Southern California Restaurants Going Global

By Taryn Sauer

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Globalization is a language that everyone can speak. From music, to furniture, to food international concepts are trending upward. Specific to the Restaurant and Hospitality Industry, globalization also means the opportunity for concept expansion; to take part in the international conversation surrounding American cuisine. For brands solid enough to try their chops at the gamble, the chance has often proven to be advantageous.

Just as America is comprised of multi-ethnic cuisines, so are many markets overseas; with
staple, American dishes making their stamp upon the industry. Large-scale, global expansion is credited to fast food mongers like McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut and Subway, who service nearly 75,000 international locations combined. According to IBISWorld’s Global Fast Food Restaurants: Market Research Report, QSR corporations saw a 2.3 percent increase in annual growth in the first quarter alone, with most revenue coming from developing economies.

Local, fast-casual and full-service restaurants have planted the American flag on foreign soil as well. Orange County and Los Angeles restaurants have taken flight and made landing in several countries, including Dubai, South Korea and the United Kingdom, in hopes of spreading their domestic success abroad.

“Over the years, we’ve been contacted by people overseas who love our brands,” said
Innovative Dining Group’s Founding Partner Lee Maen. “So it’s exciting for us to open in different areas around the world, experience other cultures and broaden our reach.”

IDG’s current, international portfolio includes BOA in Abu Dhabi and Katana, Blind Dragon and Delphine all in Dubai. In addition to their embrace of American brands, the Middle East has proven to be prime real estate for American concepts because of their cosmopolitan climate. International expansion also offers restaurants the chance to maintain brand consistency, while introducing menu items and ingredients geared toward a different palate.

Terry Heller, Founder of Plan Check Kitchen + Bar, who operates several locations in Los Angeles, has a license deal in the works in Dubai and plans to form a menu structure mirroring what they’ve successfully done, domestically. Each L.A. location has specific menu items that cater to the surrounding area: Jewish delicatessen items for Fairfax; a seafood-oriented menu for Santa Monica; and a KBBQ burger for their downtown location near Korea Town.

“That’s what’s great about our brand,” Heller said. “We’re able to be nimble with the menu,
because at the end of the day, our moniker is modern, comfort food.”

Like Heller, Chef and Co-Founder of Slapfish, Andrew Gruel, plans to develop a seafood menu that caters to the preferences of South Korea. He said it’s like having another shot at beta-testing different designs in another country. With 30 locations in the midst of signing (plus 10 in the UK), Chef Gruel is set on maintaining the quality of seafood served at every restaurant.

“We need to have comparable product that is sustainably harvested, and we need to know
exactly where it’s all coming from,” he said.

Menu items may change, but brand stability is of the utmost importance. These restaurants have not only rolled the dice expanding overseas, but have a solid strategy to amplify their success. Want to learn more about their journeys so far?
Check out their following responses.

LEE MAEN                                                                                                               FOUNDING PARTNER | INTERNATIONAL DINING GROUP

IDG Lee MaenWHY DID YOU PICK DUBAI? Dubai is the most cosmopolitan city in the region, with many expats living there and many other visitors from around the world. We see a fair amount of Middle Eastern guests at our restaurants in the states, so they are familiar with the IDG brand.
DID YOU FACE ANY OBSTACLES ON THE WAY TO EXPANSION? Staffing has been the most difficult — finding people that aim at the same level of hospitality that we strive for. Prior to opening overseas, we like to train the team here in the US for a month, which is great, but as turnover happens, it can become difficult to maintain.
HOW DO YOU MANAGE THESE INTERNATIONAL CONCEPTS? Once open, they are fully managed by our local partner. Our job then, is simply quality control and pushing out any updates to the restaurants.
ARE THERE ANY INGREDIENTS YOU COULDN’T GET OVERSEAS? There’s only one cut of beef that we had to specifically export from the United States. Corn is also hard to find there, so we don’t use it on the menu.
DID YOU HAVE TO CONVERT YOUR RECIPES? No, our recipes here are generally metric, so that translates internationally.
ARE YOUR LOCATIONS COMPANY STORES, FRANCHISED LOCATIONS OR PARTNERSHIPS WITH LOCAL BUSINESSES? They are licensed partnerships.
HOW DOES EACH RESTAURANT/COUNTRY DIFFER IN PRODUCTION AND MENU? There can be many differences, but one example is that we can’t serve any pork products, all meat must be Halal and we can’t use alcohol in our recipes. While we do adapt where necessary, we also try to ensure that each restaurant we open abroad still feels like an IDG restaurant, in everything from the atmosphere and menu down to the music. Sometimes we’ll add a couple of locally-inspired dishes to the menus.
ARE THERE ANY PRODUCTS THAT YOU’VE DISCOVERED OVERSEAS THAT ARE INTRIGUING/COOL, ETC.? Having access to different fruits, vegetables, seasonings and spices that we wouldn’t normally have in the States has been very cool and exciting for us.
TO WHAT DO YOU ATTRIBUTE YOUR SUCCESS? Perseverance, passion…and passion!
WHAT WORDS OF WISDOM WOULD YOU GIVE YOURSELF IN THIS PURSUIT? We try to focus first on our desire to develop places that we ourselves would like to go, but at the same time we try to keep in mind what our guests would enjoy, if at all different.
WHAT WOULD YOU TELL OTHER RESTAURANTS THAT ARE THINKING ABOUT EXPANDING OVERSEAS? WHAT IS YOUR ADVICE? Be very careful when choosing your partner and always make sure that their goals align with yours.

TERRY HELLER
FOUNDER | PLAN CHECK KITCHEN + BAR

Plan Check Kitchen Bar Terry HellerWHAT INSPIRED YOU TO BRANCH OUT OVERSEAS AND EXPAND YOUR EMPIRE? In the beginning of creating Plan Check I wanted to create a scalable concept. When we opened our first location in Sawtelle in 2012, I was quickly approached by a company who wanted to do a licensing deal in South East Asia and I just wasn’t prepared. As I started to understand the business, being a new guy in the restaurant scene, I started to notice that a lot of American brands look to expand abroad. Typically, those deals are licensing deals. We provide support; we provide the concept; kitchen support, etc.; they front the money. It’s difficult to make intelligent decisions on labor, real estate etc. since there are so many rules and cultural differences. We thought it would be better for us to be aligned with somebody, to have another layer of protection and opinion on the right sort of operators in each respective area, proper prospects of growth, and the best market to open in first. If you want to have multiple locations, you must have a structure and strategy and that’s what they provide. They’re our partner and we are in turn interviewing operators who are interested in the concept and then once we make that decision we get it going.
WHY DID YOU PICK DUBAI? Dubai has an appetite for American cuisine and they are a growing region. Based on our popularity here, we thought that we would translate well there and that there is a demand in the market.
I believe that Los Angeles is the culinary capital of America now as it has the best food. We have more openings and unique things going on right now; we’re pushing the boundaries. I also think that because we’re a brand from L.A. we’re in the most competitive market
around. We’re winning here so I think that’s a factor as well.
The plan is to open just one restaurant in Dubai, which is kind of like our spoke and wheel kind of city — a gateway city; from there we can expand to
other cities.
HOW DO YOU PLAN TO MANAGE THESE INTERNATIONAL CONCEPTS? Legendary Brands will be managing the relationship between the operator overseas and I.
DOES YOUR MENU DIFFER FROM THAT IN THE STATES? Menu development will be specific to each location as it is throughout Los Angeles. As long as we stay in our lane, taking classic dishes and kind of remix them, we’ll have some wiggle room in our approach.
DID YOU OUTSOURCE OR WAS EVERYTHING DONE IN-HOUSE? We’re a scratch kitchen, so we’ll be a scratch kitchen there as well.
TO WHAT DO YOU ATTRIBUTE YOUR SUCCESS? L.A is very competitive. I think the heart and soul of our restaurants are the people, so taking the time to develop a solid team is crucial. I don’t care how good your food is, or whether you’ve invented something completely different that no one’s ever seen or heard of before, at the end of the day, it’s the team that needs to execute and create a great experience of hospitality.
Second, our timing was great. In our first location, we opened in an area that didn’t have much American cuisine. Then our neighborhood had a huge resurgence and a lot of new cuisine came, which brought us attention. Solid hospitality, great food, great team — all of those things contribute to our success.
WHAT IS YOUR ADVICE FOR OTHER RESTAURANTS THAT ARE THINKING ABOUT EXPANDING OVERSEAS? I’m not sure if I’m in a position to give advice on this subject. At end of the day, before you start picking at your concept and putting it in some remote country consider your reasons. Is it because it’s on trend, or you want to make money? Make sure you’ve got your shit together on your business here before you take the step. I wasn’t ready in 2012, and now I feel like I’m ready in 2017. It’s about timing. Anything that we do with our name on it needs to be exceptional. I want to stack the odds in our favor, take it very seriously and make it work. Are you ready to grow? Have you figured out your business plan? Do you have your business ducks in a row in all locations? Make
sure you’re doing this for the right reasons. Make sure you’re in bed with a business partner that has a good track record, etc., or else you’re playing with fire.
Stay relevant and current. Even if you’re opening a different country, thousands of miles away, make sure your presence as a brand is being represented well.

ANDREW GRUEL
CHEF & FOUNDER | SLAPFISH, TWO BIRDS & BUTTERLEAF

Chef Andrew GruelWHAT INSPIRED YOU TO BRANCH OUT OVERSEAS AND EXPAND YOUR EMPIRE? It’s a new market and an opportunity for us to test new elements within Slapfish’s existing framework, without confusing our existing customer base. We can try new design elements, new menu items, operational layouts, kitchen design, all that stuff. It’s kind of like you’re given a second chance, because you’re basically reopening as an independent
within a new market.
WHY DID YOU PICK SOUTH KOREA? The dining community loves American brands. It’s a friendly country in the sense of them understanding the American culture, so we’re not adapting too much for cultural differences. They eat out a lot, especially at hip, young, Instagram-worthy brands.
DID YOU FACE ANY OBSTACLES ON THE WAY TO EXPANSION? It’s always difficult to internationalize your brand. You get kind of the same prospects overseas. For us, the seafood is really important. We haven’t confronted any product hurdles yet, but anything can happen pre-opening.
WILL YOU BE STAFFING FROM HERE/THERE, USING A MANAGEMENT COMPANY? When we open, our team will be there on the ground, helping with the opening process. From there, we’ll hand it off to a local, management crew in South Korea so they can get adapted to our systems.
YOU HAVE PREVIOUS EXPERIENCE MANAGING MULTIPLE CONCEPTS. HOW DOES THIS EXPERIENCE DIFFER FROM THAT? It’s a new landscape. When it comes to product sourcing, there’s a little bit of a language barrier. Palates, products and condiments are different from country to country. You’re almost teaching yourself a new language as well. We opened a Slapfish in Dubai in 2013, which has since been sold to a local, seafood brand.
DOES YOUR MENU DIFFER FROM THAT IN THE STATES? It’s 60 percent the same, but we change the ingredients a bit to localize it. You must appeal to the palates of that country. We have regional differences here too. I was opening a location in Albuquerque, NM last
week and everything needs to be hot and spicy there. Their benchmark for spice is so much higher than even here in CA.
DO YOU HAVE ANY NEW CONCEPTS IN MIND FOR THE FUTURE? Butterleaf and Two Birds just opened and we’re going to immediately target international markets with those. South Korea, London, the whole Middle East, Mexico even. We like international development. The entire world likes American brands and we can use those locations as templates so that we can continue to grow our brand in different directions. All of our growth will be through franchise.

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