Christine Barone left Starbucks Corp. in August to take the helm as CEO at True Food Kitchen, the 15-unit casual-dining concept owned by Fox Restaurant Concepts and private-equity group Centerbridge Partners LP.
Barone, formerly Starbucks senior vice president of food, evenings and licensed stores, will oversee True Food Kitchen’s transition to a standalone entity, the Phoenix-based multi-concept operator said.
In October, True Food Kitchen opened two new restaurants in Northern California, in Palo Alto’s Stanford Shopping Center and in Walnut Creek’s Broadway Plaza. Another location is expected to open before Thanksgiving in Chicago.
Barone said True Food Kitchen openings in 2017 and beyond include restaurants in Bethesda, Md.; Boca Raton, Fla.; King of Prussia, Pa.; Naples, Fla.; Nashville, Tenn.; Plano, Texas; and San Diego.
This year, True Food Kitchen ranked No. 12 in Nation’s Restaurant News’ Next 20 ranking of chains poised to break into the Top 200. The company ended fiscal 2015 on Dec. 15, with 11 units, a 10-percent increase from the preceding year, and systemwide sales of $71.5 million, a 22.6-percent jump from the preceding year. True Food Kitchen units had estimated sales per unit of $6.8 million in 2015.
Barone discussed her new role with Nation’s Restaurant News:
When did you first encounter True Food Kitchen?
I had dined for the first time at a True Food about three years ago, and I was incredibly impressed. I felt like this is a unique concept, and I don’t believe there is anything quite like it out there. In fact, I still have that original menu from when I dined there. It had such an impact on me.
How do you compare the snack segment to casual dining?
The similarities are that we are focused on the guest. Where is the guest going? And how do we help get there with them, or even a little ahead of them?
What makes True Food Kitchen stand out?
We have a two-fold mission at True Food. One is that every dish served must be delicious — which is true for many restaurants. But we are also focused on promoting the guest’s wellbeing. That piece of True Foods is what attracted me to the brand. That is also what will allow us to scale.
What are the biggest opportunities for growth right now?
We just opened Palo Alto and Walnut Creek, Calif., and we are opening Chicago right before Thanksgiving. We have to ensure we attract and retain and train all of our people in the right way. We are starting to find that becoming easier.
Are you planning any design changes?
Every restaurant we build, we try to build in the unique characteristics of the community and the space that we are lucky to take over. Our Pasadena [Calif.] location that we opened in September really does have a unique feel. We were able to take over an historic building and really add to the character with this large, unique patio in the center.
What about the menu?
We will continue to have a fresh, seasonal menu at all of our locations. We will keep the menu largely the same across all locations, although we do work to provide local beers. We will also bring artwork to life that reflects the local community as well.
You are overseeing the transition of True Food Kitchen into an independent company. What are the challenges there?
We want to retain all the great energy of the passion and enthusiasm in the culture here at Fox Restaurants and build some of the uniqueness of True Food on top of that.
Do you see similarities in the cultures of Starbucks and Fox?
Both do a really good job of managing with both the head and the heart.
What is True Food Kitchen’s advantage in casual dining?
I think where we are as a concept really resonates with the guest. … I see nice opportunities for real estate to continue our growth.
What are the bestselling dishes on True Food Kitchen’s menu?
Some things we started with do really well, such as the kale salad. We’ve also introduced bowls to our menu over the summer, and they have quickly become guest favorites.
True Food Kitchen has a juice program. What’s your favorite?
One of my personal favorites is the pressed-apple soda, which is one of our seasonal offerings on the “Refresher” side. We also have an Autumn Orchard Sour, which is one of our seasonal cocktails.
What are you most excited about as CEO?
What I’m most excited about is what our mission is. The opportunity to grow a brand and grow a concept that also adds to everyone’s wellbeing is an amazing opportunity.