Taste: Making the Chains

Could Philly be the birthplace of the next Cheesecake Factory?

When Barry Gutin, co-owner of Latin-inspired Cuba Libre, heard about the Tropicana’s plans for a Havana-themed addition to the Atlantic City casino, he knew the project would be a perfect fit for a clone of his Old City restaurant. "There was an obvious parallel between the two Cuban themes," Gutin says. But Gutin also sees a connection between his mojito-fueled hot spot and your local mall; he and his partner had plans to expand their successful Old City restaurant long before the Tropicana opportunity came along. If the concept could thrive in Philadelphia, why not elsewhere? Families in malls across the country could be groaning about the Cheesecake Factory-like two-hour waits at a Cuba Libre sometime soon.

Many factors go into the success of a restaurant like Cuba Libre. Some are planned — signature drinks, soundtrack, decor. But many others — the clientele, the vibe — are not. It’s a special energy that makes local diners flock to favorites night after night. Customers believe that experience can’t be duplicated. Restaurateurs — and we’re not just talking about the people behind Applebee’s — disagree. Even as Philly foodies bemoan the chain restaurants in the city, some city favorites are eyeing expansion. Brad Messinger, the owner of Center City’s Bonté, grew his sinful sugar-waffle concept from one subterranean 17th Street location to three Center City shops, and recently tweaked his business plan to include franchise options from D.C. to New York. Tria owner Jon Myerow, whose second city location opens this spring, is working to bring his beer-wine-and-cheese concept to the suburbs. Iron Hill‘s Kevin Finn has saturated this market with his six Iron Hills and plans to unveil another brand in our area, and Cuba Libre’s owners hope to be a mainstay in malls, casinos, and other major cities in the country. The one thing they all have in common: Plans for seconds were in the works before their first appetizers were served.

It seems a cold, business-like approach to an industry that most diners choose to see as romantic, but it’s the same successful path that many of the country’s best-known chains followed. McDonald’s, T.G.I. Friday’s and Ruth’s Chris started as single restaurants, refined their concepts, and expanded slowly. Our homegrown ideas aren’t anywhere near that level yet, but they adhere to the same principles: location, customer-friendly concepts, and consistency. While most of our fledgling chains are choosing to remain owner-operated for now, they’re taking the necessary steps toward entering the big-league franchise game.

And the Philly diner is the test audience for these would-be chains. Having a first venture flourish in the fifth-largest city in the U.S. is no mean feat, especially as our city gains a reputation as a food town. And we’ll be an effective proving ground for wannabe expanders, says Bonté’s Messinger: "The [Philly] customer has gotten more discerning and harder to please, which is a good thing. It forces owners to put out a better product."