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The Plate is Hot

Andrew Zimmern’s foray into restaurants is already the talk of the industry.

The Plate is Hot

Just before Thanksgiving, Twin Cities resident and global celebrity Andrew Zimmern opened a restaurant in St. Louis Park. This is not Zimmern’s first rodeo. He spent two decades as a chef before turning to media in the late ‘90s. And despite two subsequent decades in front of the camera, Zimmern has pursued sidelines in food trucks and stadium dining via his startup Passport Hospitality.

Still, the restaurant bug gnawed. But he needed a partner who had infrastructure, access to capital, and the capacity to manage operations during Zimmern’s many weeks on the road filming television shows. After several stillborn efforts over the last few years, Zimmern met Michael McDermott, scion of a local restaurant family.

McDermott’s father created Chi-Chi’s and Fuddrucker’s in the 1980s, taking both public. Michael followed, doing the same with Kona Grill. Today he operates Rojo Mexican Grill at Southdale and the Shops at West End in St. Louis Park, sports bar Randall’s (downtown Minneapolis), and American eatery Tavern 23 (formerly Lou Nanne’s) on France Avenue in Edina.;

He and Zimmern began exploring a foray into Chinese food a couple years ago. Lucky Cricket is their love child, opening at the West End in the former Bonefish Grill space.

I have known Zimmern for two decades. I was his editor at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine back in the day, and follow him today mostly as an admirer (we have lunch once a year or so).

Over the last two decades, Zimmern and his team of advisors executed a business plan that catapulted him to global prominence by trying to occupy a singular space in the public eye, rather than one full of combatants. Lucky Cricket (LC) has a similar mindset. It’s been 25 years since P.F. Chang’s emerged in shopping malls, and there’s been precious little to follow, even as Americans’ taste for and knowledge of Chinese cuisine has grown.

Still, the restaurant industry is a brutal mistress and the LC team have learned some hard lessons in the restaurant’s first weeks. Zimmern has been subjected to an aggressive wave of criticism centered on the concept of cultural appropriation, a millennial thesis that questions the legitimacy of businesses where someone (usually white) “appropriates” culture they have no biological or cultural roots in for their own profit.

Zimmern also suggested LC had the potential to save Midwestern diners from an overabundance of terrible Chinese eateries. Though perhaps accurate, this did not go over well.

Lucky Cricket has also been laboring under relentless demand since it opened, serving hundreds of customers each day and taxing its staff’s capacity to execute to standards. A key chef quit as the restaurant opened. Some early reviews have noted numerous lapses in quality control and consistency.

Still, Cricket is a long-haul play, and the business plan is nothing if not ambitious. McDermott has talked about 200 units over time, though Zimmern says the initial plan is five by 2020. The duo are  searching for “A+” locations in markets within a two-hour flight of MSP—Kansas City, Denver, Dallas, Vegas, Nashville. McDermott says Cricket is not just a mall concept, and has been kicking the tires on in-city locations like the Cherry Creek district in Denver or Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza.

The McDermott family’s pedigree is not one that would set foodie hearts aflutter and Zimmern is sensitive to the idea he is a 50-50 partner in a lowest-common-denominator operation. He cites high-end chains such as global Japanese powerhouse restaurant Nobu and Morton’s steakhouse as evidence for his assertion that “Chain should not be a dirty word.” All it means, he says, is “the food and service experience is identical.”

The partners say they will not open a second restaurant until their concept is tight. “Every element in the restaurant needs to be quantified. Guest greeting, sauces on the table, how plates are garnished,” Zimmern says.

“When you’re going [to] multiple cities, you can’t leave that to chance,” McDermott adds. “The best multi-unit concepts develop that consistency.”

Still, Zimmern says his goal is to reinvent the mid-market chain model: “We’re taking the extra steps. It’s a scratch kitchen. We’re using shrimp shells to make our chicken broth and our wonton soup.”

Authenticity is a focus, but not the sine qua non. “We have salads available all day,” Zimmern says, “including dinner. Can you get salads at night in a restaurant in central China? I don’t think so. But you have to grow where you’re planted.”

“Welcoming guests with the familiar is a plus, and it allows them to come a second time and try something they are unfamiliar with.”
—Andrew Zimmern

An example of this is walleye. Food cognoscenti have mocked its presence on the LC menu. Zimmern is unfazed: “We have a walleye sandwich at lunch,” he notes proudly. “All over China people are eating freshwater fish in all kinds of dishes; how great that we can put our state fish on the menu. Welcoming guests with the familiar is a plus, and it allows them to come a second time and try something they are unfamiliar with.”

As to metrics, McDermott thinks a 6,500-square-foot, 200-seat restaurant is the sweet spot. Industry sources suggest LC spent less than a million dollars customizing the Bonefish space, but it won’t be so economical with raw space. “We were very lucky to find this,” McDermott says. Observers suggest each unit should earn $5 million in annual revenue at maturity if the chain is to be successful.

Zimmern and McDermott own the concept, but EFO Holdings (Dallas), one of the original Kona Grill investors, is their financial partner. McDermott labels the current financing climate “really good. There’s lots of money out there.” He says, “each store could have a different mix of investors. We’ve had a lot of institutions approach us since opening. We need to meet as a team and decide the best way to move forward.”

Adam Platt is TCB’s executive editor.

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