NRA Show Report: Operators at Crossroads of Reinvention
Paul Miller witnessed the ebbing demand for fine dining firsthand. The owner of Houston, Texas-based GR8 Plate Hospitality had found success in his casual-dining concept, Union Kitchen, when he added an elevated farm-to-table restaurant to the portfolio. Paul’s Kitchen, which opened in fall 2014, sourced locally but pulled flavor inspiration from as far-reaching locales as Morocco and India to Germany and Mexico.
But while the restaurant had no shortage of praise from foodie patrons and local press, the concept closed in early 2016. As beloved as Paul’s Kitchen was, it was only breaking even in terms of revenue. The large space (7,600 square feet including a full bar and outdoor patio) was quickly transformed into the Merrill House, a special event venue. Since then, Miller told QSR during the annual National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, it’s been a huge success.
The experience of Paul’s Kitchen could serve as a microcosm for foodservice writ large. Fine dining will never disappear, but more restaurateurs like Miller are blending features of different service models to curry favor with the modern consumer, who by and large wants high quality, low price points, and accessibility.
“It’s innovate or die,” said &pizza CEO Michael Lastoria at "The Pizza and Fast Casual Game Changers," a panel moderated by QSR during the Innovations in Fast Casual and Pizza Summit hosted at the show. “You have to be constantly looking at what you can blow up at your brand.”
This call to action is not specific to fine dining, but as the service model most fraught with tradition, it is perhaps the most vulnerable. Fast casual 2.0s like &pizza, Mendocino Farms, and Fusian (whose founders also weighed in at the Summit) thrive in that disruptive mindset, wherein reinvention is par for the course.
Miller has adopted a similar approach. Union Kitchen might have the polish of a more fine-dining concept with its white linens and wall of wine bottles, but the atmosphere is decidedly more relaxed. Lunch clocks in around $22 per ticket, dinner is typically $30-$40, and weekend brunch is about $16 max. The restaurant, which bills itself as “Tex American,” also offers a special kids’ menu, which Miller says is key in appealing to its consumer base, many of whom have small children.
Similarly, fast casual 2.0 Dog Haus also strives to make its locations kid-friendly. The California-based chain doesn’t have a children’s menu per se, but it does offer a special kids’ meal combo of sliders and tots. Like Miller, cofounder and partner Andre Verner says the millennial generation is unwilling to sacrifice quality when they have children. Instead, they want a place that appeals to their tastes but is also a welcoming environment for the whole family.
Miller furthers that mission of accessibility with three other concepts: Mexican fast casual JAX Grill, the Rollin’ Kitchen food truck, and the Smokin’ Kitchen—a portable smoker. For a sprawling metropolitan like Houston, having a variety of concepts—including two with wheels—makes it easier to adapt to ever-changing consumer tastes.
“You know how people say it’s location, location, location? In Houston it’s location, parking, and parking,” Miller says with a laugh.