A San Francisco hospitality group offers a glimpse at what the future could be, with multiple full-service and fast-casual concepts.

High-caliber chefs are known to build sizable empires with multiple fine-dining concepts, and they are increasingly adding fast casuals to the mix. Chef-entrepreneurs like Tom Colicchio, José Andrés, and Sam Fox, who have opened multiple full-service concepts all over the country, are now exploring hybrid opportunities with ’Wichcraft, Beefsteak, and Flower Child, respectively.

But perhaps no chef is building as diverse of a portfolio with fast casuals as Adriano Paganini. The Italy-born, San Francisco–based chef is CEO of Back of the House Hospitality Inc., which owns eight full-service eateries and three fast-casual concepts in the Bay Area, including the 10-unit Super Duper Burgers. 

After a career in full service, Paganini says, he’s enjoying the process of diversifying his portfolio and creating concepts based on his customers’ needs. “My passion has switched from just food to food as it relates to a certain concept, and positioning of a certain concept,” Paganini says. “It’s fun to create different concepts that need the right menu, but also the right prices, the right size and portioning and image and so on and so forth, and creating something that actually works.”

Back of the House is structured to leverage several resources across its multiple concepts. The brands share in-house functions such as human resources, finance, marketing, and construction, while operations remain distinct, with each concept having a dedicated operator overseeing the day-to-day business to maintain quality and consistency. 

But this efficient system wasn’t created overnight. It was a long road that brought Paganini to a place where he was creating multiple exciting concepts across the different restaurant categories.

Paganini grew up in Italy, attended culinary school, trained under famed chef Paul Bocuse, and spent time cooking at a prestigious hotel in London before moving to San Francisco in the early 1990s. In 1994, he founded Pasta Pomodoro, a casual Italian restaurant that grew to nearly 50 locations and counted Wendy’s as a minority investor. 

He sold his stake in Pasta Pomodoro in 2010; the chain was struggling, and Paganini had moved on, having founded Back of the House in 2009. (Pasta Pomodoro abruptly closed its 15 remaining locations at the end of last year.) The time he spent with Pasta Pomodoro, he says, was essentially his business school, training him in how to effectively run a company and think like an entrepreneur, not just like a chef.

“We made every possible mistake at Pasta Pomodoro, including taking on money from people who were good people, but it just didn’t work in … strategy and purpose and need. Your goals and the goals of your investors need to be aligned in order to make sense, and it wasn’t aligned. It wasn’t about raising the money; it was about doing something with the money and putting it to work.”

The Pasta Pomodoro experience also proved to be a reality check for Paganini, who says he “lost everything” upon his exit. Despite his stellar résumé, he says, his confidence was shaken and he felt like a failure.

But the first full-service restaurant under the Back of the House banner changed all of that. Beretta opened as a casual Italian neighborhood restaurant with a sophisticated bar—one of the first in the area focusing on mixology—and immediately became a staple among San Francisco foodies. It remains a heralded Bay Area restaurant today.

“As an entrepreneur, the most important thing you have is your confidence,” he says. “If you don’t have confidence, you’re never going to put yourself out on a limb and come up with a new concept. Whatever you come up with might be too safe, and not really be successful. After Beretta, I got my confidence back.”

With that confidence came a creative kick. Two new full-service concepts—Delarosa, a Roman-style pizzeria, and Starbelly, serving “California comfort food”—opened in late 2009. Their success convinced Paganini that he was onto something with concept development, and that Back of the House should “do something even more different.”

Enter Super Duper Burgers, Back of the House’s first foray into fast casual.

Paganini says every new concept at Back of the House begins with excitement over a specific product. In the case of Super Duper, the team recognized a lack of quick but high-quality burger concepts in San Francisco, and spent “months and months” developing a better-burger option.

While the first Super Duper location in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood saw only marginal success, the second location on Market Street—in the heart of downtown San Francisco, one of the city’s major thoroughfares—had a line out the door on opening day. It took 45 minutes to get through the line and 50 minutes to get your burger, Paganini says. 

For a team that was accustomed to full-service restaurants, he says, executing full service–quality food with quick-service times and volume—around 2,000 customers per day—became a big hurdle. “It was an interesting challenge. It’s something I get really excited about, and my whole team does too,” he says. “We like to create new concepts, but we also like to come up with new efficiencies. How do we make something really efficient? How do we make something work as a business? It was a fun challenge.”

Succeeding at that challenge paid off; Super Duper now has 10 locations, and Back of the House plans to open several more in the Bay Area before considering expansion beyond the market. The company also went on to develop two more fast-casual concepts: Uno Dos Tacos, an authentic taqueria and tequila bar, and The Bird, a fried chicken sandwich concept.

Paganini says he doesn’t have a plan for how many fast-casual or full-service concepts Back of the House will open. Having learned several lessons in his three decades as a restaurateur—lessons learned often the hard way—he’s prepared to expand only as inspiration strikes.

“Usually, I never start anything thinking, ‘OK, I’m going to create this because it’s going to be a chain and I’m going to grow it to 10 locations or 20 locations or whatever,’” he says. “I usually start just with a passion, and then it obviously needs to make sense as a business. Not everything can be replicated or is a great business model.”

Feature, NextGen Casual