Philadelphia Is Anti-Olive Garden

When opening a new restaurant, what’s a chef’s duty to his customers: to teach them, shock them, coddle them … or just feed them dinner?

 

 

If you’re smart and want to get into the restaurant business, you should open an Olive Garden.

Actually, if you were smart, you’d stay clear of the restaurant industry in general. But if you had to open a restaurant, opening an Olive Garden would be your safest bet, because Olive Gardens make money. Dependably. Check out the parking lot of an OG on any Tuesday night, compare the crowd to the one inside some charming food-forward BYO down in Queen Village, and you’ll get what I mean.

Simplicity over complexity, comfort over challenges—these watchwords of successful restaurant ownership were borne out in Philadelphia by events like last year’s transformation of chef Matt Levin’s kitchen at Adsum (home of foie-gras-jacked super-poutine) into the neighborhood gastropub Tapestry, which now serves plain old burgers rather than Tastykake sliders. Or by chef Michael Solomonov, who made his bones selling duck hearts at Zahav, then went on an expansionist jag with his miniaturized, simplified Percy Street BBQ operation in the Comcast Center, and fried-chicken-and-doughnuts powerhouse Federal Donuts.

Yet Levin is currently hard at work on another concept, Square Peg at 10th and Walnut, that may be a lot of things, but certainly won’t be a gastropub. And these last months have also seen chefs opening restaurants like Jamonera (Spanish tapas on 13th Street), the Pickled Heron (French food in Fishtown) and chef Jason Cichonski’s Ela, where horseradish granita and scallop noodles highlight modernist fare.

Hardly the Olive Garden model.

Why not? “It’s ego,” says veteran restaurant PR rep and consultant Peter Breslow. “It’s a high, dude. A false sense of reality. Our culture is so fucking obsessed with food that most operators I meet today feel like they’re in the entertainment business.” He notes that there’s no newspaper section for medical news or excellent hedge-fund management. But food magazines, food blogs, food TV? All huge.

Owners know going in that their odds aren’t good, but city restaurateurs both green and veteran persist in taking their chances on unique, challenging, ingredient-focused new concepts. One perfect example­ is Honeygrow—a fast-casual stir-fries-and-salads idea being developed by Justin Rosenberg as a “small-footprint, whole-foods, higher-end-ingredient” operation. What’s interesting is that as a self-professed “finance guy” with an MBA from Temple and experience in investment trusts, he should be opening an Olive Garden to satisfy his restaurant jones.

But he isn’t. Instead, he’s courting investors and risking everything on the idea that a good restaurant is about more than just the bottom line. When I ask him the Olive Garden question, he just laughs. “There is a bottom line,” he says. “There are certain costs. You have to run it like a business. But I’m doing this to create a great company. If you’re going to do something, you better do it right.”