Naturally, anytime a restaurant debuts a pop-up concept there are going to be concerns. Chief among them: guaranteeing a new audience enjoys the same experience as guests who frequent the brand’s brick-and-mortar location. And, just in case that doesn’t sound trying enough, imagine a 225-seat operation with eight bars and 1,000 diners per day, in the shadow of one of the world’s premier sporting events.
“We all looked at this as being a global opportunity,” says Doug Jacob a partner with the Toro Restaurant Group. “Given the fact that our brand is expanding globally and this audience was global, it made sense for us to grind it out and make sure that it was something we could do, and do well.”
During this year’s US Open tennis tournament, Toro set up shop just west of the Octagon outside Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was the first installment of a multi-unit agreement between the Open and Jacob’s restaurant group, which features a pincho-centric menu crafted by James Beard Award-winning Chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette. The brand’s Boston location has been in business nine years, while its New York City outpost opened three years ago. Toro Bangkok, the first international store, was unveiled earlier this year.
The US Open partnership was part of a broader expansion plan that’s just getting started, Jacob says. The Barcelona-style tapas restaurant, at a pace of one to two units a year, is aiming to sprout locations across the eastern seaboard, from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. They also have global goals, with a Dubai store opening shortly and the U.K. market firmly in sight.
With that in mind, the opportunity to showcase Toro in front of the US Open’s globetrotting audience was one Jacob felt they couldn’t pass up. Even though, in past years, they decided against such ventures for the exact fear mentioned earlier: that with a temporary and quickly designed space, the restaurant itself might get washed out.
“We always shied away from it because controlling quality of product, controlling what the store looks like, customer experience—all of that stuff is obviously more difficult when you bring in additional operators and you bring in an operating model that you’re not used to in a very short period of time,” he explains.
Jacob says Toro built confidence over the past few years as its organization matured. The massive pop-up took months to plan but only four weeks to materialize. They opened at 10:30 a.m. and were the last venue to close each day. “I think you have to trust your staff, and we have a senior staff that’s quite good, one that we’ve had to develop over the last three years,” he says. “And I think we relied on them to be able to train any new person who was in our kitchen or on our floor or touching or brand. And they understood the challenge was going to be tough.”
Operationally, Toro’s food was a perfect fit for this diverse stage. Spanish cuisine can be prepared quickly, in small plates, and is well received by a wide consumer base. For the event, they created Pincho Boards by Ken and Jamie for the US Open. New to the menu were: Ensalada de Tomate, Coctel de Cameron, Tomato and Cucumber Gazpacho, Bocadillo de Congrejo, and Fried Chicken Torta. “Although I think we have a pretty approachable menu you look to make it even more approachable when you do events like this,” Jacob notes. “So items that can be cooked a little bit quicker, still have the consistency that you have in New York, but also items that are relatively simple as far as cooking technique so you can train people that may or may not have Spanish experience to get that food out the door. We chose items that we though the consumer would want when going and watching tennis. But also, just as equally, we chose items where we could train somebody who wasn’t used to our cuisine or hadn’t worked with us in the past to work relatively quick.”
The brand’s head chef, Kyle Eakins, was on site during the entire event. The new staff was also trained as the pop-up was being built. “It turns your concept on its head,” he continues. “The restaurant isn’t fully designed. The staff is new. So it’s not staff that you’re used to who are fully trained. Also, people are there to watch tennis first and foremost. So the food becomes secondary to them, or the drinking becomes secondary to them.”
Toro’s most popular items were sangria and Patatas Bravas.
“I think we considered it a success,” Jacob says. “Like any new relationship there are challenges. You can’t really fully prepare yourself to serve 1,000 people a day when you’re not used to serving 1,000 people a day. So certainly there are things you wish you could have done better and you’ll go into Year 2 a little more prepared.”
By Danny Klein