U.K. sushi concept plans to expand in New York

wasabiextpromoWasabi, a fast-casual sushi chain based in London, is planning to open its second New York City restaurant in March 2015, the company told Nation’s Restaurant News.

The concept opened its first New York City location in Times Square in February. The second will open downtown at 7 World Trade Center.

“We’re very, very pleased to have a site in the World Trade Center,” said Wasabi head of facilities Mark Lerego. “It’s a compliment to the gravitas of the company.

The company is also in negotiations to open at Manhattan’s downtown Fulton Street subway station, which is currently under renovation, Lerego said.

Dong Hyun Kim, a South Korean entrepreneur and former accountant for Samsung, founded Wasabi. Kim got his start in restaurants with a fish-and-chip stand in London’s Camden neighborhood. He expanded with stalls offering chicken, Italian food, Japanese food and other items before borrowing money from his sister to open the first Wasabi location in central London.

“Apparently, from day one people were queueing out the door to get the food,” Lerego said.

The chain continued to expand over the next 10 years, and now has 38 locations in the United Kingdom, plus the New York unit.

Steakhouse concepts seek a wider audience

STKRebel_promoAmerica loves a high-end steakhouse, and the pricey fine-dining chains offering big steaks and generous cocktails are seeing a recovery from the recession like no other segment.

Chains like Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Del Frisco’s and The Capital Grille have been bolstered by the return of business travel and boons in the stock market, and their well-heeled customers are not balking at an average check of $100 or more.

Still, even as the casual-dining segment struggles to build traffic, some steakhouse operators see an opportunity to bring the traditional steakhouse experience to the middle market as well.

The ONE Group Hospitality Inc., parent to the high-end STK steakhouse brand, and Ovation Brands Inc., are targeting the middle market with new variations on their more familiar concepts. But the two companies couldn’t be more different.

New York-based ONE Group, which recently went public, is known for its food and beverage contracts with glamorous hotels around the world.

Ovation Brands, based in Greer, S.C., is formerly Buffets Inc., which emerged from bankruptcy two years ago and is parent to the Old Country Buffet, HomeTown Buffet, Ryan’s and Fire Mountain brands. Ovation, however, is poised for growth with the polished-casual Tahoe Joe’s concept.

Both companies contend that the space between the approachable Outback Steakhouse and high-end Ruth’s Chris is wide open, with little competition.

They both argue that traditional steakhouses all follow the same tired model — big cuts of meat with à la carte sides — and are typically seen by guests as special occasion or business meal events. The opportunity is to build frequency.

Both also point to companies like Southlake, Texas-based Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group Inc., which is successfully growing its more affordable Del Frisco’s Grille concept, with an average check of about $52 per person, alongside its higher-end Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse brand, with an average check of about $107.

 

Uno debuts new fast-casual concept

unofrescoextpromoUno Restaurant Holdings Corp. is experimenting with a new fast-casual concept, Uno Fresco, which opened in Stoneham, Mass., last month.

The parent company of Uno Pizzeria & Grill, the 131-unit casual-dining chain, also franchises five fast-casual Uno Dué Go locations in Texas, Wisconsin and Ohio, and operates one location in Boston, where the company is headquartered.

Uno Dué Go serves breakfast and lunch, and has a separate grab-and-go bakery section. Uno Fresco serves lunch and dinner.

Chris Westcott, vice president at Uno Fresco, said Uno Dué Go is suitable for urban settings, while Uno Fresco is designed more for the suburbs.

“It’s less, ‘You go to this station, I’ll go to that station, let’s meet at a table,’ and more of a dining experience,” he said of the new concept.

Guests at Uno Fresco order and pay at the counter and are handed a numbered wooden pizza peel to take to their table, where their orders are delivered.

Seating options include booths, a communal “pizza bar” and an outdoor patio. The restaurant also has a takeout menu and online ordering for guests to pick up.

With no tipping required, guests perceive better value in the experience, which, five weeks into operations, has already garnered the restaurant a following of regular customers, Westcott said.

“We have staff that already know guests on a first-name basis,” he said.

The menu features 19 pizzas ranging from Margherita deep dish to a thin-crust pie with prosciutto, fig and arugula, as well as classic deep-dish sausage and mozzarella and thin-crust barbecue pork. They are priced between $5.99 for a seven-inch deep dish or 11-inch thin crust, and $15.99 for 10-inch deep dish or 16-inch thin crust.

Salads, starting at $6.99, can be customized with eight proteins, including fresh mozzarella, herb-roasted salmon and tofu. Chef-designed salads are available as well, along with soups, priced at $3; panini and premium Fork ’n Knife sandwiches, starting at $6.99; chicken entrées, priced at $9.99; pastas for $7.99 and $8.99; and snacks such as $4 pizza rolls, $4 sweet-and-spicy mixed nuts, $5 meatballs or wings, and $5 guacamole with chips. Desserts include cookies and brownies for $2, and Strawberry Shortcake and Pizza Dough S’mores for $3.

Both craft beer and wine are on tap, and Westcott said he planned to feature craft beer from local breweries as the concept expanded.

A kids’ menu includes small portions of Uno’s signature deep-dish cheese pizza and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Uno Fresco also offers gluten-free dough and bread.

Westcott said he’s pleased with the progress the restaurant has made in its first five weeks.

“We are getting incredible feedback from our guests — a lot of very positive feedback about the look and feel, the menu, variety, and value,” he said. “We really feel like we’re getting rewarded for what we’re putting into it.”

Construction has begun and management is being trained for Uno Fresco’s second location, at the Tanger Outlets mall in Deer Park, N.Y.

“Our strategy there is not to be a mall restaurant,” Westcott said. “We just happen to be a restaurant in a mall.”

Marketing will target local businesses and residents with the message that the restaurant is convenient, close to the parking lot and a good local dining option.

Additional expansion plans are in the works. A lease has been signed for a location in Newton, Mass., which Westcott hopes to open in late October.

“It’s a very densely populated, urban edge community that we’re excited about,” he said. “We’re in negotiation on several other sites, with a plan to do as many as five locations in 2015.”

For now, all of those locations are company owned, but Westcott said the goal over the long term is to have a blend of franchised and company-owned units.

“We’ll always have a stake in the game, but this is being positioned and developed with a franchise community in mind,” he said.

Casual-dining Uno Pizzeria & Grill’s 137 locations are about 60-percent company-owned.

San Diego chefs, restaurateurs collaborate on new concept

bottegarenderingpromoAs Mario Batali’s Eataly concept grows outside New York, a group of chefs and restaurateurs in San Diego next month will debut their own take on the restaurant-meets-market format that they hope to grow from the West Coast.

Bottega Americano will open in August in downtown San Diego’s East Village.

Inspired by the great food halls and specialty food marketplaces of Europe, the 8,000-square-foot concept is being developed by Giuseppe Ciuffa, founder and chief executive of San Diego catering firm Giuseppe Fine Restaurants & Fine Catering, and David Warner, a former chef of the chic ocean view restaurant JRDN. Greg Van de Velde, a former manager of the fine-dining restaurant Bertrand at Mister A’s in San Diego, is also a partner and will serve as Bottega Americano’s general manager.

Chad Ruyle, owner of the San Diego restaurant Dobson and an investor in the Karl Strauss Brewing Co., serves as the lead investor for Bottega Americano.

The idea for the concept is similar to Eataly, with its collection of retail outlets and dining spots, said Ruyle. However, Bottega Americano leans more toward being a full-service restaurant with various food stations and a grab-and-go retail component.

Bottega Americano will have a collection of  “culinary bars,” or food stations. A cheese bar will offer charcuterie and exotic cheeses, for example, and a crudo bar will feature fresh oysters and seafood.

A wood-fired grill will produce roasted chicken and pizzas, the pasta lab will serve housemade pastas, and an array of desserts and pastries will be available from the bakery.

Guests can choose to sit at any of the culinary bars to watch food being prepared and interact with the chefs, or in the communal dining room.

The primary difference, said Ruyle, is that guests can order off a master menu, rather than roaming from station to station to build their meal.

A couple might sit at the crudo bar and order oysters and champagne, but still order a pasta dish or pizza from one of the other stations without leaving their seat, said Ruyle.

Servers will work the room, and the concept will have a full bar. However, Bottega Americano is also expected to do a vibrant takeout business.

The open-market feel of the concept is designed to appeal to consumers looking for choice, said Ruyle.

“People are much more ADD in this culture, and they want variety,” he said. “People are also very visual. They want to be able to see all the choices they have, even though they might only order some oysters and a glass of wine.”

The open kitchen aspect will also appeal to consumers’ growing interest in what’s going on behind the scenes, he said.

“If you look at the most popular shows on TV, they’re restaurant and cooking shows,” said Ruyle. “People want to see the inner workings and the personalities in the kitchen.”

The design, by Thomas Schoos of Schoos Design, will evoke Italy in the glamorous 1950s, and prices will vary broadly. Guests can get a few simple grab-and-go items or pasta and sauce to cook at home. Entrees will range from the teens to the mid-$20 range.

Ruyle said the partners have developed the concept with growth in mind, but first the goal is to prove it in San Diego, where it will serve an up-and-coming downtown neighborhood that has a growing residential and apartment community, along with new business development.

The location also offers some unique perks, Ruyle noted.

Bottega Americano will be located in the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, so it will serve as the dining hall for students, offering breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as a catering hub.

With those additional sources of income, the risks of opening the restaurant are significantly hedged, noted Ruyle, who said the partners expect the concept to generate about $7.5 million in annual revenue.

San Diego-based Culinary Justice Inc. will operate Bottega Americano.