Small Kingdoms: Emerging Powerhouse Concepts Break Through

Not long ago, we did a piece on Microbrands and how this model in the restaurant industry seems to be popping up in regions all over the nation. In case you missed it, microbrands are essentially small to medium restaurant chains that brand themselves in accordance to each unit’s location. While a restaurant’s branding is consistent throughout each outlet, there are certain quirks in each individual location that differentiates the overall consumer experience. 

The restaurant industry is, of course, made up of a vast array of segments – from QSRs and fast food to fast casual and casual to fine dining. But, like microbrands, let’s not forget about the underlying pockets within these segments that truly color the American dining experience. Small Kingdoms are just that – a mainstay in the foodie hierarchy. Small Kingdoms are restaurant groups – some emerging, some well-established – that are notable in specific areas of the country. Lettuce Entertain You, for example, is synonymous with the Chicago area and Union Square Hospitality Group has been feeding NYC with new concepts for years. Small Kingdoms helm multiple concepts under their name, and though each concept may be similar in style and influence, they may range from fine dining to upscale casual to fast casual, making no two experiences the same.

“As operators start to seek out local connections with social, it only seems fitting that chefs and brands are developing a local or regional approach,” said Paul Barron, industry expert and Founder & CEO at Foodable. “Customizing offerings and creating a local connection that is very strong with consumers, these Small Kingdoms have an interesting position over big brands.”

“This is similar to our approach at Foodable,” he said. “We are focusing on local elements with our city blogs and local video features. I think operators will continue to bring hospitality as close to the one-to-one connection as they can. After all, that is what hospitality is all about.”

The Pubbelly Effect

The Miami dining scene has been slower to gain a reputation as a major food city than other major metro areas like New York, Chicago and San Francisco, but the small market continues to emerge into its own. Notables in the local food scene include three game-changers who, together, are known as the Pubbelly Boys (formally, the Pubbelly Restaurant Group). For locals especially, there’s no doubt you’re familiar with them. Andreas Schreiner, Jose Mendin and Sergio Navarro came together to build their Small Kingdom in 2010 and have since built up six concepts, including Pubbelly, Pubbelly Sushi, PB Steak, Barceloneta, a pop-up taqueria known as Taco Belly, and an in-the-works spot, L’Echon Brasserie.

 
Photo Credit: The Pubbelly Restaurant Group

Photo Credit: The Pubbelly Restaurant Group

 

We recently sat down with the guys to talk about the allure and shift of upscale casual dining, their inspiration for new concepts, and what we can expect from them in the future.

Q: It's clear that there's been a shift in the industry to upscale casual dining – mostly in the metro food cities of America. What do you think can be attributed to this shift in consumer appeal of upscale casual dining versus full fine-dine or full-out casual?

Andreas: I believe that the style of eating has changed for most people. With the world moving faster, the economy shifting constantly, and the continued melding of world cuisines, upscale casual dining concepts seem to work the best. Our restaurants allow guests to enjoy chef-driven, innovative cuisine that breaks the traditional norms and often does not conform to a specific regional cuisine, all in a fun and relaxed environment.  I think consumers want to be able to try different dishes – that’s where the sharing aspect comes into play, and works so well. Offering variety at a faster pace keeps people coming back to try more things and makes the dining experience way more social. 

Jose: Diners have started to change when they eat out. It’s no longer just weekends and special occasions; people need to grab a good bite during the week as well. Upscale casual dining allows that because it’s affordable, easier and allows friends to socialize over their meal.

Q: What’s your inspiration for creating new concepts?

Andreas: Inspiration comes to us from many different areas – many times over a beer or two after a long day of work. Taking the ideas and actually transforming them into concepts is a little more complicated. We look at the market we are in and what the area needs. We study what has worked and what has not in the area, and then, based on the space we’re looking at, we analyze what from our collection of ideas could function successfully in that space. After that, we apply our creativity, lots of trials-and-error, and our own little bag of tricks.

Q: In terms of expanding the menu, are you trying to diversify toward the American palate, so as not to be pigeonholed? 

Jose: Despite our name and wide selection of pork offerings, we’ve never been a pig-only restaurant. Dishes that contain pork do make up about 40% of the menu at Pubbelly, but we also put out an extensive raw bar with oysters from the east and west coast, stone crab claws, crudos, and offer steak, local seafood, fish, and even vegetarian dishes. We always try to have a little bit for everyone. And in all honesty, Miami’s palate is not necessarily indicative of America as a whole. We really design menus are the kind of things we want to eat. 

Q: How important is integrating a craft cocktail/beer program into your restaurants? Do you feel it plays a significant role in the success of a restaurant? How are you guys trying to connect craft spirits, cocktails and beers?

Andreas: It’s very important in our restaurants to have a well-crafted beverage portfolio. Not all of our restaurants are able to have the full liquor license to incorporate hard liquor, so we have fun with craft beers and boutique wines from around the globe. Sake also plays a big part in our restaurants since it complements our cuisine very well, and can be mixed for cocktails much like a vodka or gin would. The proper selection of the spirits and beverages we offer takes time and research and is essential for the balance and overall identity of the restaurant. Seeking out the right products and limiting the selection of items allows us to persuade guests who perhaps don’t know certain spirits to try them and introduce them to new, smaller batch and more exclusive items. We try to stay away from mainstream items, and anything we add to the list has to have a meaning, a purpose and go with the identity of our brand.

Q: When designing each new venture, how do you go about differentiating the individual concepts while still keeping the feel of the Pubbelly Restaurant Group brand?

Sergio: Our goal is to make a gastronomic experience that is casual and designed for everyone; we want guests to feel at home in each of our locations. Working in many restaurants worldwide, I have learned to create spaces that are not only beautiful but, at the same time, efficient to work in. We look for a warm atmosphere and fun decorations to set us apart from the rest. Since we started with Pubbelly, we’ve inherited a few design staples that carry over to all of our concepts, such as the use of wood and brick to make it feel homey, a large communal table to promote sharing, walls of blackboards displaying the menus to give food the upmost precedence, and our signature four wall clocks – three of which show the time in each of our home towns and one the time in Miami – representing where we’ve come from and where we are now. To differentiate, we bring in design elements that showcase that particular concept while staying true to our style. For instance, at Pubbelly Sushi we commissioned local graffiti artist Erni Vales to do a large Japanese anime-style mural. At PB Steak, we have cow meat charts and longhorn skull mounts on the walls, and those get decorated with Mexican sombreros or hanging piñatas when the space becomes Taco Belly. Whatever the case, we put ourselves into it and keep it casual, comfortable and fun.  

Q: Any plans of expanding outside of Miami?

Andreas: Yes, we have plans to grow the brands outside of Miami, but at the moment we are waiting for the right markets to enter, and the correct partners to grow the brand with. And since we have plenty on our plates, we’re fine with taking our time to do it right.