Jack Gibbons is akin to the Taylor Swift of the restaurant industry; he can’t help but keep envisioning new restaurant concepts with fun twists, and has surrounded himself with a team of eatery enthusiasts who help bring his unique ideas to life. Yet unlike the Queen of Pop, Gibbons has managed to fly somewhat under the radar when it comes to the “big names” of the restaurant world—and he’s mostly preferred it that way.
The concept creator started off in the foodservice industry as a server at Pappasito’s Cantina, which is part of Pappas Restaurants, while he was attending the University of Houston. He ended up rising through the ranks to chief operations officer of Pappadeaux, the group’s largest concept—a Cajun-style seafood restaurant serving pastas and comfort fare since the first Pappas restaurant opened in 1976. It was at Pappadeaux where Gibbons developed his leadership style and growth mindset; he successfully grew the restaurant from one to 33 locations across the U.S.
“While I worked there, I was kind of a maverick inside of an organization,” Gibbons says. “So early, I realized I had a lot of entrepreneurial skills, but I was doing it all within an organization. And when I left and started actually creating brands myself, I realized that I had a knack for working with teams in collaboration and finding good partners and really dreaming [of] what could be, instead of doing it for somebody else.”
It was during that time period when Gibbons met Randy DeWitt, who would become his business partner at FB Society (formerly Front Burner Restaurants). DeWitt had developed a concept called Rockfish Seafood in 1998 with Chili’s parent Brinker International in 2001, which has grown to about 14 restaurants. Brinker was on the hunt for a president to run the brand, but Gibbons wasn’t interested. After chatting more with DeWitt, the duo realized they had to find a way to work together—which led to Gibbons leaving Pappas in 2008.
“What we saw was this opportunity of new brands and new exciting things to do that was really lacking in the environment at the time … sort of that aspirational brand that had better food and better design and better management that gave the customers a more experiential vibe in the restaurant, and let them actually like relax and enjoy themselves,” he says.
DeWitt co-founded Twin Peaks in 2005, a mountain lodge-themed sports bar which has rapidly expanded to more than 100 locations and counting, and is referenced by some as a competitor of Hooters. “So that was our first growth vehicle, and at the time, we had about four of them,” Gibbons said.
That’s how Gibbons went from running 34 restaurants with average unit volumes of $10 million per year, to operating two to three restaurants and entering into creation mode.
“There were no direct reports. There was no safety net, there was no HR, there was no marketing,” Gibbons recalls. “It was just really a couple of creators just trying to birth a restaurant brand to life.”
Gibbons and DeWitt focused their attention on improving Twin Peaks’ food quality, the overall operation, and the facility. “And next thing we know, that brand really started taking off, and then we started franchising it,” he recalls.
At the same time, the business partners began developing a restaurant concept called The Ranch at Las Colinas, Texas, which opened in 2008. But their first venture together wasn’t without its challenges. They originally called it Cadillac Ranch, and ended up getting sued by another operator who owned a restaurant called Cadillac Bar.
“We learned the hard way that we have to come up with better, more creative names for our brands to get a clearer trademark,” he says. “So that’s how we really started our whole naming strategy, and you can tell our names got a lot better from there.”
The duo called their next concept Whiskey Cake, which they felt was distinctive and paired together two things to draw a wider consumer base. The first location in Plano, Texas, opened in 2010, and has since grown to 10 locations around Texas as well as Oklahoma City and Tampa, Florida. The farm-to-table menu features whiskey cocktails and flights, of course, as well as mains like pork ribs and chicken and waffles, plus its namesake Whiskey Cake—sticky toffee cake with bourbon anglaise, spiced pecans, and topped with house made vanilla whipped cream.
Then came Velvet Taco, which was originally going to be Taco Libre, but they couldn’t get a clear trademark on the name. The mission was to create a better, upscale experience with tacos in a fast-casual format, so Gibbons and DeWitt went with a name “a little bit more esoteric,” he says. “And brands tend to grow into themselves.”
“I think when you create a brand, you want to have depth and tapestry to it. You want to have layers that are not always apparent at first,” Gibbons says.
“When we create a brand, we actually put together on paper why it should actually exist. And we create a whole document—it’s kind of like the constitution of the brand,” he says. That document outlines the special DNA of the concept, what type of cuisine will be served, and who the customer should be. “By putting this all on paper in the very beginning, before you actually open the restaurant, you’re able to teach off it and train everybody, and everybody really understands what the purpose is.”
Gibbons has served as co-founder, president, board member, and chief creative officer of FB Society since May 2008. Then in April 2020, Gibbons replaced DeWitt in the top position of CEO, while DeWitt now serves as chairman.
Though differentiated, all FB Society brands are culinary-focused, chef led, and uniquely designed.
Whiskey Cake, for example, features a smoky aroma when talking in—which could also have something to do with the brand’s proprietary candles. Picture over 200 whiskey labels and wooden accents.
Meanwhile, Ida Claire—created in 2015—has pull handle toilets from Russia, which Gibbons decided were a must-have feature after knocking back a few vodkas at Café Pushkin years back. Velvet Taco is inspired by his visits through China, Germany, and the U.K., and has international dishes like Tikka Masala wrapped up in a tortilla.
Then there’s Mexican Sugar, which redefines traditional Mexican food with inspiration from South and Central America and beyond. Its second location in Texas in Las Colinas—which opened in summer of 2020—draws its design inspiration from Spanish Colonial Revival, with crisp white stucco and dramatic brick archways. The layout includes multiple adjoining rooms, patios and courtyards, and was designed to accommodate private events of all kinds.
Guests are meant to feel as if they’re stepping into a beautiful old home full of art, bold colors, and varied styles as they move from room to room. Popular main courses at Mexican Sugar include Adobo Grilled Carne Asada Fajitas, Brasas Chicken Tacos, Mesquite Grilled Steak, Hamburguesa and Bone-In Pork Chop.
“I think when you create a brand, you want to have depth and tapestry to it. You want to have layers that are not always apparent at first,” Gibbons says. “It could be the way the food is done. It could be something unique about the uniform—like at Mexican Sugar, the waiters all wear red shoelaces. It could be very unique like at Ida Claire, where the plates actually have a hidden flying saucer and Loch Ness monster that most people don’t see. But once you see it, you’re kind of part of the club and you’re kind of one of the cool kids. It really is on the inside of the brand.”
Balance is also an important virtue for Gibbons. “Sometimes, some restaurateurs take themselves a bit too seriously. And other restaurateurs don’t take themselves seriously enough,” he jokes.
Sixty Vines is FB Society’s Napa Valley-inspired concept, known for its sustainable 60 wines on tap using kegs and reusable bottles. Created in 2016, Sixty Vines has since grown to eight locations around Texas, plus Nashville, Tennessee; Orlando and Boca Raton in Florida; and Charlotte, North Carolina. Chef-procured accouterments feature farm aged ham and French-style salame with cracked pepper, plus a wide variety of seasonal salads, pizzas, pastas, and mains like rainbow trout, Atlantic salmon, wood-grilled bavette steak, and desserts.
Haywire is an evolution of The Ranch, which has locations in Dallas and Plano, Texas. Texas tried-and-true gets an urban refresh at this concept, where ranch-to-table ingredients are sourced from the best local suppliers from the Lone Star State—serving brunch, lunch, and dinner. The menu ranges from fried green tomatoes and roasted garlic stuffed filets with peppered bourbon butter to “Texas Plates” like Texas Whiskey BBQ Ribs, accompanied by white cheddar havarti mac and cheese and buttered cornbread.
Design is also a key focus of Haywire, which features trendy, bohemian-inspired indoor tents customers can reserve. The tents were implemented three years ago, after the restaurant had already opened, because Gibbons likes to continue adding new fun features to his restaurants. “We always reinvest back into the restaurants to keep them interesting,” Gibbons notes.
“I think that’s one of the reasons that they have a long life. The first restaurant that Randy and I created was The Ranch at Las Colinas. That’s coming up on 15 years old, and it’s got a higher average unit volume than it ever had the whole time since it opened, and it just keeps getting better and better … that restaurant will do between $13-15 million this year.”
In 2017, FB Society’s Food Hall Company opened Legacy Food Hall in Plano, Texas, which consists of three stories and more than 55,000 square feet of space, enough to house more than 20 food stalls and five full-service bars. One of those stalls was Son of a Butcher Slider Bar, which opened its first brick-and-mortar store in Dallas in 2020 during the pandemic, which saw the rise of quick-service and fast-casual restaurants. Wagyu, chicken, and veggie sliders are complemented by waffles fries, hand-breaded onion rings, and handmade boozy shakes at the upscale fast-casual restaurant.
Then in 2021, Gibbons and his team opened Assembly Food Hall in Nashville, Tennessee, which has approximately 115,000 square feet of room with nearly 30 stalls, plus a Sixty Vines on the roof and a roofed live music stage.
“Everybody has ideas. And the hardest thing about the ideas is actually creating a collaborative team of people that can cover each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” Gibbons notes. “A lot of times, if it’s just a chef trying to open a restaurant, the food is gonna be really good when he’s making it. The problem is, if he’s not making it, the service and the whole brand experience may not actually match up to the food. And it takes a team to actually pull that all together.”
Selling your babies
FB Society is as much an incubator for restaurant concepts as it is a birth place. The end goal, Gibbons says, is to grow certain brands enough to attract private equity or strategic acquisitions, while still retaining a significant minority ownership stake in each business.
In November 2021, Velvet Taco was sold for $300 million to Leonard Green & Partners, the private equity firm that helped Shake Shack go public— though Gibbons and DeWitt originally sold the brand to PE firm L. Catterton in 2016. The business partners are still involved and have board seats, but aren’t focused on running the brands day to day.
Twin Peaks fetched the same price when it was recently sold in 2020 to Johnny Rockets parent company FAT Brands, led by Andy Wiederhorn, who has recently talked about potentially taking the brand public.
“We were getting close to a billion dollars for brands that we had created and sold twice. And so it was kind of cool to just watch,” Gibbons says. “We created national brands like Twin Peaks, and Velvet Taco is moving in that direction.”
Gibbons believes Sixty Vines, Whiskey Cake, Mexican Sugar, and Haywire will all be national brands, and some of those have broken out of the Texas market already.
“The throughline is really, FB Society runs the brand,” Gibbons explains. “And once we feel like it’s ready to get into growth mode—it might be one, might be four units—then we start bringing in executives and a professional team to help scale the brand.”
“We’re starters, not finishers,” he adds. “There’s not a lot of people that actually create brands and turn them into national brands … I think we’ve learned enough to know that there’s another skill level in helping it to grow outside, where it’s infrastructure, it’s higher levels of training, it’s a whole other skill set to grow them.”
Jeff Carcara—a veteran of Del Frisco, Barteca Restaurant Group, Darden Restaurants, and Hillstone Restaurant Group—leads Whiskey Cake, Sixty Vines, and Mexican Sugar as CEO. Tim Timbs is senior vice president of operations for SOB Slider Bar. “And as it’s growing, we put more resources behind him to help him be successful.” Behind Haywire and The Ranch is Judd Fruia, who is working to grow from three to six units in the near future.
“While other friends in the industry seem to be trying to figure out growth, we have an incredibly strong pipeline,” Gibbons adds. FB Society is opening restaurants in Washington, DC; Charlotte, North Carolina; Reston, Virginia; Orlando, Florida; and more. “We’re in a great position that we’ve attracted a lot of good people.”
FB Society’s Food Hall Company has its own infrastructure, with CEO Michael Morris at the helm. “They’re putting together deals for the next couple of food halls that we’ll grow to,” he says.
As for the future, “we always have a couple brands that we’re working on in the back burner,” Gibbons adds.