As the season 7 winner of Food Network Star, Jeff Mauro could have slapped his name on the façade of a restaurant, collected a licensing fee, and left town. It would have been a heck of a lot easier.
“That’s not how big brands are built, through ease,” Mauro says. “And nothing is easy about this process.”
It’s been close to three years since Mauro and Kevin Corsello, a friend he met through a local bike shop in Chicago, began the framework of Pork & Mindy’s. The fast casual has since expanded to four locations, including a spot in Minneapolis’s Elevate Food Hall.
Despite the challenges, Mauro says, he doesn’t “regret one single choice.” It may not have been the painless route, but it was well worth it. And the result is scalable, too. A partnership with Compass Group, one of the largest food management companies in the world, has Pork & Mindy’s positioned to grow through an eclectic blend of corporate restaurants, licensed units with Compass, and via food halls as well.
The Midwest will be Pork & Mindy’s initial target, with locations expected to debut in seven new markets this year alone.
“For us [opening in Minneapolis in May] was kind of our first, OK, it just doesn’t work in Chicago, it also works in other places kind of moment,” Corsello says. “We realized that not only do other parts of the country rhythm with our food and our brand, but we can operationally execute it, and still maintain the ethos and ultimately the quality of the food that Jeff wants to be delivered to the consumers.”
Corsello believes Pork & Mindy’s is ready. But getting to this point, and maintaining the brand’s well-defined purpose, was only possible through slow, deliberate, and often challenging development.
Just look at it this way: To the common guest glancing at the restaurant's name, is it clear Mauro is involved?
For someone with a deep-dish sized personality, known as the “Sandwich King,” it would have been easy to leverage Mauro’s fanbase and branding to immediate success. That’s not quite the case, however. One of the main reasons being, Mauro says, because he wanted Pork & Mindy’s to rise on its own merits—culture, food, and a musical vibe that would be more sustainable long-term if they could stand on their own, not on his celebrity.
“I had several, many, meetings with restaurant groups in the city of Chicago to open up a concept,” Mauro says. “And this was the first one that came to me where it was about more than just one brick-and-mortar sandwich-heavy full-service restaurant. I didn’t want that. I wanted to reach as many mouths as possible. I wanted to have my fans from a national to international base be able to experience my food and recipes.”
“Sure I could have opened a restaurant with one of the more experienced restaurant operators in the city, if not the country, or I could build a company from the ground up,” Mauro adds. “That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to create.”
He flipped the script with Corsello, who sold Mauro’s father a bike once. Corsello had no culinary training or restaurant experience. A Harvard Business School grad, Corsello developed the concept’s idea from barbecue competitions he competed in with friends in 2005—on a team called Pork & Mindy’s (an satirical ode to the TV series Mork & Mindy).
Corsello knew Mauro well before The Food Network Star invaded his career, back when he was a private chef for a large mortgage company in Chicago. He called him about Pork & Mindy’s and floated the idea.
“One of the things about when I initially met Jeff he said he was looking for more authentic way to get his food to more consumers out there rather than just through the recipes and data bases that Food Network uses,” Corsello says. “I thought it was a really authentic connection, because we were friends.”
In addition to offering Mauro the chance to develop a brand, not just stand on the sidelines and watch his name buzz, Pork & Mindy’s was right in his culinary wheelhouse.
The slow-cooked meats are set up in vibrant sandwich form, from the Chicken Fried Pork to the Bao to the Pork to Hot Chicken “French Toast,” which features spicy chicken topped with crumbled Pig Candy bacon, green apple relish, pickled red onions and Apricot Habanero Sauce on a “French Toast” bun.
The Pig Candy is a major hit. It is candied bacon, dusted in brown sugar, and slow cooked until brittle. The Chicago Bears and Chicago Cubs sell it at games.
“I wanted to become a partner in this and not only just help install the booths, and devise the menu, but I wanted to test out everything and really build a brand with multiple verticals and try to feed as many people as possible,” Mauro says.
The culture angle of Pork & Mindy’s is critical to Mauro and Corsello. Music and art represent essential spirals in the brand’s DNA. The restaurant hosts what it calls “Back of the House Sessions,” which are exclusive content series showcasing local, independent artists who perform right in Pork & Mindy’s kitchens. The art and décor are also fueled by local artists, and rotate every few months.
“Food, music, and art to me have always been three of the most important things in life. I come from a big Italian family and the culture of the family is everything you do we surround ourselves by food, no matter what,” Corsello says. “… To me those are the three holy grails of experiences. When I started talking to Jeff about the concept and really connecting with people’s passions, and integrating that into our brand, I think that really resonated with him as well from an authentic way.”
“It was a shared passion between us when we first bonded we bonded over food and music and we wanted to just be creative,” Mauro says. “It’s a nice vibe in the stores. Where you walk in and you’re surrounded by beautiful imagery and beautiful noises and the smell of meat-smoke in the air. Those three things, you’re bound to like one of them and come back for more.”
Among the biggest challenges so far, Corsello says he was surprised with just how difficult it was to field the right team. “I was wondering, ‘Where are the A-plus players hiding?’” he says. “It is a very challenging and time-consuming path to find the right people that really care about and have the passion for your brand, and also the skillset to execute the strategy.”
“Although it’s been quite a challenge over the last couple of years building the team and finding the right time, there’s no question in my mind that today’s team of Pork & Mindy’s is the team that’s going to bring us to what I would consider crystalizing our initial vision,” he adds.
Mauro explains the process a bit blunter: “I get it,” he says. “It’s a new business and we’ll have turnover trying to sift through the crap to find a gold nugget. But we’ve definitely got a very good team now after several years of having a couple of clunkers, to say the least.”
Mauro says he’s been surprised by just how much energy the concept has generated. From the White Sox, Cubs, and Bears to interested parties hoping to join the process, Mauro says the interest has been “gratifying and proof of concept in a way.”
“People dig what we’re doing,” he says. “And not just my aunts or Kevin’s dad. Or our friends and family. People who can change our lives.”
Pork & Mindy’s has prospered through pop ups and food halls. Corsello says Compass Group helped them identify the outlets as trendy and successful options to scale and spread the brand. He says it helped Pork & Mindy’s learn to question and focus its business model, everything from operations to the path of purchase for consumers.
Fine-tuning the concept behind the counter, and not just in a brick-and-mortar location, refined Pork & Mindy’s to the point where Corsello says they’re comfortable scaling it into new markets.
“The question was, ‘How can we fine tune to it to the McDonald’s level where it’s a well-oiled machine, and where we can execute in a 200-square-foot facility,” he says. “And how do we get our products there at a point where we can actually operate the business in a smaller environment?”
The economic-friendly reality of food halls appeals to Pork & Mindy’s as well. The shared nature of some expensive elements, like bathrooms and seating, freed the brand to promote its concept without the start-up burden.
Mauro is hands-on and pops into locations to “shake things up” when he can.
“There is not one day that goes by where there are not at least a dozen forms of communications regarding the restaurants and the brand that I engage in,” he says. “We’re giving this thing everything we’ve got.”