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.