Does This Queer Eye Star’s New Fast Casual Have Long-Lasting Appeal?

    QSR talks with Antoni Porowski’s restaurant-savvy partners about New York’s Village Den.
    Web Exclusives | October 19, 2018 | Laura Zolman

    Village Den

    "Our sustainability model is just to create a concept that people need," says Village Den partner Lisle Richards.

    Netflix’s reboot of makeover show Queer Eye has gained many fans since its first season launched in February. And the cast member who’s arguably garnered the most buzz is the show’s food and wine expert, Antoni Porowski, who won everyone over with his boyish, Canadian charm but was also criticized for the basic-seeming and avocado-heavy dishes he chose to teach the people on the show.

    On social media and in interviews, Porowski and his loyal castmates rebuked this attack on his cooking skills. In July 2018, the show launched its second season with Porowski showing off more of his talents in the kitchen. And to flex his culinary muscles more fiercely, at the beginning of October, Porowski opened the Village Den, a fast-casual collaboration in New York City.

    While this might be Porowski’s first restaurant, his partners Eric Marx and Lisle Richards are seasoned industry veterans. Both come from hospitality backgrounds and have worked together for seven years as cofounders of The Metric, a hospitality, nightlife, and operations management company that has given life to New York restaurants like The Wayfarer, Serafina, and The Monarch Room, as well as Kola House—a partnership with PepsiCo.

    QSR spoke with Marx and Richards about the business behind their buzzing new venture, what it’s like to partner with a celebrity, and what we can expect from the Village Den in the future.

    Village Den

    Village Den focused on creating a bright and airy space.

    Most of your concepts are full service. Why did you choose fast casual for this restaurant?

    Richards: We think dining is changing. There's been a shift, especially with certain external forces financially for the restaurant industry, to move in the direction of fast casual. Eric and I have been focused on what that means—where does that bring the industry? This is our response to that.

    I feel like the dining room itself has a bit more of a dine-in vibe. People have been coming; they've been staying. It feels more like a full dining experience, but the actual business model is fast casual. We also have a large to-go component and delivery component that we're building into it.

    What are some guest-favorite dishes, and how do they represent what you’re trying to do with your menu?

    Richards: The Thai Chicken bowl is really flavorful, quick, and easy to eat. We find it to be appealing to everyone.

    Marx: The TV Dinners like the macadamia-crusted fish sticks are pretty popular. They’re light and baked … reminds me of growing up. And our Den Mother, which is a vegan option, is really popular. It appeals to a vegan audience or anyone who wants a lighter salad or a bowl. Again, really flavorful with pomegranate, hummus, squash, cauliflower, and lentils.

    Richards: The cabbage rolls, stuffed cabbage, is actually a very healthy option. It's stuffed with turkey and a bolognaise. Antoni, our other partner, is French-Polish, so that's a heritage item for him. The more multinational we get in our cuisine, the more we've discovered these familiar moments that are super healthy. Stuffed cabbage is like a meatloaf but for another community.

    Marx: We're doing familiar food in a healthy way. We as a community and as a society are learning how to make better choices through food. We don't think that there’s any need to totally disregard these old concepts, recipes, or constructs. I think they’re great, but they might need to be redefined as society moves forward, concerning awareness of how our bodies work in reaction to food.

    Tell me about a few of your design choices for the restaurant.

    Marx: We were focused on creating a bright and airy space. We created this structure that hangs from the ceiling and, in it, there's all of these live plants. It kind of envelopes you like a canopy of a tree. Everything has this organic form to it, but then is also really structured in this grid pattern. We've been working toward that play of organic and structure … that constant tug and pull between creativity and science.

    Village Den

    There's no shortage of healthy options at Village Den.

    Clearly the concept is getting a lot of press right now because everyone loves Antoni, but how are you setting the restaurant up for long-term sustainability?

    Richards: The reality is that people will come once because of Antoni. The question is, once they’ve tried the novelty of it—a restaurant owned by Antoni—will they come back? That will be based on whether or not the concept is sound and our food is good. Both of which they are. Our sustainability model is just to create a concept that people need.

    Do you have plans to expand?

    Richards: Nothing is solid. Eric and I are working the counter right now because it's so busy, which is such a luxury problem to have. We really want to focus on making this a) a successful business and b) a staple in the community. Will we expand? We don’t know. Would we like it to expand? Sure. Do we think it's the concept that could travel and be expandable? Yes, absolutely.

    You’ve worked with an international brand in PepsiCo before and now you’re working with a celebrity in Antoni. Do you have any advice for a restauranteur looking to partner up with an iconic brand or person?

    Richards: What we try to do is offer value. We try to understand what we bring to the table—and that is several decades of experience in the industry, as well as being able to connect on a personal level with people. So, when we work with larger brands or personalities, it's good to find a complement, like, what the other person does and what we do sometimes look very different. I think that’s why we’ve been successful with these other personages.