The polished-fast-casual concept Urban Plates is gearing up for growth outside California next year.
The Cardiff, Calif.-based concept this week is opening its ninth location in Southern California, with another scheduled to open in July. By the end of the year, 11 Urban Plates will be open with another five to eight planned in 2017, including the likely first unit outside the Golden state.
It’s a concept many in the industry are watching, in part because of its unique fine-dining-meets-cafeteria-style model with open exhibition kitchens and $5 million average unit volumes in mature restaurants. But also because it was created by long-time industry veteran Saad Nadhir, who was also co-chair and CEO of the Boston Chicken chain that became Boston Market and had a glorious run of growth to 1,100 units before falling into bankruptcy in the late 1990s.
Urban Plates, which first opened in 2011, is Nadhir’s return to the restaurant industry after stepping down from the helm at Boston Market in 1998. With the new concept, he is partnered with John Zagara, who previously owned and sold a natural-foods grocery concept that was later absorbed by Safeway.
He said Urban Plates was designed to meet the needs of an increasingly broad spectrum of diners who care about eating well, but also look for convenience and affordability.
“Our over arching theme has always been to restore independence and control back to the guest,” said Nadhir.
At Urban Plates, the menu is chef driven with a wide range of dishes, all made from scratch without additives or preservatives, and using organic, local and sustainable ingredients where possible. The beef is grass fed, the chicken is free-range and pork ribs are heritage Duroc.
Guests, for example, walk a cafeteria-style line where they can choose from hand-tossed salads, sandwiches, braises, soups or stews, kid-sized “pizzettes” and house-made pastries and cakes, and bring their own trays to tables.
There’s beer, wine and kombucha on tap, as well as fresh juices. The typically 5,000-square-foot units have a polished-casual design for a more elevated dine-in experience. Urban Plates also boasts a 50/50 sales split between lunch and dinner, though units also tend to do brisk takeout sales, up to 25 percent in some units, Nadhir said.
Though there are no servers, hospitality is a focus, he added. The company recently hired a former maître d’ from the New York restaurant Per Se to head Urban Plates’ hospitality training.
“The hospitality aspects of how guests feel when they come in or interact with us online is critical,” said Nadhir. “From how you’re greeted when you walk in, the uniforms, how the phones are answered, to the virtual presence. I think our hospitality is good, but we think it can jump several levels.”
The average check at Urban Plates is about $14.50 per person, including beverages. Nadhir said the emphasis on food quality puts food costs at about 33 percent, higher than most quick-service concepts.
“From our standpoint, it’s the bottom line for us that works because of the volumes we do,” he said.
All units are company owned and Nadhir said the company has no current plans to franchise. If the chain ever takes that step, Nadhir said he doubted it would be one-off franchising, but more likely joint ventures with well-resourced developers.
Nadhir’s background is largely as a franchisor, first as senior vice president of international development for movie rental chain Blockbuster Entertainment in its heyday. Nadhir and a group of other Blockbuster executives in 1992 bought the Boston Chicken concept when it had about 20 units.
“It was fast casual before it’s time,” he said of the concept. Boston Market went public in 1993 in what at the time was a one of the restaurant industry’s hottest initial-public offerings. The chain grew to more than 1,100 units.
Boston Market also began acquiring bagel concepts, giving birth to what later was spun off as Einstein Noah Restaurant Group.
By the late 1990s, things reportedly turned sour for Boston Market franchise operators. Some said the chain grew too much, too fast. Others said the franchise model was flawed.
The company filed for Chapter 11 in 1998, closing 178 units across the country. It was bought by McDonald’s Corp., who in 2007 sold it to current owner private-equity firm Sun Capital Partners. After a rebranding, the Golden, Colo.-based chain now has about 500 units and is growing again.
With Urban Plates, Nadhir said slow growth is key.
The company has been building infrastructure to set up what Nadhir said will be methodical, responsible growth.
Former Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse executive Joe O’Donnell joined the company last year as chief operating officer. Another Ruth’s Chris alum Jim Cannon is vice president of culinary. Peter Mehrberg, former chief development officer at Peet’s Coffee, has been named head of real estate. Nadhir said Urban Plates is looking for a chief marketing officer.
Though he sees the concept as a national brand, the company is not focusing on building 1,000 restaurants, he said.
“It’s really important to make sure the economic model works,” said Nadhir. “Go slower in the beginning and you’ll be able to go faster later. That’s really the bottom line.”
Correction: June 29, 2016 An earlier version of this story misstated the year that McDonald’s sold Boston Market. It was sold in 2007.