A New York City staple for nearly a dozen years, Wolfgang’s Steakhouse is taking its concept into new countries and new directions. Wolfgang’s opened its first international location, in Roppongi, Japan, in February 2014, and since then has opened in Korea, and will open its fourth Japan location next month—bringing the total number of locations to five abroad and nine stateside. That’s not bad for two years’ work.
“These restaurants are all replicas, and we don’t change the concept of who we are,” says Peter Zwiener, president/managing partner and son of Wolfgang Zwiener, founder of the New York City–based chain. “When we go abroad, we want to make sure customers who walk into Wolfgang’s are getting a New York steakhouse experience. That’s why we don’t try to serve kobe beef but only USDA prime beef. We believe the foreign populations love meat and love our product. The dry-aging process is not new here in the States, but a lot of countries are not aware of [the process] or how to do it.”
However, he points out, you have to be flexible and make allowances for each market. “We realize you have to take into account the local environment as well. Even in the States you have to make adjustments in different cities.” In Wolfgang’s Hawaii location, for example, the restaurant offers its rendition of a local dish—the “loco moco,” a USDA prime burger served on a bed of rice and topped with mushroom sauce and two fried eggs—served at lunch, and in Miami, the restaurant offers stone crabs when they are in season.
In Japan, there are subtle changes in service: Diners are offered wet towels and the Japanese restaurants have more staff, “because they are even more concerned with customer service than Americans,” Zwiener says.
While the Asian menus are almost the same as those in the U.S., they feature several rice dishes such as loco moco and jumbo shrimp scampi, as well as rice as a side. (Rice is very important to this clientele, but is not included on American menus.)
“There are also some ingredients we can’t find in the Asian markets,” Zwiener says. “We can’t ship oysters to Korea for example; we can only use Korean oysters.” Also in Korea, he says, restaurants can’t have tuna in their kitchens for more than 24 hours. And potatoes in Asia are very different from American potatoes. “We have to make adjustments to how we cook things,” he says, “but our menu is still 80 to 90 percent U.S. steak.”
There are also restrictions: Wolfgang’s can’t serve U.S. bacon or U.S. lamb in Japan; instead, the restaurants serve Australian or New Zealand lamb. And instead of shipping Chilean sea bass to Japan, the restaurants use local sea bass or snapper so it is as fresh as possible. In fact, except for its beef, the company buys everything locally.
Wolfgang’s is no stranger to foodservice being highly regulated. In 2003, Japan and several other Asian countries banned beef imports, and it wasn’t until 2013 that Japan lifted the ban.
Partners and Future Perspectives
Wolfgang Zwiener opened the first Wolfgang’s in 2004 on New York’s Park Avenue, after working for four decades at Peter Lugers Steakhouse, where he rose to the position of headwaiter.
“Within one year, the restaurant became very popular and we got interest from abroad,” says Zwiener. However, this didn’t preclude U.S. expansion, and the second restaurant opened in TriBeCa in New York City in 2006. For future domestic expansion, he’s looking at Washington, D.C., and Boston.
But the Zwieners were so interested in Asia that in 2009 they formed a partnership with a Japanese company, WDI, and opened a joint-venture restaurant in Waikiki, Honolulu, that same year. WDI is also a partner in all of the Japan locations of Wolfgang’s; in Korea the partner is Tera International. Two additional partners, Sumosam Restaurant Concepts in the Philippines and THP in Singapore, are slated to open locations this year. For the future, Wolfgang’s is considering Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China.
Except for the Hawaiian and Somerville, New Jersey, restaurants, the American restaurants have all opened without partners. However, it’s not just expansion within the U.S. and Asia that’s in Wolfgang’s future. The company is in negotiations with partners in the U.K., Germany, and Switzerland. It’s also looking at the Latin American market and is in discussion with groups in Mexico, Brazil, and Panama.
“We are growing rapidly, but we don’t want to grow so rapidly that we can’t [maintain] our consistency,” Zwiener explains. “We want to grow organically, but we want to do it the right way.” The right way, he explains, is growth without compromising on quality, service, or ambiance. “We want to make sure that at each restaurant guests will have the same exact experience. We’ve been doing this for 12 years now, and it’s about the employees and the team and the partners.”
Simplicity contributes to the consistency, and Zwiener says the chain keeps its menu relatively simple. “Once you have too many things on your menu or try to be too different or try to grow too rapidly, you can fail,” he warns. “We buy from the same vendors in the U.S.—and for the steak for abroad—so that keeps it simple, and we try to keep the recipes very simple, too.”
In addition to growing the footprint of its signature steakhouse, Wolfgang’s is also expanding into other concepts—the first unit of its Wolfgang Steakhouse Grill concept already operates under the same roof as its Somerville, New Jersey, Wolfgang’s Steakhouse. A third concept, Wolfgang Burger by Wolfgang Zwiener, is expected to launch this spring in New Jersey.
The grill concept allows a restaurant to offer a more varied menu, including more fish selections and dishes like veal parmigiana. “We had to change the name slightly to add the grill part,” Zwiener notes. “Although the menu is not too different, once you add new things, you have to clarify that [the menu] is not 100 percent steak.”
Wolfgang Burger by Wolfgang Zwiener will be more versatile in the locations where it can open, because it is smaller (2,000 to 2,500 square feet, compared to 5,000 to 8,000 square feet for a steakhouse) and also because it is more casual. The burger concept will be stand-alone, whereas the grill concept will always be incorporated with the steakhouse.