Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Where's Jose Garces going?

Philadelphia's Iron Chef has five major projects on the way.

Where's Jose Garces going?

It's high noon on a Thursday, and a half-dozen people are gathered at the wooden communal table, talking food, in the back room of Rosa Blanca, the Cuban restaurant near the Liberty Bell, when Jose Garces walks in.

Hey, Chef.

This is the weekly meeting of Garces' culinary team. Here is where menus are tweaked and dishes are brought before the boss. Garces has his hand in everything. 

Guac and ceviches are passed around, and the managers dish about what is working and what isn't. Culinary director Michael Fiorello wants to sub out dishes on Amada's menu. Corporate executive chef Gregg Ciprioni says more duck will be going into the duck soup at Yuboka at Revel in Atlantic City; at the same time, the congee is toast because it doesn't sell.

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In nine years, since he opened Amada five blocks from here, Garces has built an empire - 15 restaurants (mostly in Philadelphia but also in Atlantic City, Arizona and Chicago), a catering division, a taco truck, and a farm in Bucks County charged with growing as much food as possible for the restaurants. Garces also has written two cookbooks and spends weeks at a time in a New York TV studio kitchen to defend his Iron Chef title on Food Network.

And fresh off the opening of Philadelphia's most expensive and ambitious restaurant to date - a ticketed affair at the Kimmel Center called Volver, Garces is planning more.

Much more, as I found while tailing him one afternoon earlier this month.

Garces has at least five major projects in the works:

  • A branch of Distrito at Moorestown Mall, opening this summer.
  • Rural Society, an Argentinian-style steak house in Washington's Loews Madison Hotel, also opening this summer.
  • A test kitchen (a portion of which will be open to the public) at 2401 Walnut St., this fall
  • A bar/catering venue at what used to be Old Original Bookbinder's in Old City, this fall.
  • An Amada opening in 2015 at Brookfield Place in New York City.

Garces' managers are paying especially close attention to Distrito, of course, since that is the next place to open. Garces said he has learned from Marc Vetri that many patrons at his Osteria, which opened last fall near the Distrito space, prefer eating at the bar. The managers take note.

There's a pause at the table as a waiter serves samples of chorizo to be considered for the menu of Rural Society.

Garces takes small bites and nods his approval before leaving. He mounts his Buddy 150 scooter to go to another meeting - a menu tasting at Garces Trading Company, seven blocks away.

"Hey, Chef," Garces Trading general manager Cathy Piotrowski calls out at the door.

Garces samples a French-inspired menu for an event by chef de cuisine Nate Johnson, who is fairly new in town; his last stop was Distrito in Scottsdale. Garces wants to get him more exposure here.

Amid this usual workday activity, there's something else thrown in: Garces and his company - and you have to know that the CEO himself is not quite sure on any given day how many people he employs (it's 1,000-plus) - have moved the corporate headquarters again.

Nine years ago, Garces did his paperwork in a space only slightly larger than a closet in the back of Amada. Now, he and his office staff sprawl out over a suite of offices overlooking the Schuylkill at 2401 Walnut St. (That is where the test kitchen will be this fall.) 

On this afternoon, since the new offices were not quite ready to open, Garces takes in his third meeting of the afternoon in a conference room at the Kimmel Center. Garces has the catering contract at the venue, as well as Volver and its bar.

The operations managers - his heads of marketing, finance, human resources, sales - greet Garces with a "Hey, Chef." (You knew it was coming.)

Garces listens to reports: May was expected to be the busiest ever (what with Philadelphia and Atlantic City emerging from a horrible winter), a revision of seasonal hours, a plan to get a better deal on uniforms, a promotional video to be shown in-house.

The Garces Group is every inch the corporation - Garces says revenues are north of $50 million a year - and its executives carry titles such as executive vice president/chief development officer, vice president of restaurant operations, director of finance, and chief financial officer.

Garces, 41, tends to keep his upper management team, many of whom - like Garces himself - hail from Stephen Starr's ranks.

Garces came to Philadelphia in 2001 to open Alma de Cuba with Starr partner Douglas Rodriguez. Then came El Vez. Garces was running two Starr kitchens - Cuban and Mexican themers.

Garces said he had a lot of ideas in his head back then - a Basque wine bar (Tinto), a whiskey bar (Village Whiskey).

And Spanish tapas. The Chicago-born son of Ecuadorian immigrants learned that style of eating as a kid while working in Spain.

"I knew I wanted to do my own thing, but I didn't know the economics," Garces said.

"Once I found out, I started asking other friends how to raise the money, whether through the SBA or private equity. I went to my accountant, who was Ted Nannas, and he introduced me to WSFS [bank]. We met at El Vez and I started telling them that I didn't have collateral or much to go on, but they believed in me. I needed 20 percent in hard cash and an SBA loan of 80 percent - $1 million. So I raised money through relationships - such as the father of one of my sous chefs at the time." (Now, he said, "there's a flood of folks who want to do business with us.")

Garces secured a restaurant space at 217-219 Chestnut St. in Old City and began recruiting managers.

"He literally sold me on the idea of Amada," said one of his longest-serving employees, Melissa Wentzell Scully, 40, who left a management job with Starr to open Amada in 2005 as general manager. As vice president of operations, she has opened each of Garces' restaurants. Terry Poyser, the v.p. of finance, also has nine years in.

Not that Amada was an overnight success or a sure thing. "I was sweating bullets," Garces said. "Every day construction got delayed or the sales weren't what we projected was really scary. I was confident in the numbers. I had worked for Stephen for four years. They taught us financial discipline - how to monitor sales figures and how they related to the pro forma."

Garces also credits his kitchen training. "There are many things that need to happen for a kitchen to get to dinner service, that 5 o'clock hour," he said. "The team needs to work together - busboys, prep cooks, line cooks. I noticed that when I got to be a leader and had a crew, if I could move the pieces, we could create something special. Learning about strengths and weaknesses was something I learned in the kitchen and just applied it to business growth." 

Garces believes that he has "a little more" business acumen than most chefs. "I have the good fortune and ability to look at an opportunity to maximize it or get it done," he said. "You end up taking your toque off and looking at it from a business side."

Early on, Garces got legal help from Rob Keddie, a partner in a Princeton law firm. "From day one and a half, I've seen the evolution of the group," Keddie said, citing an "intangible specialness." A year ago, Keddie left his law firm to become Garces' in-house counsel, which carries the title executive vice president/chief development officer. (At 44, he is the senior of Garces' upper management.)

Garces' newest lieutenant is Scott Steenrod, 42, who joined the group last October as a vice president of restaurant operations from Celebrity Cruises in Florida.

As for short-term goals, Garces said: "This year, we'll continue to focus on our base, which is Philly, and the existing concepts. We have to make sure that every one of our concepts is operating as efficiently as possible. Long-term, it's really hard to look past the next 24 months. We're continuing to focus on getting right teams in place and execute. The next 24 months is all I can think of."

Beyond that, Garces said he was not sure. An exit strategy? He chuckles, on his way downstairs to Volver, where dinner is being prepped. 

"It's something we're starting to look at," he said, going into second person.

"As long as I'm enjoying it, I'm comfortable doing it. ... I know we need one. But I'm enjoying what I'm doing so much, that's prevented me from looking at how to exit. At this point, we've built a pretty strong brand. For now, I want to continue to build, and hopefully the decisions we've made are solid. I'm going to plow for the next 24 months and then look up. For now, I'm really enjoying it. There's nothing else I'd rather be doing. This is a marathon, not a sprint, anyway."

Michael Klein Philly.com
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About this blog
Michael Klein, the editor/producer of philly.com/Food, writes about the local restaurant scene in his Inquirer column "Table Talk." Have a question? Email it! See his Inquirer work here. Reach Michael at mklein@philly.com.

Michael Klein Philly.com
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