In August, Nation’s Restaurant News named its 2023 Hot Concepts winners, given annually to up-and-coming restaurant brands with exciting growth potential. This week, the audience at CREATE: The Experience in Palm Springs, Calif., had the opportunity to hear those founders talk about their emerging concepts.
A panel discussion featuring Adenah Bayoh, founder and owner of Cornbread, Charles Nelson, president and co-founder of Pizzana, Zandrique Harrold, director of operations at Milk + Honey, Daniella Senior, founder and CEO of the Colada Shop, and Brad Wise, executive chef and owner of Trust Restaurant Group, was moderated by Fred LeFranc, chaos strategist at Results Thru Strategy. Here are some takeaways:
Senior started Colada Shop, a Cuban café and bar based in Washington, D.C., to showcase the food culture of the Caribbean – “coffee, cooking, cocktails, Cubanism.” She said she spent a lot of time on branding, music, and colors to ensure the right package and experience was delivered to guests, and she is currently seeking her next market.
“I would love to take the concept nationwide. I don’t have a stop for Colada Shop,” she said.
Bayoh shared her story of fleeing from Liberia when she was 13 and finding refuge in the U.S., which inspired her to create Cornbread, a “farm to soul” fast casual concept based in New Jersey.
“I always had this vision I would be in the U.S. I had this vision I would be eating potato salad every day. My fantasy was always around food because it was so limited where I was,” she said. “When I came to the U.S., my community embraced me through food. I fell in love with it and all of my fantasies came true – I was eating potato salad every day. And Cornbread was born.”
Bayoh describes Cornbread as “like Chipotle but giving you soul food in an authentic way.”
“We are ready to take soul food mainstream,” she said.
Nelson founded Sprinkles in 2005 and sold a majority stake in 2012. He said he had no intention of getting back into the restaurant business, but that changed when he tried Chef Daniele Uditi’s “slow dough” Neapolitan pizza.
“It was phenomenal. The next thing I knew I was signing a lease and opening a pizza concept,” Nelson said. “It wasn’t our plan, but … (Uditi) comes from a family of bread bakers. His family sour dough-based pizza is so light … we had to build a business around his pizza.”
Pizzana was born in Los Angeles. There are now five locations in California and the concept just opened in Dallas and is targeting Houston next. Nelson said the company is focusing on the top 10 cities in the U.S. to build density.
Zandrique Harrold is the director of operations at Milk + Honey, a New Orleans-inspired brunch concept based in Washington, D.C., that falls within the Thompson Hospitality portfolio of brands. She was attracted to the brand because of its menu.
“Think of your grandmother’s kitchen – everything that takes a long time to make, all day long, but it has all of the flavor, and also the environment, the music,” she said.
Harrold joined the company when there were two locations. There will be 13 this month, with four to five a year planned in the near term.
Brad Wise opened his first restaurant in 2016. Eighteen months later, he opened a bar down the street. For two years, he fed it money and realized he was better in the full-service restaurant business. Lesson learned – out of that failure, came Rare Society, an upscale steakhouse concept based in San Diego. From month one, Rare Society was profitable.
“We love the idea of sharing. There’s a vibe, music, aesthetics, atmosphere, warmth, hospitality, and energy,” Wise said. “We wanted to create something unique … The business setting is approachable.”
There are five open and the goal is to get to 15.
Zandrique tied up the concept introduction by observing that each panelist strived to “create feelings and an atmosphere when they walk in the door. That supersedes everything.”
The panelists also discussed how important their teams and culture have become, especially in a post-pandemic environment.
“I invest more time in people than anything else I do. We might not use everything, but if I have 350 employees, that’s a lot of ideas. Ask, answer, and act is really important,” Wise said.
Senior had the opportunity earlier in her career to work for Chef Eric Ripert’s famed Le Bernardin restaurant in New York City after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America. She called the experience a privilege because of the approach Ripert took with his staff.
“It was an approach of respect. You could see it in everything. I worked in many kitchens where it wasn’t like that. It was a breath of fresh air to be treated with respect. Your employees can’t be their best if they’re in survival mode,” she said.
Bayoh added that the people you hire are the “bread and butter of your business,” and called her staff and community her biggest inspiration: “My team and my community have rallied around me to be the person who sits here on this stage today.”
Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]