Owning and operating a stand-alone restaurant is a high-risk, high-reward endeavor. But the thrill of continued growth can often be too alluring to pass up. Do it right and you’re counting
Benjamins. Do it wrong and everything could be jeopardized. Overseeing an expansion demands a different set of skills and considerations than what led to success the first time around.
Take in how these three operators are navigating growth and the lessons they learned along the way.
Lesson No. 1
Proximity Has Its Benefits
Aaron Robins opened his second restaurant, SOCA, over 10 years after his first one, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. When Robins launched his first concept, Boneyard Bistro in Sherman Oaks, California, in 2005, no restaurants were similar to his traditional barbecue joint fused together with an American bistro.
Robins contemplated opening other Boneyard locations but he couldn’t find the right fit.
Then, about a year ago, a property in a prime location nearby became available, and he began to consider opening a new concept in his own backyard.
Months before, Robins and his partner, Rory Snipes, had thoroughly cased the space. They’d have a drink, observe the clientele and gauge traffic flow. The site offered advantages, including a large kitchen as well as proximity to their existing restaurant.
“When you’re managing two different spots,” Robins says, “you can quickly jump over to the other if there are problems.”
Chef-owner Aaron Robins, below, took a steady and strategic approach to open his second restaurant, SOCA.
After talking with his customers, Robins realized they were looking for something different. So he and Snipes made a move, transforming the decades-old space into SOCA (short for Sherman Oaks, California), a globally influenced steak-and-seafood spot.
After observing how narrowly focused culturally driven restaurants tend to fall in and out of favor, he decided to create a seasonally driven steak menu. “We’re not being lassoed into a single type of cuisine,” he says. “That allows us to evolve and change as customers change and palates change.”
Whether he opens his second Boneyard Bistro location depends on SOCA’s performance, he says, along with how labor issues, price hikes and the shortage of cooks play out over the next few years.
“We definitely have a whole list of concepts that are ready to go,” Robins says. But relishing his experience designing SOCA, he’s mulling the idea of consulting for others as well.
Lesson No. 2
If you’re in high-octane growth mode, consider looking for ways to mitigate risk by forging strategic partnerships with hotels or food hall developers.
Initially, Chef Dale Talde and his partners in Three Kings Restaurant Group, David Massoni and John Bush, prized speed over prudence. When their Asian-American concept Talde debuted in Brooklyn, New York, in 2012, it was such an instant hit that they wanted to begin expanding as quickly as possible.
But the haste proved to be waste. Flattered by all the positive attention, they didn’t properly vet all the potential deals coming their way. “We thought, ‘Oh my God—another opportunity. We’re hungry, we want to grow, let’s make it happen,’”says Massoni.
The group opened a second Talde in Jersey City, New Jersey, and eagerly took on a second concept, an Italian restaurant and gourmet food market called Carrino Provisions.
Talde clicked, but Carrino Provisions proved to be a misstep. “Doing a finefood market was not in our wheelhouse,” Massoni recalls. “It did not work out.”
The smarter play, the group decided, was to open a third Talde location in the Thompson Miami Beach Hotel (now The Confidante) in Miami Beach, Florida.
To prepare, they soaked up as much knowledge about hotel dining as they could. With newfound experience came new opportunities. The group soon agreed to develop the food and beverage program at the new Arlo NoMad Hotel in New York City before its fall 2016 debut, rolling out four dining concepts over several months.
Now confident in their ability to handle large crowds, the group agreed in early 2017 to open Atlantic Social, a classic tavern in Brooklyn, and to run a restaurant, rooftop bar and subterranean late-night lounge in the forthcoming 50 Bowery Hotel, which is set to debut this year in New York’s Chinatown.
But they didn’t stop there. When a wellconnected attorney put them in touch with a food hall developer working on Grandview Public Market in West Palm Beach, Florida, they knew they were truly ready to oversee a market. They agreed to create three concepts for that space, with perhaps more on the way.
Through it all, the Three Kings team has learned the importance of shuttering underperforming spaces. They’ve recently closed two other Brooklyn projects that didn’t make sense for financial or strategic reasons, choosing instead to look for more partnerships.
“We’re now at the point where we’re hiring people who have more experience than we have,” Massoni says. “Sometimes we go without to make sure we are building the right team.”
Lesson No. 3
Know When to Take a Breather
Never underestimate the toll of breakneck expansion. Just because you can continue to expand doesn’t mean you should. Sometimes the smarter play is to call a timeout so you can analyze your own strengths and weaknesses.
That’s the strategy Blackhouse Hospitality Management adopted earlier this year. Previously, Blackhouse had been on a tear, launching eight restaurants across Southern California in the first five years of its existence.
After opening its newest project in 2016—a hybrid seafood/steak concept called Bluegold, which included a miniature version of flagship restaurant Little Sister called LSXO tucked inside it—the group has hit the pause button.
The much-needed break will give Blackhouse’s founders—Jed Sanford, Tin Vuong and Scott Young—a chance to map out the company’s next phase of growth.
Until now, Blackhouse’s strategy has been predicated almost entirely on instinct. As a result, some of its concepts have yielded less-than-optimal results.
The lesson learned? Say “no” more often. Instead Blackhouse has decided to build out concepts that don’t have a lot of direct competition. French-Southeast Asian restaurants are rare, which is why Blackhouse will double the number of its Little Sister locations from two to four this coming year.
Knowing big-name developers often court independent operators by offering incentives, Blackhouse has learned to be far more strategic in choosing sites. The company now looks for space in mixed-use developments and locations that offer the kind of all-day traffic that leads to lunch and dinner sales.
As its restaurant portfolio grows the company uses more outside help. It outsources its HR and finance operations, and has added internal food and beverage specialists, operations experts and a marketing manager to standardize procedures.
“People open restaurants for a lot of reasons,” Sanford says. “It came from a place of passion for us, but it turns into a business. You can’t lose that passion, but you have to manage it from a little more logical standpoint.”
Cleveland-based writer Megan Rowe covers restaurant, hotel and travel trends. Follow her on Instagram @ontherowed.