When David and Andrea Snyder started Urban Cookhouse, it was firmly a fast casual. After all, that format was wildly popular in the Southeast back in 2010. Plus the pair were fast-casual pros, having served on the Zoës Kitchen corporate team.
True to the fast-casual category, the first two locations served high-quality food, catering to customers seeking a healthier lifestyle, but the brand didn’t attract everyone. Regulars were mostly women coming during lunch, and there were fewer male customers. Dinner traffic was also slower than the team would have liked.
Two years into the operation, fellow Zöes alum, Will Gillespie, joined the concept (based in Birmingham, Alabama, at the time) as a partner. Around that same time, demand began shifting toward fine casual.
“One of the first things we did was take a step back and look at branding, set-up, and ambiance,” Gillespie says. Instead of trying to serve beer and wine on the side, the team added bars as focal points in places like Montgomery and Atlanta. With local draft beers and wines poured by the glass, Urban Cookhouse essentially nixed the veto vote for guests who wanted libations at dinnertime.
Still, Gillespie stresses that keeping the brand family-friendly was a priority. “Our intent is not to drive bar business; it’s to be more of an amenity to our food, making sure we aren’t losing that segment of our business,” he says.
Service became Urban’s No. 1 focus. The team added an additional position in the front of the house, took trash cans out of the dining rooms, placed drinks behind the counters, and started using real silverware and plates.
“At a lot of fast-casual concepts, you fend for yourself after you order,” Gillespie says. That worked in his favor with Urban’s new model, as he wanted diners to be pleasantly surprised by the brand’s overdelivery of service. The initiative worked. Urban Cookhouse’s evening traffic increased to nearly match lunchtime.
In 2014, about a year after implementing the more fine-casual qualities at new locations, Gillespie acquired the company and moved the headquarters to his hometown of Columbia, South Carolina. His intent was to expand and continue pushing the brand to provide the highest value one can find in the industry. Not only would ingredients be 100 percent locally sourced, but also everything from mustards and dressings to dry rubs would be made in-house. Despite this high quality quotient, plates clock in between $8 and $12, with most under $10.
Borrowing inspiration from backyard cookouts, Urban Cookhouse smokes all meats on site in Big Green Eggs. Customers come as they are, he says, in business attire, workout clothes, or Little League uniforms. They can grab something quick or choose to linger over a drink and a game of cornhole in the back. All locations feature a firepit, kids’ corner with games and books to keep children occupied, and enough screens to watch games.
PRESIDENT: Will Gillespie
FOUNDERS: David and Andrea Snyder
HEADQUARTERS: Columbia, South Carolina
YEAR STARTED: 2010
ANNUAL SALES: Unavailable
TOTAL UNITS: 13
FRANCHISED UNITS: 7
The menu trends toward casual dining, with signature dishes including the Berry Good Salad with chopped greens, feta, tomatoes, cucumber, fresh assorted berries, and a housemade vinaigrette, plus the hearty El Cubano, featuring pork smoked in house with housemade pickles and mustard. For an indulgent dessert, Urban Cookhouse whips up on-demand Half-Baked Cookies, served on a skillet with ice cream and chocolate syrup.
Locations, which are ideally 2,500–3,000 square feet, play to the city they are based in. Among the rustic but clean decor, there are statement pieces reflective of the area, like an 8-foot-wide peach in Georgia. Seating ranges from big, family-style tables with room for a dozen diners to two-top tables and booths, as well as seats at the bar.
Continuing to push the convenience quotient, Urban Cookhouse is working on a drive-thru window for pickup orders, which is already available in six of the 13 stores. “I have two young daughters. They’re 7 and 4 now, but a couple years ago, they were in car seats. I know the burden of getting them out of the car,” Gillespie says.
To adapt the drive thru for a made-to-order format, Urban Cookhouse only needs a single window, as customers must call in orders or make them online. From a development standpoint, single-window setups accommodate locations that standard two-window drive thrus could not.
Gillespie admits that the Urban Cookhouse team is still figuring out drive-thru logistics and brand positioning. “We don’t really promote it because we don’t want people to think we’re fast food. We try to get them in the door first,” Gillespie says. Right now, it serves as a perk for returning customers who discover the option in store.
Moving forward, Gillespie is looking for locations in Southeastern cities with robust traffic, high density, higher incomes, good visibility, easy access, and plenty of parking. Nevertheless, stores in markets farther afield—like Los Angeles, Dallas, or Chicago—may not be too far off.
While the team has been focused on executing existing locations, Gillespie says they will be kicking growth back into gear in 2019. “We’ll start looking for additional locations in the markets we’re in, as well as additional markets, in the second quarter of next year,” he says.
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