Mendocino Farms, a nine-unit chain based in Los Angeles, has been impressing customers with its “approachable adventurous” sandwiches, as well as soups, salads and sides, since it opened its first location in 2003.
Driven by all things local, seasonal and sustainable, the restaurant offers high-quality sandwiches that are either modern takes on regional favorites or deconstructed fine dining dishes. Recent offerings have included the Smoked Turkey Romesco, made by smoking turkey for eight hours over pecan wood and serving it with Romesco sauce, harissa aïoli, roasted tomatoes, red onions and arugula from a local farm on a pretzel roll from a local bakery, and the Almost Famous Braised Lamb Sandwich, made with marinated slow braised lamb with mint pesto, goat cheese from a local farm, balsamic vinegar, picked red onions and baby arugula from a local farm on toasted ciabatta.
The 12-year-old chain is prepared to grow to 30 units in the Southern California market by 2018. Next year it plans to add four to five units, largely in locations that include other artisan eateries.
Mario del Pero, founder and CEO, leads the culinary team behind the creative, premium sandwiches. Before creating Mendocino Farms with his partner and wife, Ellen Chen, Del Pero founded the beach lifestyle concept Baja Sharkeez and the
fast-casual Asian concept Skew’s Teriyaki.
Del Pero spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about the chain’s menu development process.
How do you approach menu development?
We have five people [on our culinary team]. Once a week we set aside some time and talk about every idea everyone can think of. We have this “Mendo” idea board. [Each week we] pick about two things that the R&D team will play with. We play with an item for about six weeks before we let someone outside test it. Then we’ll test it with a group of regulars. If they’re as excited as we are, we’ll test it at the stores. There’s a blank spot on our menus [called] Chef’s Pick. Our guests become our R&D lab. The Chef’s Pick runs for two weeks and we track sales. Then it may buy itself a slot on the permanent menu.
What inspires your culinary efforts?
Great ideas are out there constantly. I am the largest subscriber to culinary magazines … beyond the normal Food & Wine, Saveur … the random ones like Kinfolk, Modern Farmer, Lucky Peach, Diner’s Journal. I spend about four hours a week reading these to prepare for the meeting. The other thing … every other month we do a food tour of a different city. We go with two chefs and some of our marketing people. It’s intense.
How are you continuing to innovate?
To support our innovation [we] just built a smokehouse. Now, we’re building a sausage-processing place to support our restaurants.
What has been your biggest challenge?
The big thing, as we scale as a larger group, is to keep asking ourselves the question of why we exist [and] are we still relevant? As a team we have to be very careful to be our own harshest critics. You get great awards like this one. But you’re only as good as your last sandwich.