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Starting at Z

From day one David Zebny envisioned Z Square as a chain of hip restaurants with high-quality food, modest prices and enough design variety for each place to at least look different from the rest.

On the face of it, David Zebny might sound like the typical restaurateur wannabe: Bored real estate broker/developer/banker with plenty of scratch and a vague idea about doing something more “creative” moves to Europe and sees his future. Except that the man behind Z Square already has two locations under his belt and is about to add more. He may even have discovered an underserved niche between the bakery-cafes (read: Panera) and the casual dinnerhouses (Applebee’s, et al).

Z Square was designed to be hip, high quality and reproducible. It’s basically two concepts in one: a self-service cafe serving breakfast and lunch by day, and a full-service American-style bistro by night, with a cumulative average check of $10 per person. The menu focuses on fresh, scratch-made fare that is unique and distinctive, but can be produced to-order in a kitchen with minimal culinary expertise. The brand itself is designed to reflect the local marketplace both in decor and amenities, rather than being a cookie-cutter reproduction in every location. The concept, Zebny explains, appeals to sophisticated diners who are value-conscious and on the hunt for a casual but quality dining experience.

“When I was living in London, I couldn’t help but notice that people were eating better-quality, quick, casual food than I had ever seen here in the States,” says Zebny, 45, who spent his post-graduate days doing real estate deals from Anchorage, Alaska, to the Florida Keys. “I saw a need for a higher-quality cafe concept between the mass-market fast-casual and sit-down dining segments. Something with fantastic food, personable service and a pleasing, relaxing environment, not Formica and food lights.”

After returning to the States in 2003, Zebny called Bob Carey, whom he’d known from his days on Wall Street. Carey had been a consultant on a number of successful startups, including Mrs. Fields. Zebny also contacted Sally Samson, a Boston chef who’d made a name for herself with the kind of straightforward but appealing food Zebny envisioned for his nascent chain, food that’s contemporary and distinctive, but relatively easy to produce by a staff without high-level culinary skills.

The first location, known as Café Z, opened in Marin, California, in January 2004, a 1,400 sq. ft., 32-seater that now generates close to $1.4 million in sales, Zebny claims. “By any measure—year-over-year, month-over-month, sales-per-seat, sales-per-square foot—we’d hit it out of the ballpark of any other similar restaurant,” he boasts.

Still, he admits to making all the classic mistakes with the nascent restaurant—including not checking to make sure that the name could be trademarked outside of California. “I underestimated the working capital we’d need, we weren’t attracting enough attention and we hired the wrong kind of people to be the general manager and chef,” he admits. The fact that he and Carey had deep pockets helped considerably, but mostly the partners were committed to making the concept work. “We felt that we had a product that customers would react favorably to once they found it.”

In retrospect, the missteps worked in the partners’ favor, giving them time to fine tune, debug and straighten out the marketing plan before moving forward with what they had always assumed would eventually become a chain. By the time the second location, rechristened Z Square, opened in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at Harvard Square, in late 2006, the company had already signed leases for two additional Z Squares, one in Boston and another in Santa Rosa, California.

“The two different markets have allowed us to test the validity of the concept,” Zebny says of the decision to locate units on both coasts. “Initially, I thought I’d be a primary investor, along with Bob, and would eventually return to London. But as soon as we opened in Marin it became apparent that I’d need to stay as involved as possible—and that I wanted to.”

If a 3,000-mile distance between the units’ first two markets also sounds like a mistake, it’s not: Zebny understood from the beginning that the menu had to be at once sophisticated, but not chef-driven. “If we were talking about growing, we couldn’t be reliant upon Sally on a day-to-day basis,” he explains. “She had to create recipes and procedures that would minimize the effort of creating cooked-to-order food. The menu is all-fresh, but the prep is done during the day. All that’s required is final assembly that doesn’t require a lot of culinary expertise.”

Thus the reliance on do-ahead flavor builders like spice rubs and distinctive, mix-and-match condiments such as artichoke and tomato relish, chimichurri and tapenade that can do double- and triple-duty as sauces, marinades, dressings and sandwich spreads. Proteins are high quality but low in food cost and easy to work with, such as skirt steak, chicken and pork tenderloin. “Every recipe is evaluated in terms of how it fits with the concept—if it helps tell our customers what we’re about,” Zebny says. “Then it’s tested, retested and tested again.”

Breakfast and lunch are self-service, touting baked goods, crepes, soups, sandwiches and salads, such as Prosciutto, Fresh Mozzarella & Artichoke Spread Panini and a Grilled Steak Cobb salad. At dinner, the lights go down and the servers come on duty, to serve an upmarket-casual menu of starters such as Oven Roasted Wild Mushrooms with goat cheese, and entrees like Pan Roasted Pork Tenderloin with black olive tapenade and Whole Grilled Rainbow Trout stuffed with roasted scallops. A bar menu of simpler standards keeps going into the after-hours and between standard dayparts.

With the opening of the Cambridge location, the company has hired Scott Robinson, a CIA-trained chef, as corporate executive chef. Robinson has worked with Samson to engineer a core menu that also cross-utilizes the heck out of ingredients. Goat and feta cheeses are used in a breakfast panini, a crepe, an omelet, two salads and several entrees. Olives appear dozens of times, from salad garnish to main course sauce. Skirt steak, rubbed with a spice mixture by the daytime kitchen staff, is then ready to be cooked-to-order for a sandwich, a salad and an entree. Moroccan Vegetable Stew is a favorite lunch entree for vegetarians as well as a dinner starter that only needs to be heated for service.

Robinson is now creating recipes, in English and Spanish, that can be uploaded to the POS system and replicated by unit staff: The day shift cooks do the prep, and the line cooks do the final assembly with minimal supervision.

For these and other reasons, the kitchen is something that is more important to duplicate on a unit-by-unit basis than the front-of-the-house, so that the production system can be reproduced wherever it travels. But there is no real prototype, per se. “We’re looking for locations that support the multiple-daypart concept and fit in with the local market,” says Zebny. “It’s not a standardized look so much as a certain attention to detail and a certain ‘local’ feel. Someone at Harvard Square happened to mention that the place reminded him of a restaurant he knows in Marin… That’s dead-on: We want people to recognize certain things, but not be aware that it’s a chain.”

For instance, Santa Rosa, which has extensive year-round outdoor seating, has a garden feel, with apricot-colored walls, light-colored marble tabletops and lots of glass. The Harvard Square location, on the other hand, is very urban-looking, darker and clubbier, with mosaic tile walls that are common to Boston-area architecture. Both restaurants, however, share a similar open and casual ambience.

Zebny and Carey are looking for 2,800- to 3,400-sq.-ft. locations in the Northern California/Bay Area and the greater Boston environs that can accommodate about 100 to 125 seats, plus outside seating as appropriate, with a layout that can be cued to how the local market will use the facility. For instance, the second Boston location, in Kenmore Square, will probably have a lot of takeout business, posits Zebny, so arrangements are being made to make that easier for customers—probably with a dedicated service area of some kind.

“Z Square is a place that can be used by a variety of different customers in a variety of different ways,” adds Zebny. “We want locations that can generate a steady flow of business all day, from earlier in the morning until late at night. No downtown office buildings, for instance, where you’ve got to make your nut before two in the afternoon.”

Zebny targets initial sales at new units of $2.5 to $3 million, growing to about $4 million. Expansion will be funded internally. “We think the formula can really allow us to grow in these two markets for quite a while before we even begin to look at other markets,” says Zebny. “I’d like to be national some day, and it wouldn’t be prudent right now, even if we found the perfect location in a Philadelphia or a Denver.”

Having initially hired key people for Marin who looked good on paper but didn’t share the company’s vision or sense of passion, Zebny has retained personnel consultant Elaine Gagne—who originally came into the fold as an investor—to spearhead the H.R. process. He admits that service staff will be one of the biggest challenges. “It’s not like we’re running a $40 or $50 average check and they can make a lot of money on tips. So we need to build a culture where everyone is valued and there are plenty of opportunities for advancement.” Health insurance and other benefits are key, but Zebny and Carey are also looking into scenarios where managers can have a piece of the action as the organization grows.

Moving forward, Zebny envisions cultivating unit management and corporate staff from the ranks of day-to-day operations. “We need people who ‘get’ what we’re trying to do and will share our commitment,” he says. “We can train them to do everything else.”

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