Jose Garces on Working With New Partner, What’s Next in Philly

After a turbulent summer, the Iron Chef clues us in on what it’s like to work with his new hospitality parter and how his role has changed.

Jose Garces | Image provided

It’s been a few months, but the dust seems to have settled over on the Jose Garces front. This summer, following what was likely the rockiest chapter in his career, the chef was able to climb out of the massive hole he found himself in — his group declared bankruptcy, he partnered with a fast-casual restaurant group, he sold most of his restaurants, he closed two of them.

And now, he says he’s turning a new leaf.

PM: So, where are we now?

Jose Garces: Every entrepreneur goes through their hiccups, and where we are right now… I am super excited. I have some great new partners out of Louisiana, Ballard Brands.

How did you meet them?

We had been talking for some time, we had a friend in common, David Maser, who is a Philadelphia guy. He knew the Ballards and he’s been on my foundation board for several years. He introduced us and we started courting each other two years ago — just talking about possibilities. When we were ready to look to merge with another group, we had so many things in common. They have 150 fast casual units of five different brands, and we have these restaurants and a catering portfolio and this other kind of discipline, and they had  business acumen. They’re very successful, we felt like there was a lot of synergy between the two companies. Coming together would just make a lot of sense.

When you say it was two years ago, it was before things were getting rocky in the company?

Yeah, it was about two years ago that we had our first official meeting. We were possibly doing a project in Washington D.C. at the time and we had just stayed friendly and close throughout the period.

When you guys joined forces, you built a new branch: IdEATion Hospitality.

Yeah, so I’ll explain: IdEATion Hospitality is the parent company to the Garces brand so that it continues to thrive and move forward. Ideation, if you think about it, it’s innovating, curating, and it’s just kinda representing. I had a big say in the name of the parent company and how it played into the Garces brand.

Are you planning to replicate more restaurants that already exist under the Garces name?

Currently, my focus is really on the existing brands and restaurants and really focusing on my roots as a chef — someone who really is passionate about food, cares about the guest experience more than anything else, innovating,  developing new menu items. And really, we have quite a few restaurants that need mentoring of chefs and GMs, so that we’re able to insure that we are delivering on a great product and experience.

Are you planning to close any more restaurants?

No, all of the stores that are open survived the bankruptcy issues. They were well-performing restaurants that continue to thrive and they are our focus.

How do you manage 12 restaurants?

The way its worked is I am the Chief Culinary Officer and I have a few other chefs that are in my department — other chef de cuisines that are in each of the restaurants. Really, my focus is on product development and innovating new menus. Anything that goes on in the menus has to go through my palate and eyes. A lot of my time is spent on new product development. 

Let’s use Volvér as an example: We said we want to evolve the menu, evolve the experience — how do we do that? So Alberto Sandoval is the chef here, Phoebe O’Leary is the GM, we have several meetings to get to a finality of what that plan is and then it goes into a collaboration of food — and that’s the most exciting part, with the chef de cuisine, with Nate Johnson [Director of Culinary] and Gregg Ciprioni [VP of Culinary Operations] who make up the culinary team. We go into a testing phase, a tasting phase, and finally an end product. That journey takes a bit of time, but that journey takes place at each restaurant, so that’s how I’m able to touch every single one. As well as regular visits, of course — clearly I can’t be in 12 restaurants at the same time, but I do my best to manage my calendar and get into the restaurants and touch base with everyone.

How much does Ballard weigh in on the culinary operations at your restaurants?

That’s the beauty of this whole situation: Their business acumen and their ability to manage the back office allows me to focus on the food and be creative. That’s awesome. That was always the place I wanted to be in in my career. It’s always the place I thought I could provide the best asset to whatever it is I was doing. I’m really excited about. It’s still collaboration, but as it relates to food and creativity, that’s all me.

They specialize in fast casual — 150 units of five brands. You have one fast casual restaurant, Buena Onda. Is the plan to expand it similarly?

As we were talking about our synergies, as we were developing this relationship, I believe that was always on everyone’s mind. That the merger between the two groups would yield a good result for that concept. I would say that is definitely a thought, it’s in the work. For me as a culinarian and someone who loves to create, I’m really excited about that sector of the business of the industry. Fast casual, it feels like its heading in that direction. So to have the opportunity to weigh in and really use my expertise in terms of creating great food expertise with the Ballard’s expertise in managing and bringing those two forces together is going to be a pretty awesome outcome.

Do you have any plans in place to start the expansion?

There are some plans, but I don’t want to divulge. Nothing yet — we’ve got our hands full.

Now that you’re over the hump, are there any specific things, maybe a specific restaurant of yours, that you are most excited about?

At Volvér, we’re launching an a la carté menu, and taking away the misconception that it’s a tasting menu–only restaurant. I want folks to be able to drop in casually and try our modern cuisine. It’s something I’ve always wanted. With our new format and our new menu, it will give diners an easy  opportunity to try the latest round of my cooking and my team’s cooking.

We are also doing some cool things at the Olde Bar. I get inspired by traveling, and in this process, I spent some time in New Orleans, which has one of the best food scenes in America. I came back wanting to incorporate some of those ideas and traditions at Olde Bar. That’s something that we have worked on and will be sharing relatively soon. It’s really cool.

Do you see yourself expanding outside of Philly?

I think certainly leveraging some relationships that Ballard brands has in the Southeast and New Orleans and the region is something we are open to and would consider. For now it’s really about taking care of business here, and I love that. I think for many years we were very expansion driven and I’m loving having a moment to look around and embrace what we have and just doing it to the best of our ability.

But your heart still in Philly?

I love Philadelphia — are you kidding me? I’ve spent 18 years of my life here. This place, it takes you in gives you a hug, sometimes it gives you a kick in the rear, and that’s all good. That’s what makes Philly great. I’ve raised my family here, I’ve had wonderful memories here, built my career here. I’m loving seeing the evolution of Philadelphia on many levels — development, public spaces, all of those things have made me more enamored by Philly than ever.