Halberg calls the period “eminently disruptive.”
L Catterton brought stability and creativity agility, however. It positioned Barcelona as a separate entity from bartaco and the rest of Del Frisco’s assets, some of which were eventually sold to Landry’s. This marked the first time Barcelona functioned independently, with an executive leadership suite solely concerned with how the chain could best thrive and separate from the pack.
And L Catterton, which is also based in Connecticut, wanted Halberg to direct it.
Halberg joined Barcelona in 2008 as its culinary director. He says L Catterton wanted a “culture keeper” at the controls—not your traditional CEO with a boilerplate resume—to nurture the brand’s personality.
Barcelona’s board asked him to take an exhaustive, multi-tiered personality profile to determine his style of leadership. Halberg even completed a math test.
What they discovered was someone with an atypical management style focused on people, not dollars. “We were really coming out of a moment in time where we needed to ensure that we were refocused on identity and that we were closely and passionately focused on what made the experience of Barcelona different,” he says.
That returns us to the COVID-19 arena. Dining-room shutdowns forced Barcelona to furlough roughly 1,200 people. Restaurants that averaged 40–50 employees before were now operating with four.
Halberg says the pandemic presented opportunity to those aforementioned brands already targeting lower-labor systems. It allowed them to rethink efficiency and strip some of the face-to-face elements out of the equation.
This isn’t a knock; it’s a reality. And it’s everything Barcelona was trying to work against.
“It matters what you’re selling, when you’re selling an experience more than a dish,” Halberg says.
He equates Barcelona’s experience to a dinner party you can’t recreate, but you admire once you arrive. The ambiance, décor, playlist, surprising and familiar foods, prepared in ways you couldn’t have thought up. You leave the night as impressed with the time you had as much as the food you ate.
It’s a much different experiential aim than, say, putting a deck of cards on the table and keeping people entertained without the need to talk to each other.
That’s why losing 1,000-plus employees dealt Barcelona such a difficult hand. “We all looked at ourselves and our common charge was we’re not here to sell as much takeout as possible just to bring in the most revenue,” Halberg says. “We’re not here to figure out how do we do this without people. The goal was how do we get sales in each restaurant up to the level where it warranted hiring somebody back.”
And they’ve been able to do that a bit each week as every unit is now operating with some level of capacity restraints. All are leaning on outdoor dining.