Like many chefs, Jose Garces built his restaurant empire around in-person dining, whether it was a fast casual or a full-service establishment. Over the years, the Iron Chef and James Beard Award winner has become skilled in shepherding new restaurants from idea to reality, but nothing could prepare him for what COVID would bring.
“Full-scale foodservice was going to have to evolve,” Garces says. “This has all been a bit of a reckoning for the industry.”
Garces’ eponymous group includes multiple restaurants in his home base of Philadelphia, as well as a couple of satellite locations in Atlantic City, New Jersey. With menus ranging from Spanish tapas and modern Mexican to seafood and burgers, the chef has ventured into new territories before; his restaurants also vary in their level of formality, with fast casual Buena Onda being the most laid-back and fine-dining establishment Volvér the most elevated.
Building pandemic-era concepts was an altogether different experience, but Garces says he already had some projects in the works. COVID-related closures and restrictions simply reinforced the need to get the ball rolling on those idled ideas. In fact, he relished the challenge.
“I think it is kind of my sweet spot,” he says. “Creating sustainable brands that have high impact with low SKUs and doing them in an efficient way.”
But before introducing new concepts, Garces dove into the ghost kitchen world with his existing restaurants. When indoor dining bans once again swept Philadelphia in December 2020, he transformed his original catering business, Garces Trading Company, into a virtual hub for Amada (tapas), The Olde Bar (seafood), and Village Whiskey (burgers). The platform has since grown to include dishes from more of his restaurants, and at press time, Garces Trading Company still sold heat-and-serve meal packages, as well as hybrid experiences that incorporated Zoom sessions with an on-staff chef.
“I started pulling myself out of the brick-and-mortar restaurant mindset and really thinking about other aspects,” he says.
Garces Trading Company operates out of The Olde Bar, which also hosts another concept, one the chef didn’t create himself. Last summer, he welcomed New Orleans–based World of Wings into the fold through a partnership with Ballard Brands, which acquired Garces Group in 2018 (the chef continues to lead the group on the creative side).
Just a couple of months after launching the online marketplace, Garces opened two new digital-only concepts: Livy’s Plant Based Foods and Rustika Pollo a la Brasa, which centers around Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken. Operations for the two brands set up shop in Distrito, Garces’ casual Mexican eatery in West Philadelphia.
Rustika was inspired by the chef’s travels, but the idea—and name—behind Livy’s originated much closer to home.
“The inspiration for Livy’s Plant Based Foods really revolved around my daughter’s dietary restrictions,” he says. His daughter, Olivia, had already followed a gluten-free diet for a few years, but during the pandemic, she went vegetarian, citing not only the health benefits but also the environmental ones.
So Garces began learning about plant-based dining. As a self-described “meat eater,” he says it wasn’t easy initially (indeed, animal proteins anchor many of his menus). But he came to develop an appreciation for plant-based dining and the preparation that goes into it.
“I appreciate and support any environmentally conscious and sustainable practice out there,” the chef says. “I’ve also been known as a meat cookery chef by trade; I was on the National Pork Board … and I still have a passion for those things. However, applying my skills and knowledge and cooking techniques to the plant-based world has been really exciting and fun.”
More than a year in, both Livy’s and Rustika have been performing well, and Garces hopes to eventually turn them into full-fledged brick-and-mortar restaurants. If and when that happens, he says he’d like to launch Livy’s as a quick-service restaurant, while he thinks Rustika could be better suited for a sit-down model.
“I think that [Rustika] lends itself to a full-service experience,” he says. “The beauty of it is I have the ability to flex up and down with the menus. Right now, we have the delivery-only menu. By adding appetizers, a drink program, and more entrees, I could get that to full-service capability.”
Garces is also flexing in the reverse direction. While Buena Onda is a brick-and-mortar in Philadelphia, it’s now slinging tacos—delivery-only—in D.C. This offshoot is just the beginning of robust expansion plans for the fast casual, which, thanks to Ballard Brands, is opening the door to franchising opportunities in both quick-serve and kiosk formats.
The digital versions of Buena Onda and World of Wings have given Garces first-hand experience in the logistics and promotional strategy behind delivery. Now, like many of his peers, he’s focused on perfecting those operations.
“We’ll have to embrace the delivery aspect of it,” he says, “so, making more menus that are delivery-friendly, embracing that as part of the overall business strategy. … And that’s been the problem for full-service restaurants. They weren’t ready. They weren’t mobile, and they weren’t knowledgeable of how the quick-service world works.”
Another of Garces’ joint business ventures is a new line of plant-based, shelf-stable, ready-to-eat meals called Casa Verde. Like Livy’s, these CPG products mark a departure from traditionally meat-centric Latin American dishes. The initial series features Garbanzos Al Pastor, Lentil Mole, Red Bean Pozole, and Coconut Chowder. Garces says Casa Verde has been in the works for two years and has already secured distribution. The ready-made meals are slated to hit shelves this calendar year.
Business duties may have pulled Garces out of the kitchen to a degree, but he is still passionate about cooking and F&B innovation. Stepping out of the brick-and-mortar mindset has meant trying new things, like creating a web series titled, “Cooking Space.” Averaging about 10 minutes apiece, the episodes walk viewers through some of Garces’ favorite recipes, like Fish Tacos & Elote, Paella Valencia, Chicken Burrito Bowls, and Gambas al Ajillo & Crema Catalana.
He and his team even built a studio kitchen to film even more content. For Garces, being flexible and finding new channels of revenue are key elements in ensuring his company’s longevity.
“That’s something I’m really going to sink my teeth into [this] year,” he says.
As for the future of full-service dining, Garces says there are going to be some tough, necessary changes for the business model to remain successful. He thinks borrowing ideas from quick service, such as digital menus and off-premises options, will be key.
“The sooner full-service operators get on board with that, the better off they’ll be. Then they can take advantage of the quick-service revenue that’s out there,” he says.