Sam Fox has always been a big deal out west. Now, he’s ready to replicate that success in new markets across the country.
— Micheline Maynard
If you want to spot future restaurant trends, spend some time following Sam Fox around.
Long before vegetarian and vegan dishes started showing up everywhere, he leveraged the clean eating trend into two Phoenix restaurant chains, True Food Kitchen and Flower Child.
He also was an early pioneer of all-day restaurants, and got rid of single use plastics after a customer gave him the idea five years ago.
But, because his restaurant group, Fox Restaurant Concepts, is based in Phoenix, his efforts went under the restaurant world’s coastal-focused radar. Now, Fox is planning dozens of new restaurant openings outside of his usual orbit, in a bid to go national within the next couple of years.
His group, which includes 54 restaurants across a number of different brands and cuisines, plans to open seven locations in the Washington, D.C., area alone this winter. They are among the 24 restaurants that Fox plans to open between now and the second quarter of 2020.
And in the next three years, Fox expects to open up to 50 more restaurants.
“We’re ramping it up. It’s going to be a big engine to feed,” Fox said.
Fox’s efforts have earned him 11 James Beard Award nominations as Outstanding Restaurateur, and a spot on The 2018 Power List at Nation’s Restaurant News.
Three Chains Handpicked for Expansion
Fox Restaurant Concept’s growth plan has been fueled, in part, by a minority equity investment of $20 million to $25 million from The Cheesecake Factory. While Fox’s restaurants range from tacos to rotisserie chicken and pizza offerings, his growth focus is on three particular brands: Flower Child, North Italia, and The Henry.
Flower Child got its inspiration from True Food, a restaurant chain that was founded by Fox and featured food designed by Dr. Andrew Weill, the alternative medicine guru. (Fox sold offTrue Food Kitchen to investment firm Centerbridge Capital in 2016.) In creating Flower Child, Fox avoided True Food’s sit-down dining room concept, but kept the focus on clean-eating options.
“There’s a lot more variety at Flower Child than the typical salad place,” he said, in a veiled reference to Sweetgreen, the growing healthy food chain. “We consider ourselves a full service restaurant masquerading as fast casual.”
You might wonder whether the world needs another chain of Italian restaurants, but Fox contends that North Italia is different.
“We don’t think there’s a national player in Italian that is current, up to date and in touch with what people want to eat,” he said.
North Italia “wants to be your everyday local Italian place,” the kind many big city neighborhoods have always featured, he said, but with an incredible wine list and a great beverage program. The Cheesecake Factory says it hopes to acquire North Italia out right later this year.
The Henry, currently with only two locations, was first launched in 2014 in the Phoenix office complex where Fox’s headquarters are located. The restaurants have three components – a bakery and coffee area, combined with an open work space, a sprawling bar featuring craft cocktails, and the dining area. The menu features comfort food with international twists.
A third The Henry location is set to open in Dallas on Feb. 19, and is bigger than the ones he built in Phoenix and West Hollywood. This one will be 13,000 square feet, on two stories, with a 100-seat bar.
Betting Big on All-Day Restaurants
Fox said he readily embraced the concept of all-day restaurants, given that so many people now work remotely and prefer to settle into a comfortable spot where they can get drinks and food at any time.
“It’s a big trend that we’re seeing everywhere,” he said.
And it makes sense for restaurant owners. “Why be open eight or 10 hours, when you can be open for 16? You get more value out of your real estate.”
Leveraging real estate value is top of mind for Fox as he expands. He estimated that the cost of opening his properties has risen 25 percent in the past three years, thanks to the booming economies in the cities where he is located, and higher rents.
It now costs him about $1.8 million to $2.25 million to open a smaller restaurant, such as Flower Child, and $6.25 million to $10 million to open a Henry-sized restaurant.
That is putting pressure on Fox to look at every aspect of how his businesses are run.
“What don’t we have to keep in mind?” Fox said, laughing. “We have to be aware of the guests, the employees, who is using something, how it is getting used. You have to be very thoughtful and careful not to make mistakes.”
Fox went on, “We’re a lot more strategic. The days of just ‘everything I do is art’ are over. Now, it’s art and science. I have to develop the team more and I have to get the team to think like me, because I can’t be everywhere.”
Adapting to New Markets
Fox’s fledgling national expansion has taught him a series of lessons he never learned out west. “We’re learning about snow days,” Fox said, “and scheduling and traffic patterns.”
Customers in D.C. and Chicago want more soup than Phoenicians, he discovered, and delivery is more important in northern cities, due to dicey weather.
Likewise, he has to build bigger locations up north, because patio space can’t be deployed year round, as it can in Arizona, California and many of his Texas locations.
Fox also is keeping an eye on conservation. He encourages diners to bring their own shopping bags to collect carry out orders, and he’s perfectly fine with customers who bring Tupperware to pack their own leftovers.
“Everyone is more conscious and more aware of everything,” he said. “It all adds up when the masses start doing it.”
Skift Table’s Innovative Restaurateurs series profiles the leading names behind mid-size independent restaurant groups nationwide. To read other installments in the series, click here.
Micheline Maynard is a journalist and author who worked at The New York Times and NPR. Her food writing has appeared in the Times, and on Forbes, Epicurious and CityLab.
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