When cofounders Sasa Mahr-Batuz and Andy Pforzheimer opened their first location of Barcelona Wine Bar & Restaurant in 1996, they teamed up with an architect and other design professionals to bring their restaurant to life. Although the launch was successful, Mahr-Batuz was not thrilled about the process.
“I felt like I asked for more things that were different from [the architect’s] thinking,” he says. For the second location, the pair elected to work alone.
When it came time to expand again, they tried working with outside vendors once again, but to no avail. Mahr-Batuz says they were disheartened by the long and tedious process. Moving forward, he and Pforzheimer opted to build their own design team in-house. Assuming a hands-on role in all aspects of the business allowed the two cofounders to create products they were eager to share with guests.
Today, the company has its own team of five architects, its own carpentry workshop, its own culinary team, and its own art director.
“We don’t want to make compromises,” says Jeff Carcara, CEO of Barteca Restaurant Group, based in Norwalk, Connecticut. “We want what we want. We’ve been lucky to find great people who want to be a part of our company.”
The result has been two successful restaurant concepts—Barcelona Wine Bar & Restaurant and bartaco—that have experienced rapid growth in recent years. Today, Barcelona Wine Bar operates 12 locations in five states, and bartaco spans 11 locations in six states. Each brand will open two additional locations by year-end.
Carcara thinks both brands are so successful because they resonate with customers.
“They provide a great value,” he says. “Customers can go have an appetizer or hang out all night. It’s not just about getting your stomach full.”
The restaurants’ designs certainly provide a welcoming setting. Barcelona Wine Bar draws inspiration from the tapas bars in Spain and Italy. Instead of a cool, minimalist design, the restaurants feature warm undertones, with wood and brick walls for an urban yet intimate environment.
Established in 2010, sister concept bartaco takes a more laid-back approach, reminiscent of the beach culture found in Brazil, Uruguay, and Southern California. This relaxed vibe is reflected in whitewashed woods, chandeliers made of woven baskets, bar tops crafted with reclaimed wood, and bright blue-and-white-striped cushions.
“We wanted to create spaces that feel like they’ve been there forever, that are comfortable and cozy,” Mahr-Batuz says.
The welcoming atmosphere at both restaurants extends to the employees, too. In an industry known for high turnover, Barteca Restaurant Group boasts a high employee-retention rate.
To attract and keep quality talent, Carcara says Barteca Restaurant Group is upfront with its business approach and with employee expectations from the very beginning.
“It’s simple: Don’t ever change the guest focus,” Carcara says. “It’s clear on all levels. Our employees really appreciate that, and it makes our employees feel comfortable. We have a transparent culture; everybody has an open line to me.”
In fact, Carcara just wrapped up a tour of every restaurant in which employees were invited to a roundtable discussion with him. He says the employees were comfortable speaking up and sharing thoughtful ideas.
While the emphasis on the guest experience and an open work environment will continue, Mahr-Batuz says Barteca Restaurant Group will continue to grow and evolve.
“If you stop creating, the competition takes over,” Mahr-Batuz says. “A cookie-cutter approach is easy to roll out, but for us to be cutting edge, we have to do more than the competition; we have to see things differently.”
For example, all Barcelona locations feature different menus, which allows chefs to put their own unique spin on the tapas and source local ingredients. If the restaurant chose a more standardized menu instead, it could alter the guest experience—and not necessarily in a good way, even if the alternative would be easier to execute. As Carcara points out, easier isn’t always better, and Barteca’s mission is ultimately to make its brands better. To achieve sustainable, uncompromising growth, the company must also invest in bringing on the best people, he adds.
Although Barteca is opening four locations before the end of 2016, the company isn’t pursuing growth just for the sake of it. Carcara says the team takes each new unit as it comes rather than adhering to rigid numbers.
Barteca is focused on continuing the “great experiment,” as Pforzheimer calls this endeavor.
“We really do have a burning desire to keep our filters the same in 100 restaurants as in 23,” Carcara says. “It’s not going to be easy. We’re going to stay as focused as we can on our guests’ experiences.”