Jose Garces at Bar Volvér

Jose Garces at Bar Volvér

Danya Henninger

Fans of Jose Garces say his rocky 2015 won’t derail a culinary empire

One Philly restaurant closed, others scaled back menus and hours, and he lost a bundle when Atlantic City’s Revel went belly-up. But don’t count out the Iron Chef just yet.

Jose Garces has to look at the end of 2015 with relief. It’s been a rocky 18 months for his restaurant enterprise, after a decade of meteoric growth.

There was the Sept. 2014 collapse of Atlantic City casino Revel, which housed four Garces concepts. The decision to drop ticketed dining and lower prices at Kimmel Center tasting-menu atelier Volvér. The shutter of Rosa Blanca on Chestnut Street, less than two years after it opened and six months after it added a brand new nightclub downstairs. Luna Farm’s year off.

In fact, thanks to a Food Network programming decision entirely out of the Chef’s hands — the discontinuation of Iron Chef America broadcasts — Jose Garces might be Philly’s least-talked about famous chef. When Philadelphians boast of the rising food scene here these days, other chefs are more likely to get name-dropped — Michael Solomonov, Greg Vernick, Nicholas Elmi or Eli Kulp, for example. Garces does almost always get a mention when out-of-towners talk Philly dining, bundled with Stephen Starr and Marc Vetri into what might be called “Philly’s big three” — the established stalwarts. But those veterans have been restaurant owners for a respective 20 and 17 years. Garces’ first restaurant, Amada, opened just over 10 years ago.

A ‘quiet storm’ grows

Garces with Volvér chef de cuisine Natalie Maronski

Garces with Volvér chef de cuisine Natalie Maronski

Danya Henninger

Of course, it’s possible that the setbacks of 2015 are only magnified because of how swiftly Garces became a household name here. And several of his proteges — themselves rising stars on Philly’s culinary scene — are quick to defend their mentor.

“Jose is a pioneer, a quiet storm,” said Kevin Sbraga, who worked as Garces Group culinary director from 2008-2009 and now has his own, growing restaurant group. “He has slowly and steadily developed a powerhouse restaurant organization… He developed and recruited an amazing amount of talent. That is what makes growth possible.”

“To expand so quickly, yet still maintain focus and integrity, you need to have a great infrastructure,” said Nicholas Elmi, chef-owner at Laurel, who never worked for Garces but watched his rise with awe. “Chef Garces has always hired and trained amazing chefs and managers. It’s actually quite inspiring to realize that it’s possible.”

Within five years of Andalusian tapas house Amada — an immediate critical and commercial hit — Garces had launched six additional Philadelphia restaurants, partnered on one in his native Chicago and landed a coveted spot on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America, not to mention published his first cookbook.

The second half-decade saw the streak continue. Garces Group opened at least nine more dining concepts, expanding its reach to include New Jersey, Arizona, California and Washington, DC, with an NYC project on the horizon. Philadelphia alone saw four additional openings, along with the genesis of two side projects: Bucks County’s Luna Farm and the charitable nonprofit Garces Foundation. The catering and events arm of the company also increased its presence, becoming official food purveyors for popular government pop-ups like Spruce Street Harbor Park and Winterfest. Garces lent his name to the branding at Local, a gastropub in PHL Airport. Another cookbook hit the shelves.

But, as with any enterprise, the boom didn’t come without some growing pains.

Putting on the brakes

Jose Garces at Luna Farm next to catering sales director Beth Koenig

Garces at Luna Farm with catering sales director Beth Koenig

Danya Henninger

Look at it from a business perspective. If something isn’t working, why keep doing it? Along those lines of thought, 2015 really was a win for the Garces Group, according to Rob Keddie, Garces’ in-house counsel who also acts as company executive vice president and chief development officer.

“Overall we’ve had a great year,” he said. (Jose Garces declined to be interviewed for this article.) “A restaurant is not a static thing… It’s always a dynamic proposition. You’re constantly tweaking. Sometimes it’s very apparent from the outside what you’re tweaking, and sometimes it’s just behind the scenes.”

Customizing to suit the neighborhood clientele led to the recent revamp of University City’s Distrito, where the ground floor menu was overhauled to be a more casual taco-burrito-joint with student-pleasing price points.

Tweaks at JG Domestic, for example, included discontinuing dinner hours — but not many people seemed to notice. That’s likely because few people were visiting the second floor of the Cira Centre during the evening. Lunch and happy hour at the office building still remain strong.

Sometimes, tweaking means closing altogether.

Last May, Garces shut the doors at Rosa Blanca, the Cuban diner-slash-bar that had replaced Chifa at 707 Chestnut Street. The closing came just six months after the launch of Nacional 56 nightclub in Rosa Blanca’s below-ground bar. Apparently the nighttime business wasn’t that good in general; the shutter was billed as a retooling into a more casual cafe. Nothing has yet launched at the space, though Keddie assures that the company is currently working on it.

Whether or not evenings are busy at Volvér, closing never seems to be on the table at the Kimmel Center property, which was built in partnership with the concert hall along with state funds. The much-touted dinner spot started out offering ticketed dinner for no less than $175 per person, you can now get an OpenTable res and pay $95. What is the exact financial agreement there? Undisclosed. “We don’t talk about those kind of business arrangements.”

Also not disclosed is what the situation is with the Garces properties that sit empty and unused at the former Revel casino. How much Garces Group had invested in those restaurants — an Amada, a Village Whiskey, Distrito Cantina and Yuboka noodle bar — and therefore how much the closure hurt the company, is not public record. But Garces and his team haven’t given up on the Shore just yet.

“Certainly it’s a challenge any time you lose four restaurants, but we like Atlantic City as a market,” said Keddie. “We’re just waiting for the legal things to work themselves out.”

Neighborhood joint, or test market?

Garces with Mayor Michael Nutter at the 2013 Garces Foundation Gala

Garces with Mayor Michael Nutter at the 2013 Garces Foundation Gala

Danya Henninger

Garces is something of a Goldilocks when it comes to Philly’s big three. Starr originally focused on show over substance and gradually adopted a more chef-centric philosophy. Vetri started with one and then a couple chef-propelled kitchens, and subsequently grew his purview into a (now-corporate) group operating several distinct concepts. Garces aimed for the middle ground.

Garces OKs all the menus at each of his establishments. But he’s also kept tabs on all aspects of the business. “When we make major business decisions, he has the final say,” Keddie noted.

Per Keddie, most decisions are made through the lens of “do we have something interesting and unique to say in this market” and nothing more than that.

So was counter-service Baja taco shop Buena Onda designed as a test-case for a new chain, a Garces Group go at a Shake Shack or Pizzeria Vetri? Keddie doesn’t deny the concept could be easily expandable, but maintains it was really just about giving Callowhill a fish taco joint. “It has been received really well by the neighborhood,” he said, adding, “If there were expansion opportunities, we would certainly look at them.”

But even while Garces continues to put down roots in other cities — DC’s Rural Society was recently rated one of Washington’s best, and Amada NYC is highly anticipated — he’s doubling down on his relationship with Philadelphia.

Launching cocktail and oyster house The Olde Bar was more about appreciating the historical significance of the Old Original Bookbinder’s than anything else, per Keddie. “We like it on a lot of levels; we’re very fortunate to have gotten involved.”

And while Rosa Blanca proper is gone, Rosa Blanca Cafe is alive and well in Dilworth Park. Garces Group operates the concession in front of City Hall in a partnership with the Center City District, and the whole thing is what Keddie calls “a very interesting project for us.” He lauds the CCD for great programming, pointing to the Rothman Rink ice skating in the winter and music on the PNC Terrace in the summer.

The Dilworth Park cafe falls under the purview of Garces Group Catering, an area of the company Keddie confirms has seen “good growth” recently. There’s the successful arrangements with the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation to provide food and drink at Spruce Street Harbor Park and Winterfest, and also private catering, like renting out the Distrito Cantina taco truck for weddings and parties.

Meanwhile, plans are still underway for a cafe or coffee shop at 2401 Walnut Street, where Garces Group’s 30-person-office headquarters are located. No details have been finalized, and a target launch hasn’t been discussed, but something open to the public will be coming to the location next to the bridge over the Schuylkill.

Moreover, Luna Farm will be coming back online after a season off for soil regeneration. “We had to give the farm time to breathe after three heavy growing cycles right on top of each other,” Keddie explained, reinforcing what Garces said earlier this year. In 2016, “there will be product from the farm again.”

A new hope

Through the turmoil, the Atlantic City collapse and the fallow farm, Garces’ supporters are confident that the chef will rebound.

“Jose is always one step ahead of the curve,” said Kevin Sbraga.

“Whatever ideas Jose conceives in his head he somehow is able to create no matter how difficult they may be to achieve,” said Tim Spinner, a former Garces Group chef who now runs the Feliz Restaurant Group.

One thing Garces can’t do is force the Food Network to restart broadcasts of Iron Chef America, which went off the air in March 2014 after 12 highly-rated seasons. Garces had been on the show since winning the 2009 season of Next Iron Chef, a coup that was celebrated throughout the Philadelphia restaurant community. He became a national celebrity, joining well-known stars like Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and Wolfgang Puck in “Kitchen Stadium” battles that aired in households across America.

The network has stayed mum on whether the series will ever make a return, outside some one-off specials. But Garces might not necessarily want it to, since producing TV shows takes a lot of time — something that’s likely in short supply. Should we still be referring to Garces as an “Iron Chef”?

“I don’t know anything about the TV show, but I can tell you we never call him ‘Iron Chef,’” said Keddie.

“We refer to him as ‘Chef.’ Or we just call him ‘Jose.’”

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