By Dorothy Hernandez, Foodable Contributor
It’s been a busy year for 30-year-old chef Zack Sklar. A partner of Peas & Carrots Hospitality, Sklar expanded beyond his native metro Detroit to open two restaurants in Chicago: Bernie’s and Gus’s Fried Chicken. That’s on top of two new restaurants that opened in Birmingham, MI — Au Cochon and Arthur Avenue — where his restaurant empire began in 2012 when he opened Social. But he’s far from his goal: 70 is the magic number for him.
The chef took some time out from his busy schedule to talk to Foodable about how the Detroit restaurant scene has evolved in a few short years, the culture he has fostered at Peas & Carrots (which employs 600), and how a tennis ball can be used to serve passed appetizers.
Foodable: When you opened your catering company Cutting Edge Cuisine in New York while in school at the Culinary Institute of America, you would beat out celebrity chefs to get the gig. What was the key to your winning proposals that set you apart?
Zack Sklar: It was because of the quality of the product and the fact that I wasn't afraid to try weird and new stuff. A lot of catering runs on beating the clock as far as keeping the food hot and fresh, and most of them hotbox their food. I wasn't afraid. I knew I could cook and plate really good food and didn't hotbox anything. And for me, it wasn't just about the food itself, it was about the presentation. We served food in vessels that hadn't ever been thought of to match event themes. Like a tennis ball, cut in half and coated, could be used to serve passed appetizers on a racket. Or serving rustic food on branches that we collected and sanitized, or on jewelry trees, etc. The name has always been really fitting for the kind of experience we try to put out there. Boring catering food was everywhere, but our style of creativity was new and exciting.
Foodable: After graduating, you could’ve stayed in New York and been successful there. Why did you come back to Michigan?
ZS: Aside from the fact that I love being near my family, it was also a smart business decision. Yeah, we were doing well in New York, but there was so much competition. Back in Michigan, there wasn't that much. It was a natural opportunity for me to be smart about my business and to get to be close to my family. Win win.
Foodable: In addition to Cutting Edge, you have opened Social, Mex, and Beau’s Grillery. This year saw the opening of Arthur Avenue and Au Cochon and Bernie’s in Chicago. What’s next for 2016? What other markets are you looking to expand to? Are you still planning to open two restaurants in Detroit and what will these concepts be? Is there a target number of restaurants or as many as possible?
ZS: We are looking at Detroit still and have found some awesome spaces we want to make our own. Expanding our brand, both of restaurants and our franchise (Gus’s Fried Chicken), is a main focus for us. We are opening another Social in Grand Rapids early in 2016, and honestly, it's hard to say what market we are most closely looking at expanding into because there's so many we are excited about. In the end, my goal is 70 restaurants, and Peas & Carrots is well on its way to achieving that. I'm excited to see what options present themselves this year, and I'm looking forward to making those moves.
Foodable: Your restaurant concepts are very diverse, from Italian to Mexican to Mediterranean to modern comfort food. What is the thought process behind opening new restaurant concepts under the Peas & Carrots brand?
ZS: Not unlike the catering company, there's just so much creativity in this team of chefs and managers, it's hard not to open new concepts. Exploring different cuisines is exciting and fun; it keeps us fresh and from becoming stale with doing the same thing over and over and over again. We'd like each concept to be scalable, of course, but each open is treated as its own entity, each menu is carefully and painstakingly put together over months of menu testing and researching and trial and error. It may not sound that fun, but we are a group of passionate people, and it's what has set us apart so far, our intense passion and focus toward doing something new, something that excites us.
Foodable: Why did you pick Chicago as the first market to expand out of state?
ZS: I love Chicago; it was a no brainer for me to expand to that market first. It's not far from us, so it's easy for our corporate team to support the growth, and it's a familiar market for me because of how often I am there. I love the food culture in Chicago, and the city — and River North, where Bernie's is located — has been such a great neighbor to us.
Foodable: You have mentioned that you have the infrastructure in place to expand. What are the key components of a successful infrastructure that has helped you expand your portfolio so quickly?
ZS: Culture is the biggest piece. You cannot grow a company and retain good people if you aren't good to them. We tell our staff — and we BELIEVE IT — that they are more important to us than our guests. It's an old quote, so it might be cliched, but we take good care of our team so that they take good care of our guests. We hire people who can be trained to have a certain skill set but who already have that indescribable quality that you can't teach. Our management and chef teams are extraordinary, and we spared no expense to find the right people from all over the country. So we really live our culture, and our employees see it, and they live it. Another component of success we have that sets us apart is the opportunity for our chefs and managers to become partners in their restaurants. It's almost impossible to retire as a restaurant manager or chef, so it's very new and exciting for the industry for our team to have the chance to plan for their future with us. I know the people on my team that I will retire with, and that makes a world of difference in our success and ability to grow so quickly.
Foodable: How do you expand and scale up without losing quality?
ZS: I trust the people I hire into management, and with their investment in their stores and the company, I know they will take care of the quality even when I'm not there. We all have skin in the game, so it benefits all of us to look out.
Foodable: In an article on Crain’s, they quoted you as saying: In Chicago, “we're going to be playing in a different league than Detroit.” How would you compare the diners in Chicago vs. Detroit?
ZS: It’s no secret that Chicago is a big foodie city. Going into the Chicago market was exciting for us because we already knew the expectation was that we would bring something new. Not every food culture likes new; some food cultures like classics and perfectly executed dishes that remind you of home and family. Chicago is the former, and so it was cool to go in and really try to do something different that they hadn't seen before.
Foodable: In addition to being a successful restaurateur, you’re also known for giving back to the community. Why is it important to you as a chef to give back? What are some of the causes you support and how?
ZS: Community is huge to me; it's everything. To be able to be part of the community has been an unexpected opportunity that we have loved since Social opened. We regularly participate in Feed the Need, cooking food for 250 people and serving it as a team. Every open we do, we support local charities, and all our proceeds from the soft opens go to those organizations. We have supported animal rescue, MOCAD (art museum in Detroit), my old high school even, children's charities, the list goes on. For the start of 2016, we are partnering all our efforts with Heart 2 Hart Detroit.
Foodable: There have been a flood of new restaurants opening in metro Detroit in recent years. How have you seen the local culinary scene change from when you opened Social in 2012 to now?
ZS: It’s been awesome to see the new restaurant culture growing in the Detroit area, and especially in Detroit. All I can really say is that, there's a reason I'm still opening restaurants in Birmingham, and I've been supportive of seeing my friends also opening restaurants in Detroit. It's huge for the growth of Detroit, and there's a real sense of pride in the hospitality community to be so involved in the revitalization. I think there's been a small explosion of foodies in the area. Au Cochon, being traditional French cuisine — frog legs, skate meuniere — we have been excited at the success and the joy our guests have gotten from trying foods that were somewhat elusive to them before. So there's definitely been a change since Social opened. Glad to be a part of it!