Are Chefs Becoming Better Businesspeople?
What's behind the recent spate of chefs opening two or more restaurants in the same space
By Jess Thomson February 27, 2015
There’s an old French saying, “Jamais deux sans trois,” an adage that falls roughly between “Things come in threes” and “Third time’s a charm.” It points to fate and inevitability, or, as is sometimes said of avalanches cascading down the French Alps, doom.
These days, the term applies equally well to Seattle’s restaurant scene, where the practice of opening three restaurants at once has suddenly become common. Given that about half of all new restaurants in King County close within a year of opening, it may seem awfully risky for a business owner to open multiple spots at the same time.
So why, in a world prone to unexpected recessions, would a restaurateur decide to birth triplets (or even quadruplets) when they could open just one?
The multiples approach takes two basic forms, old and new. In the old-school version, a restaurateur might open a few places in separate locations in rapid succession. Ethan Stowell, for example, opened Red Cow (Madrona, ethanstowellrestaurants.com), Mkt. (Tangletown) and Chippy’s (Ballard) between September 2013 and May 2014.
He compared the process of opening three restaurants at about the same time to sticking his finger in a light socket. “It’s not impossible to survive,” he said. “It’s just stressful. And it’s not all that fun.” But there are benefits, too, according to Joshua Henderson, the owner of Westward (North Lake Union, westwardseattle.com) and Quality Athletics (Pioneer Square, qualityathletics.com), who anticipates opening three stand-alone places in South Lake Union in the coming year. “From a financial standpoint, it allows you to utilize resources across several different entities, instead of at just one restaurant,” Henderson says. “Each expenditure would have less impact on each individual business.” So opening a few spots at once means working harder, but perhaps working smarter, as well.
John Sundstrom’s newest Capitol Hill three-in-one venture: a fresh space for Lark (above), Slab Sandwiches and Pie and Bitter Raw, an upstairs crudo bar
In the approach’s second, new-school form, an owner will pile multiple projects under the same roof—think of John Sundstrom, who opened a trio of restaurants in Capitol Hill’s Central Agency Building late last year. It sounds overzealous, or perhaps like an ego-driven attempt at creating “flagship” spaces à la Mario Batali’s Eataly in New York City, but according to many Seattle chefs, it’s the most economical way to make a high-rent space profitable. Sundstrom’s trio includes a new take on Lark, Slab Sandwiches and Pie and Bitter Raw (Capitol Hill, larkseattle.com), an upstairs crudo and amaro-influenced cocktails bar that requires customers to walk through Lark’s main door for entry. “We felt like we had to pack a lot of potentially revenue-generating spots into one place for it to work out,” says Sundstrom, pointing to the advantage—and perhaps necessity—of the “threefer.” He uses the same space in different ways throughout any given day. The prep area for Slab, for example, becomes the waitstaff’s coffee station for Lark after Slab closes at night. The restaurants share kitchen, dishwashing, storage and event space.
The ultimate example of this kind of womb sharing is Trove (Capitol Hill, troveseattle.com), the new four-in-one Korean restaurant family that combines a noodle bar, a cocktail bar, a Korean barbecue restaurant and a frozen parfait shop under a single restaurant name. From an eating standpoint, it’s best to approach Trove like a Korean spa experience, plunging alternately into hot and cold concepts over the course of an entire evening. Share a warming bowl of pappardelle with honshimeji mushrooms, served in the stark white street-front noodle shop.
Move to a cold cocktail in the dark bar behind it, then settle in at the red-ceilinged Korean barbecue restaurant in the back, where you can sizzle thin cuts of meat on your own personal tabletop grill. Save your dessert stomach for a frozen Snickers parfait, which you procure at the ice cream “truck” that Seattle’s Heliotrope Architects, the team that designed Trove (in collaboration with Electric Coffin), ingeniously designed into the side of the building (and fitted with a mysterious knee-height peephole).
It’s admittedly difficult to digest all four concepts at once—overwhelming, even, like a theme park for Korean-food lovers.
But according to owners Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi, that’s exactly what’s made it successful. People can’t get everything they want in one visit, so they come back. “The energy of each really feeds the whole,” explains Heather Hargesheimer of Heliotrope, a firm renowned for its restaurant design that ascribes to the “sum is more than its parts” mentality (see also: Shanik, Ma‘Ono, Joule and The Whale Wins). Yang sees changes in how customers decide where to eat that she attributes to Trove’s physical home; when the restaurants share a roof, the diner often doesn’t decide whether to go out to dinner at Trove, but instead, which restaurant to visit. And because each place has a different price point, Trove can attract a much wider variety of customers than it would have been able to pull in if Yang and Chirchi opened just the Korean barbecue spot they’d originally planned.
Bringing competition in-house enables them to serve, say, the guy who wants to eat noodles at a bar at the same time that they serve the tipsy four-top celebrating a birthday with a tower of ready-to-grill meat. In practice, Yang says, Trove has seen clear financial benefits from sharing resources, too—everything from the shared walk-in to the shared bathrooms to the shared charcoal-colored concrete floor that discreetly ties the whole thing together.
Tom Douglas, the famously fertile restaurateur whose 10,000-square-foot Assembly Hall (Denny Triangle, assemblyhallseattle.com) houses a coffee bar, a grocery store and the restaurant TanakaSan, agrees that sharing resources and customers is smart. “Economically, you’re already paying rent on the space, so it makes sense to have multiple attractions,” Douglas says. There’s power in numbers in other arenas, too: Opening three restaurants simultaneously can mean three times the press attention, which can have a (positive) snowball effect on business. There are efficiencies in build-out and branding costs, too.
The downside of birthing a bunch of different venues at once, many chefs agree, is the threat of dilution. “There’s certainly a point at which a chef or restaurant can become diluted, and we’re trying not to become that,” Sundstrom says. “I want to stay in the neighborhood, for example, because it’s part of our brand and part of our lifestyle.”
Even though he plans to open a few restaurants in different locations next year (i.e., the old-school approach), Henderson agrees. “It is simply a matter of bandwidth,” he says. “[Chefs who open one spot] have more time to focus on those places and really execute the singular vision that they are trying to share. It is harder to make the vision crystal clear as you expand.” But Yang said the multiples concept actually allowed her and Chirchi to avoid dilution; before the Trove space opened, she dreaded what she perceived would be a necessary “dumbing down” of the barbecue menu for the (traditionally less adventuresome and more hurried) lunch crowd. Having both a noodle bar and a barbecue place allows Trove to do each well.
So maybe giving birth to triplets isn’t so audacious after all. In fact, maybe it’s just a better way to operate. Maybe the trend isn’t, as some have surmised, driven by egotistic chefs trying to one-up their peers, or that there’s a glut of investment capital being frittered away by greedy restaurateurs. Maybe it’s simply that chefs are becoming better businesspeople