Terry Heller is relatively new to the restaurant business, but his background in alternative marketing for hip-hop artists has helped him brand Plan Check Kitchen + Bar, his fledgling restaurant chain, in an unconventional way.
Heller’s first job was working with artists Eazy-E and Dr. Dre to market songs that he couldn’t play in public and that wouldn’t get radio air time because the language wasn’t suitable for a general audience.
In February 2012, he opened Plan Check Kitchen + Bar, a casual-dining restaurant with creative burgers, sandwiches and cocktails, in a Japanese neighborhood in West Los Angeles. He currently has three units, all in the LA area, and has signed a lease to open a fourth location in Santa Monica, Calif.
Heller discussed Plan Check’s menu and his marketing approach with Nation’s Restaurant News.
I would say that 85 percent of the core menu items make it to each restaurant. But we opened downtown adjacent to Koreatown. I said, “We’ve got to do a Korean-inspired burger,” so we did something like that. When we go to Santa Monica I want to do a little more of a seafood-forward deal.
Maybe something from the Santa Monica Farmers Market?
Stuff like that, right.
How do you market Plan Check?
It’s important that [our customers] understand the story of us — the message we convey.
Growing up in LA, a lot of my experience was going to these hot places and experiencing this velvet-rope mentality, and I always thought, “Someday, when I do my own thing, we’re going to be the opposite.” We might be the hottest place, but we’re still going to welcome people.
I think that there’s a really authentic story in Plan Check. I opened a place that I wanted to reflect my personality and reflect [chef] Ernesto [Uchimura]’s personality. We’re both about the same age. We both grew up around LA street, rap, skate culture.
How did you meet him?
He was formerly with Umami [Burger], and as Umami was transitioning a couple of guys were leaving and he was kind of hidden … and someone just said, “Meet this guy,” and we met, and at the time I thought he was awesome. He was very cool and we were very similar in a lot of ways. There was this connection.
I have no shame in saying I wanted to do something scalable. So was he, and I think he’s the perfect guy for me and for the concept because he can toe that line of being commercially successful, and yet the Jonathan Golds and different [food thought leaders] who come to our restaurant say, “These guys are doing something cool.” That was important to me.
How do you convey that authentic LA street vibe?
What Supreme does for streetwear and Undefeated does for shoes, I kind of want to do for food.
Early on we did these collaborative events with Stussy, which is a streetwear brand, which had nothing to do with food, but Ernesto and I both love Stussy; we’re friends with them. We were like, hey, let’s do a night — we’ll make Stussy shirts that our servers will wear. We’re not going to sell them — there’s no point in selling them — but we had Stussy and their story inspire a menu for us for a month. And we ended up getting a lot of press from places like Hypebeast before they were covering food.
What kind of Stussy-themed specials did you offer?
Stussy has had a lot of campaigns through the years. They had an “SS” logo. I forget what it stood for, but we would take some of that and we did like a smoky and spicy inspired burger.
They used an 8-ball as part of their imaging, so we did an 8-ball doughnut.
Since then we’ve done two more [promotions with Stussy] — one where you got a shirt with the meal. We’re not in the shirt business but we wanted to appeal to a certain audience that supports us.
Recently we did a Hello Kitty deal when they did the Hello Kitty Hungry Hunt in LA [in which Hello Kitty creator Sanrio teamed up with restaurants to create themed specials]. We did a very cool bento box with a tea component and a Hello Kitty stencil. We’re always looking for stuff like that that you wouldn’t think a restaurant would do but that inspires us.
You seem aware that food is fashionable now, so although you might not be in the shirt business, you are in the fashion business in a certain sense.
We’re in the lifestyle business, and the people that are standing in line to buy Supreme on Lafayette [in New York City] — three times, four times a month you’ll see 100 kids there that’ll go and spend $58 for a t-shirt. Those kids are also going to go on Instagram and post pictures of us — when I say kids I mean young adults — and I want to stay relevant to them. I’m always looking for inspiration: Something that’s going to be something cool or different, that’s going to connect an audience or inspire an audience, introduce an audience to something they haven’t been introduced to.
Sounds like you have to be quick on your feet.
I think that in these times what I’m serving today on the core menu is not necessarily going to be there in 36 months. You have to change with the times. I’ve even said to our chef, “We should rip up our menu in a couple of years and just start over.” It’s going to be really risky because people know us for something, but I think that’s the world we live in. It’s constant change, constant evolution.
We’re potentially doing a collaboration with a big artist in LA, so we’re talking to them. They’re doing some event with a furniture company and we’re going to feed them. My restaurant on Fairfax has a couple of known art galleries on the block and that’s the kind of thing I’m constantly looking to do. And it’s affordable.
What are your expansion plans?
My goal is to go national with this. I’m not interested in franchising. I’m currently closing out a raise [of financing] and we’re going to start rolling [restaurants] out quicker.
In Los Angeles?
I’m pretty much done with LA with the Santa Monica store. We’re looking at Orange County, [Calif.] We’re looking all over the country right now, but it has to be strategic. I’m not going to do one in New York, one in Miami — we’ve got to be able to operate them. The experience that you can get in LA needs to happen at all the restaurants.
So you want to expand as your corporate culture allows it?
Correct. That’s a good way to put it.
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].
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