What to Expect From ThinkFoodGroup’s Upcoming Hudson Yards Food Hall

ThinkFoodGroup, the company behind brands such as Beefsteak and Zaytinya, is embarking on perhaps its most ambitious project to date: a 35,000 square foot food hall in the Hudson Yards area of New York City.

Mercado Little Spain, which opens next year, will have three restaurants, a number of kiosks serving dishes such as pan de cristal and churros, as well as retail offerings.

Food halls aren’t new but Eric Martino, chief operating officer at ThinkFoodGroup, believes the space will be a success because it will tell an authentic story of Spanish cuisine. “I think the difference is the story. It’s going to [be] a celebration of Spain,” Martino said Monday at Skift Restaurants Forum in New York City “I think the whole space is going to tell and amazing story.”

Martino said he expected the project to be profitable and with “good margins.”

To realize the project, ThinkFoodGroup will have to hire plenty of staff — a difficult process given the current labor shortage.

Martino said new employees would get a very clear path of advancement with ample leadership opportunities. “You’re not just going to be at this food hall, you’ll get opportunities outside this food hall.”

A company with multiple brands and more than 30 restaurants faces plenty of challenges. “I don’t think they [customers] understand how diverse our company is,” Martino said.

José Andrés, the chef behind the company, remains heavily involved in the business. “He’s very in tune to everything that’s going on,” Martino said.

ThinkFoodGroup isn’t going to stop innovating anytime soon. Its newest ideas are thought up in its ThinkFoodlab. “[It’s where we] test and check our new concept ideas, recipes, [and] request feedback to check the service model,” Martino said. ThinkFoodGroup developed Butterfly, a spinoff of its Mexican restaurant Oyamel, through the food lab.

Read More Recaps and Interview Transcripts From Skift Restaurants Forum

[Updated with full transcript]

Full Transcript of Discussion With Eric Martino

Skift Table: Eric, thank you for joining me today.

Martino: Thank you for having me.

Skift Table: So you started at ThinkFoodGroup in 2017?

Martino: I did.

Skift Table: Okay and at the time you were the chief operating officer of FastGood Concepts which oversees Beefsteak and ThinkFoodLab?

Martino: And ThinkFoodLab, yeah.

Skift Table: Great. Great and then earlier this year you moved into a role overseeing all operations for ThinkFoodGroup.

Martino: I did.

Skift Table: For all of the different restaurant brands that you had.

Martino: That’s right, yes.

Skift Table: There’s so many.

Martino: There is many.

Skift Table: How many are there now?

Martino: Well, we’ve got over 30 restaurants. Concepts, we range from between nine to 12. We’ve got-

Skift Table: Wait, can you list them all?

Martino: Yeah. Am I being tested?

Skift Table: Yes. Yes, you are.

Martino: So we’ve got Jaleo, which is our Spanish tapas. We’ve got Oyamel, which is our Mexican concept. We’ve got China Chilcano, we’ve got China Poblano. We’ve also got The Bazaar meats, Bazaar Mar. We’ve got Beefsteak, we’ve got our ThinkFoodLab. What else am I missing? What’s that?

Audience Member: Zaytinya.

Martino: Oh, Zaytinya. We got one in D.C. and also in Frisco.

Skift Table: America Eats.

Martino: American Eats Tavern and we just finished up a cool project. We did a pop up project with the Wolf Trap group that’s out in Virginia. It was a concert venue, we did limited dates that was an American Eats concept that was out there and we did it for the span of the summer, which was a lot of fun. So that was neat.

Skift Table: So why are there so many different concepts?

Martino: Well I think it’s good to be diverse. I think first and foremost it starts with Jose and how passionate he is about specific and different cuisines, and I think that it just really challenges us as a group to come up with different things and try to be the best in class of those specific concepts.

Skift Table: Does it matter to you from a diner’s perspective, if somebody goes into Beefsteak or minibar and they might not know that it’s all in the same family of brands?

Martino: Yeah. I think we try to exceed the same level of hospitality and first chase the guest experience. In the fast casual sector it’s all about, you know, I came from full service. I was in full service my whole life, I never worked a day in fast casual. When I was at Taco Bell, I was like fourteen years old.

When I got into that game it was like, “Okay, how do we take this transaction and make it relational?” How do you make somethIng that’s so transactional and make it relational, and how do you become the best four minutes of someone’s day, and how do they remember that in the fast casual sector. And so that was a challenge and through the amazing food and the culinary cuisine that we have provided at Beefsteak, how do we become the best part of four minutes of someone’s day?

Whereas in the full service side it’s the best hour and a half or two hours of someone’s day. So I think those same pillars and tenants apply to trying to drive the guest experience and employee experience.

Skift Table: What are some of the same things that you see?

Martino: Well obviously amazing hospitality, memorable hospitality, incredible craveable food that is chef driven and inspired and innovative. Very clean restaurants, impeccably clean restaurants and just a great overall experience.

Skift Table: Sure. All right. So I was talking to one of my travel colleagues about interviewing you and I was saying, “Oh, I’m interviewing the COO of ThinkFoodGroup,” and he’s like, “That’s great. I don’t know what that is.” And he used to live in D.C. too, and then I said, “Oh, it’s Jose Andres restaurant.” Then he was like, “Oh, great.” So I’m curious, first of all, do you run into that a lot? Having to explain to people what ThinkFoodGroup is?

Martino: Yes. Yeah, yeah, I think so. In the D.C. market not so much, but once you get out people are starting to wonder what that is. I mean obviously with the incredible things that Jose is doing in the world, which is remarkable philanthropic side, I think that it’s an easier conversation to have when people know who we are, but I don’t think they understand how diverse our concepts and our company really is with all the different restaurants that we have available.

Skift Table: So why not put Jose Andres’ name kind of front and center on each concept, because people would really recognize that.

Martino: Yeah. Jose is extremely humble and hands on, and he really is, and so I think he wants the concept to stand up on its own. He wants them to be successful because of the people that are in there running them, because of the efforts that are provided by the people in there that are trying to create a great experience with those guests, and he didn’t want that to get in the way or be a distraction. He wants it to be what it needs to be, what’s intended to be, an amazing concept.

Skift Table: But I mean, it wouldn’t be a distraction, right. I think like Jose is now this great humanitarian, is he still in North Carolina at this point?

Eric Martino, the Chief Operating Officer of ThinkFoodGroup, speaking at Skift Restaurants Forum in New York City on September 24, 2018. Skift Table / Dan Loh

Martino: He is. Yeah. He’s traveling around right now.

Skift Table: Yeah. Yeah. I mean people might come to the concept because of Jose’s name.

Martino: Yeah. Maybe. I think that would help, but it’s more or less just about what the concept can provide. I think the weight of it is just let the restaurant be what it needs to be and what it’s intended to be and it’s just hopefully great.

Skift Table: Is there a unifying ThinkFoodGroup experience that each customer should have every time that they step into a restaurant?

Martino: Yeah. Well, we’re trying to tell a story, whatever it may be. Think of Oyamel, right now, it’s our Mexican concept. Oyamel is a fir tree that is actually grown in Mexico. And when you walk in there, it’s very whimsical and there’s butterflies and it’s just very beautiful and free.

We have spun off a fast casual concept that we’re testing right now in our ThinkFoodLab, which is something that we use to test new concepts in for fast casual, that’s called Butterfly. So there’s a really great story of this fir tree which is our full service restaurant that has spun off into what Butterfly is, and it’s tacos and tortas, which is where the monarchs and butterflies would go onto that tree. So it’s kind of a fun way to spin off, but these stories are so deep between the recipes that are created that go far back with Jose’s childhood to the celebration of what people experience there.

Skift Table: Okay. So are we going to see Butterfly as a new chain?

Martino: Yeah. Well, so we actually do have a couple, we’ve partnered up with Compass group, we have a partnership with them and with it they’ve got a couple different companies that we’re partnering with. One of them’s Bon Appetit, which we’ve set to grown our Beefsteak concept at, and then we’ve also got Butterfly that is growing through our Levy Group, which handles mostly stadiums and large venues. And so we’ve got actually two Butterfly kiosks or concessions in the D.C. United Audi Field in D.C..

Skift Table: Since you brought up ThinkFoodLab, can you kind of explain what the concept is?

Martino: Yeah. Really exciting space. I think we’ve got a research and development team of nine chefs that are thoroughly committed to taking Jose’s ideas and bringing them down to paper and so-

Skift Table: I hear that’s kind of difficult.

Martino: Yeah. It can be. It can be and we’re all hands on. I mean, we’re all white boarding, we’re drawing things on the back of a napkin, we’re taking lines and scribbles and trying to figure out what that means, and then putting it into place. And so the ThinkFoodLab represents a way for us to be able to test and check our new concept ideas, recipes to get guest feedback, to check the service model. So it’s right across the street from our office, which is really convenient. Our team of chefs or our task force will go there and start to work with the operators in getting it off the ground. And once it is, it’s all about trying to receive feedback of what we can do before it hits the streets or before we are able to unveil it to a group like Compass, Bon Appetit, or Levy.

Skift Table: How many different concepts have come through ThinkFoodLab?

Martino: So far two, and we’re getting … So we’ve done Pepe, which is our Spanish sandwiches.

Skift Table: Yes. It’s a food truck, right?

Martino: It’s a food truck. Yep and a spinoff of Jaleo, and we’re actually putting a Pepe in our Jaleo Disney project, which is exciting, which opens up in November. And then we’ve also got the Butterfly concept and now we’re sunsetting that to get it ready for holiday season. We’re going to open up as a holiday venue.

Skift Table: Interesting. All right. I want to take a couple minutes to talk about Mercado Little Spain, speaking of new projects. So this is a really big deal for you. It’s-

Martino: Literally.

Skift Table: Yeah. A 35,000 square foot food hall opening up not too far away in the Hudson Yards project. Can you tell us a little bit about the concept and what we can kind of expect to see there?

Martino: Yeah. It is 35,000 square feet, we’re poised right now to have three full service restaurants in there.

Skift Table: All owned by ThinkFoodGroup?

Martino: Yep, inside. Yep and then also we’ll have some different kiosks that has like a lot of one-offs. So you’ll be able to go get Pan de Cristal at one kiosk. You’ll be able to go over to the other side and get churros from another one. You’ll be able to get escaviche from another one, you’ll get wine and then there’s also going to be retail throughout the space as well. So a really great experience where if you want to just go by and get some great beer, or some great Spanish wine, or some sherry and have a great experience, or you just go there and get some shopping done as well, or just go and spend a couple minutes there through your lunch break.

Skift Table: So you don’t think that we’re food-halled out at this point?

Martino: Not like this.

Skift Table: No?

Martino: Not like this.

Skift Table: Okay. So what’s different about this?

Martino: I think the difference is that the story is going to tell the celebration of Spain. Jose, since he’s moved here, has always wanted to open a restaurant in New York City and this is making a statement and we’re excited to do that. And I think the whole space is going to tell an amazing story and pay homage to a celebration in Spain.

Skift Table: How are you doing with taking on a project of this magnitude?

Martino: Well, that’s a good question. From a leadership perspective, we’re not trying to grow too fast. Again, we’re completely hands on. One of the great beauties about having our office by our cluster of restaurants is that any initiatives or any strategy that we have in our office or that we come up with as a leadership team where we’re all focused on or we give direction on, we’re able to go right downstairs into the cluster of restaurants and be able to make sure that whatever we’ve directed isn’t getting diluted and that it’s executed properly. And then we’re in the restaurants at night. I mean, you could probably see me washing dishes at some point, whatever it takes. I mean, that’s what being a COO for this group is, it’s whatever it takes.

So, when we’re look at these large scale projects, we have really four big tenants and we want to make sure that one, that is it going to add a really good collection, is it going to add a good collection to our global brand and our existing portfolio of restaurants? Dos it makes sense? Can we achieve great margins from it? Is it gonna really help us leverage our G&A assets as well, and then does it support our mission of changing the world through the power of food? So we’re poised to do one or two projects a year and just focus on slow growing it and making sure that it’s done right.

Skift Table: What kind of margins do you hope to achieve at the food hall?

Martino: Well, good ones. Profitable ones, as we’re all trying to do. We’re forecasting to be profitable, wherever that lays. I mean there’s a lot underneath it. You’ve got fast casual concepts, you’ve got full service restaurants in there, and we’re just hoping that we make the right decisions and make it a profitable one out the gate.

Skift Table: I’m curious, is it challenging as you grow, as you develop these brands to make sure that each one stands on its own?

Martino: Yeah. Yeah, I think so. It’s important because, it’s a collection of brands. It’s meaningful in its own way and I think each one of them presents a unique experience.

Skift Table: I want to take a couple minutes to talk about Beefsteak. So this is what you were fully in charge of a year ago.

Martino: Yes. Yes.

Skift Table: Can you tell us what the concept is for those who might not be familiar?

Martino: Beefsteak’s our fast casual concept that is vegetable centric, not vegan or vegetarian necessarily, but it’s where veggies takes center stage. It’s an amazing concept that offers warm veggie bowls, and great salads, and also some amazing burgers that are either vegetarian or we’ve got a great burger called the Faux Joe and it’s a plant based vegetarian meat.

Skift Table: Which plant based company?

Martino: It’s a pea, pea plant based. So yeah. So we are using Beyond Meat and we throw it in the chiller, so it’s almost like a sloppy Joe, but all vegetarian and vegan. Really great on a vegan bun with pickled red onions and it’s amazing. But the really great thing about Beefsteak is, there’s so much sustainability that is created with it. So basically you go through the line and you have all these veggies in front of you and each vegetable, we’ve took a lot of time with our research and development team to make sure that they’re cut a specific way so that way they cook within 90 seconds in this clean, salted, boiling water that we have, which is basically a pasta cooker. It goes in the bath, it comes up and as you’re going through the line, you’ve got greens, homemade sauces, which are indigenous to some of the full service concepts we’ve got.

So we’ve got like a black bean sauce which pays homage to Oyamel. We’ve got our brava sauce which is a spicy tomato, which pays homage to Jaleo. We’ve got our garlic yogurt sauce, which is for Zaytinya. So you see all the inner workings of tying the concepts together within one roof. So it’s a lot of fun and then you go through and you have toppings, and crunchy toppings, and dressings and you can make all these amazing toppings, which is nice.

Skift Table: What’s the average check size there?

Martino: About $11.50. About $11. What’s great is that we’ve partnered up with local groups as well. One of them being Little Wild Things Urban Farm and there’s a big philanthropic thread that is interwoven within Beefsteak. So we take our compost and we actually give it to this compost group called Veterans Compost and they’re a local company that is ran by veterans, that takes our vegetable scraps and turns it into compost that gives retired military workers jobs.

That compost was then bought by Little Wild Things, which is a woman owned urban farm, which does amazing things for us as far as growing micro greens for the restaurants and everything else, but they take that compost and then grow our micro greens and some of our urban vegetables within their confines, and then they sell it back to us and we buy the vegetables from them. So we do complete this huge circle of sustainability that we’re proud to partner up with local groups with.

Skift Table: I heard you have a bro bowl, what are they?

Martino: Oh my god. Where are you getting this? I do have a bro bowl. Yes.

Skift Table: What is it? 

Martino: Well, since you asked that, it’s all about macros, right, for me. So what’s great about Beefsteak is that it’s not … I want to position it as something that you wouldn’t go just for fiber or vegetables. It’s just not about that, but we’ve got some great proteins there too.

We’ve got an Italian chicken sausage, we’ve also got some really great salt cured Gravlox salmon, and we offer eggs and poached eggs and avocado. So you can really create a beautiful nutrient dense bowl. So I like to be in the gym, I stay active. You got to be active as an executive. I was just saying that for you to lead, you got to have great energy and I think it’s kind of the analogy like when you’re in an airplane and the flight attendant says you’ve got to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you give it to somebody else, that’s kinda like how I represent leadership. It’s like, you gotta make sure you’re taking care of yourself before you can take care of other people, and so creating this bowl was a way for me to be able to do it.

So yeah. I just pack it full of great broccoli, spicy brava sauce. I’m Italian so I like tomato sauce, and then obviously with the chicken sausage, eggs, and avocado. A lot of fiber.

Skift Table: I’ll have to try it.

Martino: A lot of good calories. Yeah. If you’re in the gym trying to gain some muscle.

Skift Table: Yeah. Okay.

Martino: Whenever you want to work out, let me know. I got you. We can go after this.

Skift Table: Okay. All right. Let’s do it. All right. I’m curious, what are the expansion plans for Beefsteak? Do you see this going in the same way as say Shake Shack for Union Square Hospitality Group?

Martino: Yes and no. So we’re expanding through our Compass Group and with that —

Skift Table: That’s the franchise group that you’re with?

Martino: Yeah, licensing. Licensing and through Bon Appetit. So right now we’re in Cleveland Clinic, which is amazing what you think makes sense. Kind of, right?

Skift Table: Well, you had all four locations in D.C.-

Martino: In D.C. yeah.

Skift Table: … and then the next place you moved is Cleveland.

Martino: Well, we went to Pennsylvania. University of Pennsylvania.

Skift Table: Oh right, but that location is closed.

Martino: It is right now. We’re looking at relocating it and doing something different. So, but yes, so we’re in Cleveland Clinic, which is amazing. We’re right in the heart of one of the newer buildings there in a café. Our food is really medicine in the way we do it, I mean we’re blending vegetables and adding all these amazing homemade sauces and everything.

So Cleveland Clinic has been a really great addition and Jose’s parents were nurses in the medical field. So it kind of, it makes sense there, and then we also have just recently opened up at Google on the Google campus in San Jose, California, which has been fun. So we actually serve over 800 people in an hour and a half, and push it through because it’s all free. They go through there and Google and Bon Appetit have been just amazing partners to work with. It’s been a lot of fun.

Skift Table: How did you learn how to work with operations for something like that for the Google campus?

Martino: Well they’ve got a great team of chefs and Bon Appetit has their own set of culinary wizards as well, and they’re used to dealing with the relationship with Google. So they’ve been a good conduit between the two of us to work on the best practice to make sure that their employees have the best experience possible.

Skift Table: How many new locations do you plan on opening up like on a per year basis? Do you have a-

Martino: For Beefsteak?

Skift Table: Yeah.

Martino: It’s kind of untold. I mean, we get RFPs a lot and it’s gotta make sense. Again, this kind of goes back to the tenant, is it going to strengthen our portfolio, can we achieve good margins, and is it going to support our mission? So if the space is right and it fits, then that’s where we’ll go.

Skift Table: Last question before we take some audience questions here. I’ve heard that working for Jose involves a lot of just trying to keep up. For every one vision that comes to fruition, he’s got 10 more waiting to happen, right? So how do you kind of harness that into things that work at the ground level?

Martino: You can’t.

Skift Table: You can’t.

Martino: You can’t. No, he’s brilliant. He’s brilliant and you just have to hold on and listen because he knows. I mean he’s super intelligent and you get it, and just watching him work has been incredible. There’s things that you go, “Well, I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s gonna work exactly the way it is, but let’s get close.” I mean, for someone to go down to Puerto Rico and open up over 23 kitchens and serve over 3 million people after a hurricane and be the first boots on the ground, you really don’t have any room for excuses when it comes to your own performance. You got to perform and so we just try to embrace the complexity, which is one of our missions after change the world through the power of food and we make whatever his dreams are possible because it’s pretty much the right direction.

Skift Table: Yeah. All right. Let’s see what we’ve got here. Speaking of Jose, how much of a decision making role does Jose have in the day to day operations?

Martino: A ton, a ton. He’s got a lot, he’s very in tune to everything that’s going on, frequents the restaurants a lot. Yeah. He’s got good say in the day to day operations. You know, he’s busy doing a lot of things. I mean, obviously with World Central Kitchen we have to perform. So it’s a big ask, but yeah, I mean he’s very in tune to what’s going on. Obviously he’s keeping up with reviews. A review will come up about something in the middle of the night and you’ll get a text message, “Hey, have you talked to this guest yet?” And you’re like, “Absolutely. We’re on it, chef.” Yeah. Very in tune.

Skift Table: What has been the best technological advancement that has impacted your role in the last five years?

Martino: Good, good question. There’s so many different platforms, I think one of them has been our app that we’ve had for Beefsteak that’s been great too, and it’s been giving us really good insight to our operation, but-

Skift Table: That’s mobile ordering?

Martino: Yeah, mobile ordering as well, and then also we’ve got different platforms like Venga, which is really good that works with OpenTable, that gives us guest feedback. How much traction, how much the comps sent is being frequented by guests, how far up or how far down we are. We also use back office platforms like Compete, which are very, very intuitive to our operation to make sure that we’re making the best decisions for if something’s successful or not, from a product mix standpoint, and just give us really good intel on the guest experience.

Skift Table: Yeah and I’m curious, speaking of Venga, is there a couple of examples that you can think of of things that they have really helped you working with tons of guests feedback.

Martino: Absolutely. So when there’s a VIP that comes in, or a preferred guest, that comes into our restaurants or somebody is tweeting live action, we get that notification immediately. It flags everybody so we know that we can make sure that everything is where it needs to be. So we’re onsite. Again, that’s the beauty of having our office right there by our restaurants for the most part, or in tune with somebody that’s in Vegas that can help us with our restaurants out there, so we can make real time decisions and make sure that experience is capitalized on.

Skift Table: All right. What do you consider the top business challenges with operating a restaurant group?

Martino: The best is people. We’re 25 years old, right? The restaurant group as far as Jaleo, and we’ve got some long, long term employees. I call them team members and-

Skift Table: How long, these longterm employees?

Martino: 20, 25 years, I mean some of them laid tile in the original Jaleo and they’re executives or head chefs going down to Disney and so it’s amazing. So I think our challenge in people is finding the right ones, but then also creating those opportunities to move our people forward. The best part of any business is people and it’s how can you help create those opportunities to move them forward in their life so that way they can keep ascending in their career and be challenged as well.

Skift Table: Sure, sure. All right. We’ll have time for one more here. As you think about opening the huge food hall in the current labor climate, how do you look to differentiate yourself as an employer to attract talent?

Martino: Well, that’s a great question. I think it’s, again, just trying to create a path for our team. You’re not just going to be at this food hall, but you’ve got opportunities outside that food hall if you want to get into leadership or managing or moving forward with it. There’s great incentives that come with that, we’re very competItive obviously when paying benefits. Our benefits are incredible, but I think everybody wants an opportunity to sit at the table and we provide that.

Skift Table: So you have a clear path of advancement.

Martino: Yes. A very clear path. Very tiered, clear path.

Skift Table: All right, we’re out of time.

Martino: That’s it?

Skift Table: That’s it.

Martino: Hey I was just getting warmed up.

Skift Table: All right, thank you so much.

Martino: Thank you.

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