Today’s so-called “celebrity chef” usually comes with a handful of calling-card resume builders: TV appearances, cookbooks, award nominations, a portfolio of esteemed restaurants. And Chef Rick Bayless, as celebrity a chef as they come, is no different. The James Beard–winning chef and author of eight cookbooks won the inaugural season of “Top Chef Masters” and has established himself as one of the leading voices for authentic Mexican cuisine through three adjacent restaurants on Clark Street in Chicago: fine-dining eatery Topolobampo, casual diner Frontera Grill, and the fast casual Xoco.
But, unlike some of today’s other high-profile chefs, Bayless isn’t really a businessman or a figurehead. He’s quick to point out that he’s the creativity guy, the kind of chef who gets out of bed every morning because he has an opportunity to affect his menu, his employees, his source partners, and his guests in profound ways. The business part of it—the celebrity part of it—is helping him do that on a national basis, as well, giving Bayless a platform to promote fresh ingredients, authentic foods, and an innovative way to approach foodservice in America.
That platform is now extending further into the fast-casual world, as Bayless has a suite of limited-service concepts that put his authentic Mexican cuisine in front of a broader audience. Along with Xoco, there’s Tortas Frontera and Frontera Fresco, the former changing the way airport foodservice is perceived through two O’Hare International Airport outposts, the latter taking his brand into four Macy’s locations, Chicago’s Northwestern University, and, most recently, the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
QSR editor Sam Oches sat down with Bayless in the chef's Chicago office to talk about the evolving foodservice industry and what he wants to change in the limited-service world.
Tell me about the national growth of your fast-casual brands. What’s the strategy behind moving into other cities?
We don’t have a strategy yet because we are not sure what we want to do, how we want to do it. The opportunity arose to do [Frontera Fresco at UPenn] through the Bon Appétit Management Company, and they really wanted us to do this project. We dragged our heels a bit on it because it’s very distinctive ingredients. Here in Chicago especially, we are so deeply into the local sources for our things. We had to go out there just to see about sourcing, and we thought that the fit with Bon Appétit Management would be good because many of their units do a lot of local sourcing.
We’re just trying to find our way. Part of our mission as an organization is education, so we’re really interested in exploring what it means to be on a college campus. Everybody says the college kids don’t want to eat any good food; they just want to eat pizza and drink beer or whatever. But that’s not true. There are a ton of college students that are super into food. They know food, they’ve been raised watching Food Network, their parents were aware of food. There are a lot of college students, especially at a place like the University of Pennsylvania, or here at Northwestern, that are really concerned about what they put in their bodies.
We’ve molded our menu in Northwestern over the last year to make it right for the students. The learnings from Northwestern will be part of what we do in the University of Pennsylvania. It’s just really nice to know that we’re contributing, because I think when a lot of kids leave home, that’s when they really begin to become their own person and they explore all kinds of things. One of the things they explore is, ‘What is my taste? What do I like? I know what I grew up on, but what about what I like?’ So they explore different things, and we’re happy to be part of that exploration and offer something that’s just a little off the norm, a little different.
How much does the fast-casual model in general contribute to letting you do that? Does it allow you to get in front of audiences that you otherwise haven’t gotten in front of?
You can see our growth here on Clark Street. We did Frontera Grill first, which was just right in the middle. It was certainly upscale compared to a lot of Mexican places when we opened 26 years ago, but it’s just a sort of upscale casual, you can say. Then we opened our fine dining after that. Then we realized that we could get the next-door space here. I wanted to keep it all together here because this is where all of our offices are, this is where I am all the time, and if I can just bounce back and forth from one to the other, it’s a really great way for me to just keep my fingers in all the pots. So I thought the one thing that could be complementary would be to do something that is quick service, but I couldn’t cannibalize anything else that we had going.
I know everybody said, ‘Oh, Bayless is going to open a taqueria.’ Well, there are just taquerias everywhere, and I just didn’t really want to compete in that world. We opened a torta place instead, which actually turned out very interesting for us because, if you go to Mexico City, there are as many tortarias as there are taquerias. And here, people don’t know them very much. So it actually fulfilled part of our mission to be more educational, because we were bringing something new to the scene.
So when you think about taking your concept into new cities or new locations, you’re looking at it on an opportunity-by-opportunity basis?
We are right now; we don’t have any sort of rollout possibilities. Xoco is like the granddaddy of all of these quick-service places that we’re doing, and it’s a total chef-run restaurant where every single thing is made from scratch and has a high-powered crew working there. Almost everybody on the line is a culinary student or a graduate. We’re really reaching far in the menu there. That’s where ideas come from that we can feed into the other places where we have less control.
Outside of the Clark Street restaurants, we don’t own any of the places. They’re all licensing agreements with whoever the operator is running them. We have a whole team that does nothing but the quality assurance for all of those units. They do training, retraining, checking, rechecking all the time. With the ones at the airport, all of us that are on the management team turn in reports every time we fly, which unfortunately for me is too often. We go and we do our checklist, and we interact with the management out there. That’s one of the reasons why people keep saying that the airport places are the best airport food in the country. It’s because I’m the one who is probably once a week doing the quality control on that place. Our next goal is to open a Tortas here in Chicago that we will own that will become our training Tortas, so we can bring people here and it’s like, ‘OK, we’re running it, we know it’s all perfect, so we’re going to bring you in here and train you.’
We’re really feeling it through, trying to figure out what it’s going to be like to use the local products in Philadelphia. It’s a great place to go because they have great local products, but we’re just feeling our way through that and just seeing what stuff tastes like and how it’s going to be and all that sort of stuff. Can we do something that expresses local products and our brand image at the same time? That’s kind of what we’re interested in doing, to ask that question and see what the answer is. That will lead us in our growth.
I know that the O’Hare locations show that there is a demand among consumers these days for high-quality food in a quick-service format. What do you think about the industry today? It seems like it’s at a turning point where people expect more quality ingredients.
And to have them treated right. We’re looking at it from building it from the bottom up, so how you choose the products, how you treat the products, how you finish the dish—the techniques you need for finishing the dish—and then how you serve it to the guest.
First of all, the population has changed. We’re much more educated, thank God, and we’re beginning to be so much more demanding about what we want to put in our bodies and what we want that experience to be like—we want it to be fully pleasurable. The other thing that we have to understand is that people are super happy to wait for food. We’re very much oriented toward responding to where we think the general population is in terms of food and their knowledge of it and what they really want, and the fact that they want it to be full of flavor.
What I think a lot of people have done in settings like airports is to go for the absolute lowest common denominator. So if one person says, ‘I don’t like spicy, don’t make anything spicy,’ nothing on your menu should be spicy. And we said, you know what? There are all these people out there who want spicy food, garlicky food, full-of-flavor food. They want it to be made with good ingredients. I don’t feel like I need to appeal to 100 percent of the people walking down that corridor. I just want the people that want our food. And there are a lot of them out there. So we’re really happy about that.
When you think about those new demands and the way the consumer trends are evolving in that way, where do you see the industry going in the next 20 years?
I think it will probably go down a forked path. It will be very clear that there’s not one trend. Just like the Internet has allowed us all to find our own little home, our own little geeky friends all over the place that share our interest in something, the same is true about food. We’re going to see all kinds of things. We’re going to see the healthy options like LYFE Kitchen for people who are looking for that, and the ethnic options, like what we do, for people who are really looking for those kinds of flavors. We’re going to see the absolute cheap fast food—it will not go away. And they will still have bigger budgets than all the rest of us to advertise their product. That doesn’t bother me; I’ll let them do what they’re going to do. But you can’t fight with flavor. And I think that what you can taste in our food is so much more flavor.
I think the interesting thing is that we all used to watch the same newscasts. We used to read the same newspaper. Everything was all funneled into the lowest common denominator out to everybody, and we all just kind of took it in. And then along came that little device called the Internet, and we said, ‘You know what? I like this better. I don’t need that.’ So now all of the things that we’re looking for as the lowest common denominator approach to things are starting to lose their foothold. I think that we see it a lot in food as well.
What do you think about health in the industry today? Is enough being done to really turn things around?
I believe in health and healthy food in a different way than most people do. I think once you get into the nutrition aspect of it, where it’s, ‘Oh here’s my plate with 400 calories, and it’s got 26 grams of carbs and so many milligrams of salt,’ etc., you’re not eating food—you’re eating nutrients. And I’ve never found a nutrient to be delicious. I just can’t relate to them in that way. And I think probably most human beings eat because they want to eat something that tastes good to them. My goal always is to say, ‘Let’s make real food.’ If you think about sort of balancing things like vegetables and grains and meats and try to keep it all kind of balanced, to me that’s healthy eating and that’s really all you have to think about.
People will come into Xoco especially because it’s quick serve and say, ‘Do you have the calorie count on this and do you know how many grams of protein I’m getting on this sandwich?’ and things like that, and it becomes another conversation, and it’s not the conversation that I want our food to have with our guests. I just want them to know that this is real food, kind of like your mom would make.
What do you think can be done on a large scale to really help the nutrition at the big chains? They’re desperately trying to figure out what to do about health.
My feeling is that it has to become more regionalized, because I don’t think that their systems are in human scale at all. Once you get to a certain scale, you start making decisions about how you’re going to treat that food that is not necessarily good for the food or the human beings consuming that food. People look at us and laugh and they say, ‘You can do that because you’re so small.’ Well, maybe you should start thinking smaller. I think if the big guys want to start doing something that is fresh and healthier and all of that, they’re going to have to start thinking about littler groups of restaurants.
More chefs like you are moving into fast casual. How optimistic are you that some of that movement is going to shake things up in the industry and put pressure on bigger chains to make some moves?
I think we can offer what we can do, and we’ll hopefully set a benchmark for them. I’m not expecting that our group is going to become the next Chipotle and will have 2,000 units. It’s more for people like [Steve] Ells at Chipotle; he’s a chef, and that organization has a completely different structure than most of the quick-serve places do, because he’s designed it and its menu from a chef’s perspective. I think they’re the ones that are shaking it up. They’ve grown big because that’s what he wanted to do, and they’re offering real food to people.
There’s been a lot of talk about local ingredients playing a role in making foods healthier. How possible is it to scale something like local foods?
When we opened here, I started looking for farmers to work with. We had very little for about the first 10 years. And then all of a sudden we started getting some traction, we got some more farmers markets, we got more contacts, it started growing. Then all of a sudden it hits national, and everybody is talking about local, and now so many of our sources have grown and grown and grown. This local food movement is growing so that not only are people demanding it, but the suppliers are growing.
We have seen this kind of growth with a lot of our farms now, so that they can actually do stuff. Our fruit supplier started supplying fruits for some stuff out at the airport. We’ve got some of Nichols Farms stuff, and all summer and fall we ran a farmers market salad, and it was all Nichols Farm produce. We found out how to get it out there and they’ve scaled up. So it is scalable, but it’s hand-in-hand with the producer. The more there is demand for that kind of stuff, the more it’s great for the farmers, because they have to learn how to produce in a larger scale.
Chipotle does this, too. They’ll go into an area and say, ‘This is our specification; will you grow this for us?’ And maybe it’s just one item. But they get somebody to grow it for them in the quantities that they need for that area. And I think that’s the way it’s scalable. It’s not scalable nationally, it’s only scalable regionally or locally. But you have to be willing to grow with the farmers and help grow them.
What would you say is the one thing in the quick-serve and fast-casual industry that you would hope to see changed in the near future?
I think that we have really done a huge disservice to our population by having food too cheap. The cheaper the food becomes, the less nutritionally dense it is. That’s been proven over and over again. So you may get a dollar meal, but it’s not really going to do much for you as a human being. We’re the only one of the developed countries that spends so little on our food, because we keep demanding that it be messed with, in a way, so we can get it cheaper. I think that that’s a disservice to our country and our culture.