The Power List: The Entrepreneurs

The Power List: The Entrepreneurs

Part of the annual NRN 50 special report, The Power List profiles the 50 most powerful people who are leading and shaping change in the restaurant industry, as chosen by Nation’s Restaurant News.

Nation’s Restaurant News ranked only the top 10 most powerful people in foodservice [2] out of the 50 influential people who make up The Power List. The remaining 40 people on the list have been divided into groups highlighting the type of influence they have on the industry. Here, we feature The Entrepreneurs: people who are shaping the future of dining.

David Chang, founder, Momofuku



To say you’ll never get a seat at David Chang’s insanely popular Momofuku Noodle Bar in Manhattan is technically true. The restaurant’s only perches are bar stools, and it doesn’t take reservations unless you’re ordering its large fried chicken meal — for which you could wait up to four weeks.

Though Chang’s New York restaurant network is expressed in other, somewhat larger iterations, including Ssäm Bar, Ko and Má Pêche, they’re all about as busy as Noodle Bar. Such guest frustration creates a delicious problem for one of America’s most talked-about chefs.

Chang didn’t set out to cook for a living, much less become a restaurateur with outposts in Toronto and Sydney. He studied religion in college before enrolling in The International Culinary Center — formerly the French Culinary Institute — in New York. He later worked in a series of Tokyo restaurants that inspired his Americanized version of a ramen house, manifested in Noodle Bar.

A winner of multiple James Beard awards and two Michelin stars at Ko, the highly opinionated Chang created Lucky Peach, an edgy food journal known to irritate fans and foes alike. Two years ago, he launched a PBS series titled “Mind of a Chef” with Anthony Bourdain.

That boundless creativity led to the construction of The Momofuku Culinary Lab, a space where Chang thinks and innovates away from his restaurants.

“There are just too many distractions in service and running a kitchen to be able to focus on creating your dishes,” Chang told Wired.com. “It didn’t need to be high tech, but we needed an environment in a vacuum. In retrospect, what I thought was a luxury was an absolute necessity.”

Like more seats in his restaurants.

— Steve Coomes

Roy Choi

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Roy Choi, co-founder, Kogi BBQ Taco Truck



Fast, globally inspired, palate-tingling street foods are some of the hottest offerings in foodservice, and much credit no doubt goes to Roy Choi, Los Angeles’ boundary-breaking chef and the de facto father of the food truck movement.

The Korean-born chef and co-founder of the Kogi BBQ Taco Truck fleet has propelled gourmet food trucks into a dynamic trend spreading from the West Coast across the country. His big personality and bold creations have helped to lift Korean cuisine from obscurity and have cemented Choi’s reputation as a culinary risk taker.

Choi made waves in 2008 when he launched the Kogi truck with $2 Korean-style tacos: a zesty mashup of caramelized Korean barbecue, salsa roja, cilantro-onion-lime relish, crunchy slaw and chile-soy vinaigrette on fresh corn tortillas. It elevated the image of the food truck from the construction site “roach coach” to a dining attraction with trendy, chef-driven fare at affordable prices.

Choi has also been a pioneer in the use of social media to build buzz. His four Kogi trucks use Twitter to announce their positions as they cruise the Los Angeles metro area, and they have been known to draw long lines of hundreds of customers at a time.

Even as the Kogi food truck brand boomed, Choi — who was named Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine in 2010 — has diversified into brick-and-mortar restaurants in Los Angeles [4], including Chego!, A-Frame and Sunny Spot, which offer the category-defying comfort food that Choi is known for. And late last year, the chef-entrepreneur added author to his list of roles when he published “L.A. Son,” a memoir and cookbook.

— James Scarpa

Chris Doody

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Chris Doody, founder, Piada Italian Street Food



Piada is an Italian bread, but many U.S. consumers might have thought it was an Italian car before Chris Doody opened the fast-casual Piada Italian Street Food in 2010.

The chances of that mistake occurring have gotten slimmer as Piada has grown, however. Since the first unit opened in Columbus, Ohio, Doody, who also founded Bravo Brio Restaurant Group, has expanded Piada to 17 other locations in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana.

The concept’s piadas resemble tortillas, and diners fill them with as much pasta, meat, sauce and vegetables as they can eat. One restaurant analyst called the offering an “Italian burrito.” Piada has itself been called the Italian Chipotle because of its assembly-line ordering system.

That resemblance is no accident. Speaking in 2012 at the Columbus Business First Fast 50 awards luncheon, Doody was quoted as saying he photographed the layouts at Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread Co. restaurants before opening the first Piada. He also tested recipes in a corporate kitchen and held focus groups for nine months to make the concept great from the first day.

Nation’s Restaurant News recognized Piada in 2013 as a Breakout Brand [6] and a Hot Concept winner [7]. It’s so hot that private equity firm Catterton Partners made a significant investment in the brand last year [8] to aid its expansion. The firm said it considers Piada the leader in the Italian fast-casual segment, with the potential to open units nationwide.

And restaurant industry observers have said they consider Doody a leader who not only can come up with an innovative idea for a concept, but can actually make it work.

— Gregg Cebrzynski

Adam Fleischman

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Adam Fleischman, founder and chairman, Umami Restaurant Group



Just when the restaurant industry thought there could be no more possible iterations of the classic American hamburger, along came Adam Fleischman with Umami Burger [10]. Named for the Japanese term for the savory “fifth taste,” Fleischman’s innovative fast-casual concept has taken the humble burger in a decidedly upmarket direction since its debut in 2009, combining it with such unexpected accompaniments as truffle glaze, anchovies, soy, Parmesan cheese, shiitake mushrooms and port-caramelized onions.

Fleischman — a prolific concept creator [11] who entered the restaurant business from the wine side as a retailer and wine bar operator — found that the marketplace was ready for his premium take on the burger, and rapidly expanded the concept to some 15 locations in California, New York City and Miami. Despite Umami Burger’s relatively high $20 average check, Fleischman believes it has the legs to expand to 150 urban locations within five years.

Not content to shake up just the upscale burger market, Fleischman also co-developed 800 Degrees, a Neapolitan thin-crust pizza concept that can churn out pies rapidly from a wood-burning oven. Unlike Umami Burger, where customization is discouraged, 800 Degrees encourages guests to create their own selections, topping them with such high-end ingredients as truffle cheese from Italy, Kalamata olives, basil pesto and prosciutto de Parma. Fleischman also has said he has chain aspirations for 800 Degrees [12], which currently has two units in Los Angeles and 10 more in the works.

This year, Fleischman launched the restaurant incubator AdVantage Restaurant Partners, which is scheduled to launch 10 new brands this year alone [13], including Spanish restaurant Smoke.Oil.Salt, a casual barbecue concept called Roadhouse L.A. and a fast-casual fried chicken concept called ChocoChicken — which he hopes to grow to 1,000 units nationwide.

— Paul Frumkin

Sam Fox

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Sam Fox, founder and chief executive, Fox Restaurant Concepts

 



According to Sam Fox, there’s a difference between health food, which can be weird and boring, and great-tasting food that happens to be good for you.

That’s the philosophy behind True Food Kitchen, a casual-dining restaurant he founded in 2008 with diet expert Dr. Andrew Weil, based on his anti-inflammatory principles. Fox, chief executive and founder of Fox Restaurant Concepts, wasn’t especially enthusiastic about anti-inflammatory cuisine, but he heard that more consumers were craving food that was vegan, gluten free or just plain better for them.

He heard right. And since then, he’s been hearing the praise.

True Food Kitchen has been so successful that Fox recently opened a seventh location, in Dallas — the others are in Arizona, California and Colorado — and plans to expand to Georgia, Massachusetts and Virginia.

With a menu featuring edamame dumplings, a teriyaki rice bowl and halibut with umami sauce among its offerings, True Food Kitchen attracts a wide range of customers. The concept is slowly introducing ingredients like nearly carb-free noodles and nutritional yeasts to its menu.

Building on his success, Fox announced plans to open Flower Child, a fast-casual concept [15] he called a “second cousin” to True Food Kitchen. Also health oriented, Flower Child is expected to open its first location early this year, adding a 15th brand to the Fox Restaurant Concepts portfolio.

Fox’s health kick, however, doesn’t end there. Since nutrition can be found in a glass as well as on a plate, he’s expanding True Food Kitchen’s Juby True juice bars this year [16], both as adjuncts to the restaurants and standalone units.

— Gregg Cebrzynski

Paul Hibler

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Paul Hibler, founder, Pitfire Artisan Pizza   



A former Hollywood movie caterer, California entrepreneur Paul Hibler has made a name for himself not on the big screen, but in the pizza business. He’s done it with Pitfire Artisan Pizza, a rising fast-casual concept [18].

Known for its wood oven–baked pizzas made with seasonal ingredients, Pitfire currently has seven units, mostly in the Los Angeles area, that draw everyone from families and foodies to bearded bike-riders and baby boomers. An eighth unit is scheduled to open in Pasadena, Calif., later this year, and locations in the California cities of Westlake Village and San Francisco are also planned.

Pitfire makes 25,000 pizzas weekly. The average unit revenue is $3.1 million and sales for all seven locations are $20 million, according to company officials.

The brand’s success both in Los Angeles and in the pizza industry prompted Pizza Today to designate Pitfire the 2013 Independent Pizzeria of the Year. Industry consultants have also praised Pitfire, crediting its success to Hibler’s good timing — wood-fired pizza is particularly popular with consumers right now — ideal pricing and smart real estate decisions, like moving into existing locations that cost less per square foot.

Where some operators might have stopped there, choosing to focus all their energy on their growing brand, Hibler wants to help other artisan concepts build sustainable businesses, too. To achieve his goal, he recently launched American Gonzo Food Corp. [19], a restaurant incubator designed to nurture fledging brands with both infrastructure and funding assistance. Superba Snack Bar, a new pasta concept, was the first to launch with the help of the incubator in late 2012, and others are in the works.

This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: Feb. 7, 2014  This story has been updated to reflect the correct figures for the chain’s average unit volumes and systemwide sales.

— Fern Glazer

Bobby Stuckey

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Bobby Stuckey, co-founder, Pizzeria Locale

 



Perhaps the only thing harder than starting a successful fast-casual pizza brand is keeping the secret that Chipotle Mexican Grill is your silent partner [21]. Especially as you travel the country with Chipotle founder and co-chief executive Steve Ells.

But that was the mandate given Bobby Stuckey, co-founder of Pizzeria Locale in Denver, if he wanted to be Ells’ student of growth and corporate beneficiary.

Stuckey and his business partner, Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson, together own the acclaimed Frasca Food and Wine and the full-service Pizzeria Locale. Longtime friend Ells told the pair that their pizzeria would work well in a fast-casual format. The men agreed and opened their first fast-casual outlet in 2011. Much to Ells’ delight, it worked, and Chipotle quietly became a partner in the business last year.

Stuckey credited his fast-casual Pizzeria Locale’s success to its parent’s mastery of pizza particulars. But to be both fast and casual, Stuckey knew the baking process would need to be simplified. His answer was a proprietary gas- and infrared-heated oven that blisters pizzas at 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit on a circular, rotating stone deck. Pizzas cook in two minutes without pizzaioli monitoring baking or turning them. Consistency and speed achieved, along with reduced labor costs.

Amid the current land rush in the fast-casual pizza subsegment, what will help Pizzeria Locale grow?

The support of Chipotle’s established infrastructure won’t hurt a bit. Access to its purchasing channels will help with food costs, and guidance from its real estate experts will be beneficial when new units open — which will be soon, Stuckey promised.

Access to Ells: priceless.

— Steve Coomes