walls lined with house-canned fruits, vegetables and preserves—“anything and everything,” he says—that the chefs may wander in from the kitchen to grab during service.
Karpinski says it’s a steakhouse first, but the farm-to-table description certainly fits, too. The menu in Portland offers a glimpse of what Cleveland can expect: Most beef dishes are named after the farms they come from, like the 24-ounce Painted Hills porterhouse ($55), or the 14-ounce Highland Oak ribeye ($44). Some, like the 12-ounce Wagyu from Imperial Ranch in Nebraska, come with an $80 price tag, but Karpinski says there’s also one of the best burgers you’ll ever have for $14, served on a house-made English muffin with tomato jam. There’s plenty of pork, chicken and seafood to choose from, as well as sides like roasted foraged mushrooms and other vegetable and potato options.
The Urban Farmer in Portland also serves as the financial model for Cleveland, and the Sage team expects similar success here. In Portland, check averages are $77 for dinner, $21 for lunch and $17 for breakfast.
The restaurant will be part of the hotel, serving those three meals a day and providing room service, but its main entrance will be from the street. And the bulk of its business will come through those doors. Karpinski says roughly 80 percent of Sage Restaurant Group’s revenue comes not from hotel guests, but from the people living and working in the communities it serves. The separate, yet symbiotic relationship between divisions is what allows Sage to create independent, creative and profitable restaurants within its hotels. The secret corporate sauce pushes average yearly revenues at each concept to approximately $4 million, compared to a more typical hotel restaurant at less than a quarter of that, he says. Locals make up the difference.
Karpinski has been coming to Cleveland since before the deal was even consummated, a dozen or so times, he estimates. He’s gotten to know—and like—the gritty Rust-Belt city, and he’s bullish on its ongoing renaissance that already includes new additions like a casino and convention center. He believes this modern steakhouse is a perfect fit, not far from Browns Stadium, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the new convention center.
He’s been overseeing this project from the start and estimates 75 percent of the work is already done, but there’s still a lot left. Most pressing is finding an executive chef, and then will come menu development, more hiring, training and marketing the restaurant. The heavy lifting is done on the actual building, as plans, permits and demolition are in the books, but the construction team now races to finish the exterior before the weather turns.
Come along for the ride as Karpinksi and Sage allow us an inside look at what goes into creating one of their restaurants. Follow the series online at www.restaurant-hospitality.com/urban-farmer-undercover. Next up: On the ground in Cleveland/Sage Restaurant Group reveals what farm to table means as a team of execs spends two days in Cleveland on research and development.