Chef José Andrés is bullish on Philly

World-renowned chef José Andrés opened his first restaurant in Philadelphia this week — and it won’t be the last.

“Once you move to a city, you don’t just open one,” Andrés says. “There’s plenty of space to open two, three, four…”

Philly’s first branch of veg-centric Beefsteak (that’s “beefsteak” as in tomato, not steer) is now serving in Penn’s Houston Hall. Like Rick Bayless’ Tortas Frontera, which opened in the on-campus complex in 2014, the fast-casual spot is open to the public. However, Andrés’ choice of a college setting was very deliberate.

“It’s very much like the Facebook idea,” he says. “We start in a university, we expand to another university — all the way from the East Coast to the West Coast.”

Although other outposts of Beefsteak (of which the Spanish-born Andrés currently operates two in his home base of Washington, D.C., with two more launching soon) attract a wide range of customers, “the 18- to 23-year-old age group is very important to me. That is who I want nurture, people that I know are going to appreciate this concept and then grow with us.”

Beefsteak boldly embraces the burgeoning trend of eschewing meat for a focus on produce. Instead of a burger, the one robust sandwich on the menu features either a thick slice of tomato (in summer) or roasted beet (in winter) between the bun. The half-dozen customizable bowls and salads use meat sparingly, almost as a garnish — if you choose to add it at all. Tagline: “Vegetables, unleashed.”

The signature sandwich at Beefsteak
The signature sandwich at Beefsteak Credit: Twitter / @beefsteak

But the 46-year-old restaurateur, who’s known as much for his culinary prowess as his outspoken leadership on social issues facing the global restaurant community (he recently accompanied President Obama on a trip to Cuba), didn’t bring his plant-based concept to Philly because of our acclaimed vegan dining scene. In fact, though he speaks highly of the city’s food landscape, he hasn’t had a chance to visit any of the lauded vegetable restaurants here — not Vedge, not V Street, not HipCityVeg. “I don’t even keep up with the restaurants that are opening in D.C.,” he says.

He also didn’t come to Philadelphia simply for the sake of competition, though he’s quick to note “there’s been a lot of Philly chefs moving to D.C..” (Who? Marc Vetri, Stephen Starr, Jose Garces, Nicole Marquis and Rich Landau, to name a few.)

Instead, the move was strategic, in a couple of ways.

“My big move really was to the West Coast, if you think about it,” he says — Andrés operates several restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, plus one in Miami — “but nothing in the area surrounding D.C.”

In addition to giving him a second foothold along the Mid-Atlantic megalopolis, the Philadelphia launch marks the start of a developing partnership between Think Food Group (Andrés’ restaurant organization) and Bon Appetit Management Company, which runs the dining program for the University of Pennsylvania — and dozens of other colleges around the U.S. — plus top corporations like Google, Starbucks, Adobe and DreamWorks.

It was during frequent visits to Google, where he was invited to give talks as part of the company’s public policy programming, that Andrés and Bon Appetit execs first hit it off.

“I’m not a guy who can just give franchises to anybody,” Andrés says. “Bon Appetit is the leading high-end food company for the masses in America. It’s the closest thing to a franchise partnership that I can live with.”

At Penn, “we are learning to know each other, and how we work together,” he continues. “This allegiance — this is more than just one place. I can’t announce it yet, but there’s other universities coming.”

College areas are a focus for the fast-casual concept
College areas are a focus for the fast-casual concept Credit: Twitter / @beefsteak

Likewise, though they won’t necessarily fall under the Bon Appetit purview, there will be other Philadelphia branches of Beefsteak in the future. He doesn’t have any locations scoped out as of yet, but continues to be bullish on college areas, since they bring in his target 18-23 market.

He also feels strongly about bringing Beefsteak-style cuisine — what he alternately calls “feel-good food” or “food with integrity” — to less-advantaged areas. Andrés and his team are currently planning an outpost (either food truck or brick-and-mortar) in Anacostia, a relatively downtrodden D.C. neighborhood that’s only now just starting to be revitalized. And once there are a few more branches open in Philly, he says, he’ll look to do the same thing here.

“It’s funny, during this time when people are talking about building walls, we really should be building bridges between different communities instead,” Andrés says.

“So, can restaurants be those places that build bridges? Yes. It’s not easy, but I can promise you we will try.”

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...