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When chefs become entrepreneurs

4 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Major chain restaurants increased their market share last year, and the 100 biggest commanded 49.5% of all restaurant sales and accounted for 44.5% of all U.S. restaurants units,  according to GE Capital’s Chain Restaurant Industry Review. At the same time, the total number of independent eateries outnumbers the total number of chain restaurants, according to CHD Restaurant Expert’s Database.

Increasingly, though, there’s a third category — collections of unique restaurant concepts gathered under a single chef’s or restaurateur’s brand. Some, like Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group and Sam Fox’s Fox Restaurant Concepts, eventually expand one or more of their concepts into chains, but at heart they’re entrepreneurial innovators who want to create something new each time.

“People that roll out chains can easily do that and do a nice job, but our menus are creative and change constantly,” said Denver restaurateur Beth Gruitch.Gruitch and chef Jennifer Jasinski are preparing to open their fourth restaurant, Stoic & Genuine, a seafood place slated to debut this summer at Denver’s Union Station. The eatery will be one-of-a-kind, just like the pair’s first three eateries, Rioja, Bistro Vendome and Euclid Hall.

“Jen and I, we didn’t really sit down and plan out our strategy that we would have four restaurants by this time — it just happened,” Gruitch said. “But we did realize there would be one Rioja and that would be it. We wouldn’t duplicate that concept.” The partners, who worked together for four years at Panzano in Denver before opening Rioja nearly 10 years ago, agreed that trying to duplicate a successful concept in a second spot inevitably brings the charge that the new place doesn’t live up to the original, she said.

That said, once they made a success of Rioja, the opportunities to expand came up, first with Bistro Vendome, an established French concept across the street from Rioja, then later with Euclid Hall, a gastropub with an extensive beer menu and food created in response to a lack of late-night dining options in downtown Denver, Gruitch said.

Looking around, determining what the neighborhood needs and providing it has paid off in success and recognition for the partners. “We’re not out there actively searching, these situations and these deals come and find us,” Gruitch said.

Chefs and high-end restaurateurs may choose to grow their brands by doing something different each time, whether it’s a unique concept or a variation on the original, for several reasons, said Denver- based restaurant consultant John Imbergamo.

First, there’s economics. Fine dining establishments are great for chefs looking to establish their reputations, but they’re the toughest kind of restaurant to make month with, he said. So, for many chefs, once they’ve made a name for themselves in a high-end eatery, it makes sense to branch out with new, more casual concepts that are likely to turn a bigger profit.

Second, chefs may expand to further staff development and keep from losing talented employees. “Workers are percolating up through the ranks and, at some point, they have  nowhere left to go. Existing management might stay in place and everyone else is happy where they’re at, so the choice may be either to open something new and put them in charge or run the risk of losing them to a rival,” he said.

Finally, there’s ego. Chefs may want to build a national brand, but it’s not very “cheff-y” to open multiple units of the same concept, Imbergamo said. “They don’t want to be seen as a chain, they use names like ‘collection.’ And they want to spread their wings a little bit and be interesting, they want to open something that’s a different concept.”

Gruitch agrees. “I can’t say we wouldn’t do another one, we might do it in a modified version. Part of Euclid Hall is the experience, part of Bistro is the experience. If we were to do something like that again, we might do it on a smaller scale, and maybe call it something different.”

She advises up-and-coming chefs and would-be restaurateurs to follow their hearts and keep their options open. “First and foremost, they have to do what makes them happy, and they shouldn’t get caught up in saying ‘This is the route I’m going to go.’ Sometimes we get so caught up in ‘I’m on this track’ that we forget all these other opportunities are out there.”