Once again, the death of the independent restaurant industry has been greatly exaggerated.
It turned out 2022 was not as terrible year for indie operators as expected. Operators in the segment proved their ability to be nimble and manage sharply rising food costs and an increasingly expensive labor force.
Well, most of them did, anyway. Sure, many restaurants closed for good. But some of those operators also moved on to open something new, taking advantage of an American population desperate to get out and gather in restaurants again—as anyone who has tried to make a reservation lately can attest.
This is the year that brought us months of lobbying for release of Restaurant Revitalization Funds that were promised in 2021. Designed initially to help smaller independent operators survive the pandemic shutdown, the original $28.6 billion was down to nubs within the first three weeks and some grants were pulled back or restaurants that applied were left waiting for aid that never came. In late November, the U.S. Small Business Administration released $83 million in leftover funding, which went to another 169 eligible recipients. But more than 177,000 were left without the promised assistance, and no hope of the pot being replenished by Congress.
Restaurant Business’ Top 100 Independents showed some real winners for the segment, though not necessarily new. Restaurants on the list included often big, high-volume concepts in tourist spots or unique settings. Topping the list was Asian restaurant Komodo in Miami, which reported $41 million in annual sales with 340 seats. Known for its Peking duck, the venue is operated by Groot Hospitality, which had a number of other concepts on the Top 100 list, including Swan and Papi Steak.
Here are some more independent openings that were Big News (and where you probably can’t get a reservation for months):
Kwame Onwuachi has been a food-newsmaker for years with his fine-dining restaurants Kith and Kin, and the short-lived Shaw Bijou in Washington, D.C. Both are now closed, but Onwuachi, who was raised in New York, is back in the Big Apple again with Tatiana, which took center stage at the newly renovated David Geffen Hall in the city’s glittering Lincoln Center Plaza. Having grown up in the Bronx, Onwuachi honors his cultural influences from Nigeria and Louisiana, but also draws from the hip hop music revolution that shaped his childhood.
He once dominated the restaurant scene in Charleston, S.C. (McCrady’s, Husk), but Sean Brock is now the operator to know in Nashville, Tenn., where he has opened four concepts in two years, including the fast-food-ish Joyland, The Continental in the Grand Hyatt hotel, and the Appalachian-inspired Audrey.
Located directly above Audrey, Brock opened the concept June, which opened in July. The nine-table, 37-seat June, featuring an ever-changing multi-course tasting menu served in five “acts.” The experience can be as long as three hours, and the menu is updated eight times a year.
The building is also home to a research and food production lab, where Brock and staff go deep into the creation of flavors and technique, indicating there is more coming from this chef. Brock has also been a vocal advocate of better mental health and wellbeing for those in the industry.
At Gregory Gourdet’s restaurant Kann in Portland, Ore., about 4,200 reservations are released just after noon on the second day of each month, according to The Oregonian. And those seats get snapped up immediately. Even before the 80-seat wood-fired Haitian restaurant opened in August, Gourdet had won national acclaim. The New Yorker of Haitian heritage worked for Jean-Georges Vongerichten before moving to Portland. There, he pulled himself out of years of substance abuse into sobriety. Serving as chef de cuisine at a concept called Departures led to stints on “Top Chef” and spinoffs, and he wrote an award-winning cookbook. Kann is Gourdet’s first concept and it has already been named America’s best new restaurant by Esquire. Perhaps more importantly, Gourdet has publicly pledged to hire a diverse staff and pay them well. Hopefully his leadership as an employer will inspire others.
The Levy-Boka marriage
This was also the year the noncommercial foodservice giant Levy took a minority stake in Boka Restaurant Group, the multiconcept parent to some of Chicago’s most prominent restaurants, including Boka, Girl & the Goat, Alla Vita and Swift & Sons. The partnership comes as Boka branches out more into non-Chicago markets, like Los Angeles and Brooklyn, N.Y.
Flyfish Club and SHO
Private clubs also proliferated in 2022, including some with an NFT angle. Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises is partnering with New York-based Tao Group Hospitality on a project scheduled to open next year. In San Francisco, SHO Group broke ground on a multi-faceted concept on the roof of Salesforce Park that will include a private membership club backed by the sale of NFTs. In New York, the NFT-funded concept Flyfish Club is under development by VCR Group—the latter two selling their NFT memberships before the crypto craze became crypto chaos.
Coming: José Andrés at the Old Post Office
This restaurant is still a long way off, but it was a win in 2022. Nobel Prize-nominated chef, restaurateur, humanitarian and (probably) a saint José Andrés finally will be able to open a restaurant in the historic Old Post Office building in Washington, D.C., formerly owned by former President Donald Trump. Back in 2015, Andrés had planned to open in the Trump hotel there, but the then-candidate Trump disparaged Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists in a speech that didn’t sit well with the chef. Andrés pulled out of the project and a court fight ensued, and was later settled. The hotel is now owned by Hilton as part of the Waldorf Astoria Hotels brand.
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