Tiffany Derry might be the restaurant industry’s ultimate renaissance woman. The “Top Chef” alum and fan favorite is not only an industry consultant and food policy advocate, but she also has her own apparel line and a burgeoning restaurant portfolio. In April, she’ll return to “Top Chef,” this time as part of an elite judging and dining panel that features other past, notable contenders like Nina Compton, Edward Lee, and Kwame Onwuachi.
Given her dynamic personality and expertise, it’s no surprise that Derry is comfortable operating both full- and quick-service restaurants. During the pandemic, she opened the second location of fast casual, Roots Chicken Shak, and is slated to debut the full-service Roots Southern Kitchen this spring.
While building a restaurant pipeline is no small feat, Derry believes it’s well worth the effort.
How would you describe your fast casual? What was it like opening a second location in 2020?
Roots Chicken Shak has been around almost four years. We have a location here in Dallas that usually yields pretty big numbers for such a small space, which is great. Our slogan is “Home of the Duck Fat–Fried Chicken.” I created a menu that was short and spoke to what people wanted. When we first opened, it was just chicken wings, chicken sandwiches, and a salad. Eventually we added chicken strips, a cobb salad, and banana pudding. I wasn’t a huge lover of chicken strips, but after we made it perfect, I was like, “Ah, now I’m a believer.”
We partnered with H-E-B to open the second Roots Chicken Shak in Austin, [Texas], last August. My business partner Thomas Foley and I made some realistic goals and tried to figure out all that we could before we got into the space. It was definitely different without the craziness that you would normally have in an opening, but, in a way, that worked out. It has allowed us to work out the kinks and figure out the system.
Speaking of openings, you have a full-service restaurant that’s about to debut.
Roots Southern Table is something I’ve been working on actively and inactively for the last seven years. We were originally going to open last July, but we had to adjust everything. Thankfully the city of Farmers Branch [a Dallas suburb] and our landlord have been great. Openings now are very different from openings before COVID, where you would have people pack the house. That was your form of marketing; those people became your ambassadors. Now you’re figuring out new ways to promote your restaurant.
April is our target month to open. We’ve taken measures to change how we originally thought the restaurant would look. We’ve put a little more focus on our patio and closed it off with glass sliding doors. We invested in a heating source and an air-conditioning unit outside. We changed our AC unit to have a filtration system set up through it to make people feel safer. We had to figure out what we could do on our end right now that will still benefit us later.
Has the diverse nature of your business portfolio helped you weather the last year?
One-hundred percent. I’d done a lot of TV work, which has led to events. I also have different partnerships; I’m an ambassador for Novo Nordisk, which is a diabetes treatment company. I have DerryWear, which is my clothing line. That has helped push the brand a little bit more.
[When the pandemic began,] I started doing virtual cooking classes, and it’s allowed me to not depend on the restaurant for my source of income, which is where a lot of people are having problems. I was able to cut my expenses so that I could give the restaurant a chance to survive. My partner and I made sure that our guests not only have a restaurant, but that our employees also have a place to work.
You also have to lean on relationships. A lot of times, people are just bombarded with so many things that they forget. You can’t be afraid to reach out. When you do that, you’ll have people who want to work with you.
What are your long-term goals for the restaurant side of your business?
We have a plan in place. I want to make sure that people who want to own businesses can do that. We’re working on franchising Roots Chicken Shak and making it an opportunity for women to come into the program, own their own franchise, and figure out the financing piece. We all know the difference for some is just having access to finances.
Growing up, I didn’t see chefs who looked like me. I definitely didn’t see Black chefs, and I didn’t see many women chefs. I think it’s important that we all have representation across the board. If we can get people to where they are owning their own restaurant and creating their own spaces, it creates a better ecosystem.
Do you think we’re moving in that direction?
There has been some progress, but I think it has been made because people have demanded it. My philosophy is that I will not wait for you to give me a seat at the table. Even if I have to create my own table and whittle and saw and do what I have to do so I can bring others along with me, then that’s what I’ll do. There are women who have created that space, and I think there are also great advocates for us. My business partner is a white male, and he is one of the most generous and supportive people. They’re out there; we just have to find those right connections.