Jeff Benjamin and Dave Ziel at the center of URBN's sprawling Navy Yard campus

Jeff Benjamin and Dave Ziel at the center of URBN's sprawling Navy Yard campus

Danya Henninger

How the URBN purchase is changing Vetri restaurants

You can’t see it, but the pressures of a publicly-traded company are front and center in the Navy Yard.

Every day for the past 17 years, Jeff Benjamin has dressed for work in a neatly tailored suit and tie. Now that he’s a COO at a national brand that trades on NASDAQ, basically the definition of corporate (instead of just Marc Vetri’s partner in a local restaurant group), the uniform might seem more fitting.

It’s actually the opposite.

At the Navy Yard offices of Urban Outfitters parent URBN, which acquired the Vetri Family restaurants last November, dress code is intensely casual. Just about all the staffers are in relaxed apparel, and many look like they just stepped out of one of the company’s catalogs. Surrounded by people in beat-up jeans, ruffled tank tops, faded t-shirts and shoes that hew awfully close to flip-flops, Benjamin seems way overdressed.

“We’re working on him,” says URBN chief development officer Dave Ziel, looking comfortable in a low-key Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts. “We’ll get him out of that tie soon enough.”

The laid-back outfits — and the dogs lounging under the desks — can distract from the work ethic at URBN’s 11-building headquarters at the tip of South Philadelphia. The 2,500 or so employees there are expected to put in long hours for the overall good of the company. That kind of dedication is similar to what Vetri and Benjamin have always asked of their restaurant workers, whether dishwasher or bartender or line cook.

Which is part of why the Vetri-URBN marriage isn’t so surprising, now that they’re down the aisle.

“It was about buying a team as much as buying a concept,” Ziel explains. “There was a cultural fit.”

Pizza from the start

The cultural fit stretches back further than most realize. When the acquisition was announced, business analysts were both shocked and skeptical. Some typical assessments: “One of the most puzzling buyouts in recent history…”, “a confusing purchase…”, “an odd marriage…”.

Not so fast.

In 1977, when Richard “Dick” Hayne launched the first Urban Outfitters at 4040 Locust Street in West Philadelphia, the store shared the warehouse space with two other businesses. What were they? SaladAlley, a casual health-conscious eatery, and Bocce, an Italian game hall serving 17 styles of wood-fired pizza.

That’s right. The very first Urban Outfitters store had a pizzeria inside.

Hayne didn’t own the pizzeria, though, and for the next 30 years, he grew his apparel behemoth without giving restaurants much thought. Then in 2008, he and Ziel, who’d joined the company a few years prior, realized workers at their new Navy Yard facility didn’t have any nearby options for lunch. They developed and built 543, a huge cafeteria that’s also open to the public. According to Ziel, around 70 percent of the people the cafe now serves are not URBN employees.

543 was URBN's first restaurant concept

543 was URBN's first restaurant concept

Danya Henninger

After 543, food began to play a bigger role. When URBN branched into homewares with the Terrain brand, the store opened with a cafe inside, and that arrangement was duplicated in several other Terrain locations.

URBN higher-ups began to realize that food and shopping were a powerful adjacency.

“We saw the synergy of retail and food and beverage already in our existing concepts, and that really spurred the initiative with [Vetri],” says Ziel. “Ultimately if we were going to scale we were going to need culinary experts. These guys, on the other hand, were looking to scale, but while they had the culinary expertise, they were missing everything else.”

Benjamin puts it more simply. He describes the courtship as starting with conversations like this: “Hey, you guys planning on growing your business?” “Yeah, we just don’t know how.” “Hey, you guys want to expand food and beverage?” “Yeah, but we’re just not food and beverage folks.”

A year later, the deal was done.

The corporate learning curve

Nine months in, the match made in heaven is past its honeymoon phase. According to the players, the relationship is progressing well.

URBN doesn’t yet break out food and beverage as a separate business unit for accounting purposes, so there aren’t publicly available hard revenue figures for the restaurants post-acquisition. But Benjamin will say that business hasn’t slowed down at any of the Vetri Family locations, and that “some are doing even better.”

“I’m very comfortable with the current performance,” Ziel adds, giving the assessment a corporate gloss.

Speaking on behalf of a publicly-traded company with tens of thousands of employees is something both Benjamin and Vetri are still getting used to. Especially Vetri, who likes to say what’s on his mind.

Benjamin and Vetri Family director of operations Tia McDonald

Benjamin and Vetri Family director of operations Tia McDonald

Danya Henninger

“They’re learning how to play the game,” says Ziel. “At the end of the day, as an executive you have a fiduciary duty not only to your shareholders, but to every single person that you employ.”

“I love to talk,” he continues. “I’m an affable guy. But the bottom line is that I’m tight-lipped about strategy for lots of reasons. Every time I speak, I try to put everyone here first. Our employees and our customers.”

Another part of the learning curve for the Vetri team is revenue targets — and what that means when it comes to special events.

“Before, Marc and I would get together and talk about how we’re doing and it would be like, ‘Did we make money?’ ‘Yeah, we made money,’” Benjamin says. “It was all about cash flow.”

Now, it’s about hitting targets. Thanks to Wall Street’s thirst for uninterrupted growth, if there’s a special, one-off chef’s dinner that draws additional customers to a restaurant, that location will have to find a way to continue to match — and outpace — those sales.

“Marc’s so powerful,” Ziel observes, “that if he enters an existing operation and does an event you can’t forget that, or you’re going to put that particular restaurant in a bad way the following year.”

URBN considers itself an expert in top-line growth, and execs aren’t planning to treat the restaurant subsidiary any differently.

Benjamin feels the pressure, but he’s not worried. “One of the commitments that you make,” he notes, “is how much can you grow your company in the next five, ten years?”

A plan to grow smart

So how much will Vetri Family grow? There is a plan, but no one will reveal what it is. One reason for that: It’s likely to change as they go along.

“We’re not going to expand to expand,” Ziel says. “We’re going to expand to do well.”

That means opening up more standalone restaurants — an outpost of Amis is currently under construction in Westport, Conn. — and also restaurants that are adjacent to other URBN brands. It does not mean burying pizzerias in the back of clothing stores.

“One thing Dick and I don’t think works,” Ziel says, “is buried food and beverage within a retail store. We believe it has to have its own street presence.”

That “street” doesn’t necessarily have to be outdoors. A Pizzeria Vetri will anchor URBN’s new cluster of shops coming to the King of Prussia Mall. The central bar will be surrounded by entrances to Urban Outfitters, Free People and Anthropologie. In a first, all the brands will launch simultaneously this October.

Each new venture will be carefully scrutinized. The company considers the two-month-old Washington, DC location of Pizzeria Vetri its first official foray into a previously non-Vetri market. (There’s also a Pizzeria Vetri shop in Austin, but it’s a grab-and-go, not a sit-down.)

Setting up test cases and analyzing them to create a successful formula has always been URBN’s modus operandi. Dick Hayne has even incurred shareholders’ wrath for refusal to open more stores more quickly, but he prefers what URBN refers to as “tested, measured, methodical, profitable growth.”

In this case, there isn’t a specific target to hit.

“There has been no promise of ‘We’re going to have 50 stores, or 80 stores.’” says Benjamin. “Our promise to URBN in the next five years is that we will grow.”

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