The bar at Jaleo Crystal City, Maryland. - Rey Lopez / ThinkFoodGroup The bar at Jaleo Crystal City, Maryland. - Rey Lopez / ThinkFoodGroup

Skift Restaurants Forum Preview: ThinkFoodGroup COO on Protecting the Brand

The first Skift Restaurants Forum will be held on Monday, September 24 in New York City. Join us, our stellar lineup of speakers, and 250+ industry professionals to discuss the future of the industry. 

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José Andrés’ powerhouse Washington, D.C.-based restaurant group, ThinkFoodGroup, encompasses a litany of brands: Beefsteak, America Eats Tavern, Jaleo, Minibar, Oyamel, Zaytinya, China Chilcano, and J by José Andrés, to name a few. And, there’s a lot more to come: ThinkFoodGroup just bought the rights back to the Bazaar restaurant concept, so it can now grow outside of SLS Hotels locations, and there’s the massive food hall, Mercado Little Spain, that the company is opening up in Hudson Yards next year.

ThinkFoodGroup’s chief operating officer Eric Martino is in charge of making sure that all of those different brands adhere to ThinkFoodGroup’s core values, from the people who are hired to menu structure to the guest experience. On September 24, Martino will join us onstage at the inaugural Skift Restaurants Forum to talk further about growth and scale and maintaining core brand integrity along the way. Here, Martino gives a broad overview of how the group’s core values are threaded throughout each of ThinkFoodGroup’s varying restaurant concepts, no matter how they might differ operationally.

Skift Table: You’ve recently transitioned from COO of FastGood Concepts (a subset of ThinkFoodGroup that oversees ThinkFoodLab and fast casual chain Beefsteak) to COO of ThinkFoodGroup overall. How has your day-to-day job changed within the company?

Eric Martino: You know, I don’t know that it’s changed very much. It has, in terms of the breadth and scope of work, and the responsibilities that roll out to me. I serve more. I’m all about servant leadership, and serving more people as you ascend higher in leadership within an organization.

But no matter where you go in operations, it’s all about trying to make sure that you can serve everybody and create a great employee experience. One, so that they, in turn, can provide an amazing guest experience, and, two, so that we can focus on how to maneuver through specific contracts. Are we buying things correctly? Are we managing costs efficiently? How are we driving sales? How are we driving guest satisfaction? Reviewing reviews?

I came from full service originally, and for me it was all about how do you take a transaction and make it relational. For fast casual, it’s very much about how can you really be more efficient in your transactions and still be relational and hospitable during that four minute interaction. When you have to bring those philosophies over to full service, then it’s not so much transactional but it is relational. It’s not a four minute experience, it’s about trying to make the most out of an hour and a half, an hour and forty-five minutes, a two hour experience, and making sure everything goes off without a hitch.

Skift Table: Do you think it’s possible to maintain the same level of hospitality between a fast casual concept like Beefsteak and ThinkFoodGroup’s Michelin-starred Minibar by José Andrés?

Martino: It’s different, but yes. If you’re intentional enough and you’re inspiring your staff to really lead with their heart and serve with their heart and be warm and inviting and engaging and excited that our guests chose us out of so many different restaurants, especially in the D.C. metro area. We owe it to them to make sure that we are making it a memorable, exceptional experience. And I think that can happen whether you are in Beefsteak and you’re choosing what bowl or salad that you want, or if you’re going to Minibar and you’re tasting 22 courses. I think that intentionality, that passion, that focus, that attention to detail, exists in both realms. It’s just a shorter time period.

Skift Table: What do you spend the most time thinking about on a day-to-day basis? 

Martino: It’s people. I’m going to keep saying that: it’s people. For me, you live and die by your people decisions, and we can’t get enough of them, from the ranks of the dish staff, to general managers, managers, and above. We’re really keen on trying to select the right people who share the same values that we have, who want to help change the world through the power of food, who are passionate about product and service. That’s what it comes down to. I spend my days, all day every day, really just thinking about people. How can I develop them better? How can I be a better leader? How can I serve them better? What positions can I put them in to be successful? What kind of tools can I surround them with to be successful?

All of that translates into making the experience better for the guest and also making our restaurants more profitable, if you think about it. For me, the biggest piece all day long and forever will be and has been for the past 25 years of my career — not to date myself — but it’s all about making sure that you have the right people.

Skift Table: How are you approaching the gigantic growth period that ThinkFoodGroup is about to go through, including a new location of Jaleo at Disney Springs later this year and the opening of Mercado Little Spain, a 35,000 square foot food hall, in New York City early next year?

Martino: Yes, huge expansion. It’s a growing company, and José is such an incredible leader. He’s so passionate, everyone knows him externally and internally and his mission has always been to change the world with the power of food. The fear, the concern as you grow, is diluting that message, right?

Skift Table: Right.

Martino: Because by the time you get to the hourly team members, they’re the ones who are casting that vision that we have as a leadership group, and it can come off as diluted. As you grow, you have the risk of dilution, and it’s so important to make sure that you’ve got people who buy into that philosophy, who really embody that mission statement. So, if we do drift left or right, that’s the one north star that brings us all back.

It is such an important job, and we are intensely focused on making sure that we communicate that with our core values and really just identify everything we do within those values. Our goals haven’t changed, it’s still get the best product, always be quality ahead of cost, let’s get the right people in, and let’s be successful. And hopefully we can measure [that success] in profits.

Don’t Miss Eric Martino on Stage

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