Inside the Consortium Holdings Restaurant Group

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By Brian Murphy, Foodable Contributor

“We set out to create not restaurants and bars, but public gathering spaces that help cultivate our neighborhoods through the fostering of creativity, dialogue, questions and conversations. More than houses for innovative menus and handcrafted drinks, our projects are meant to be incubators for meaningful interaction.”

This statement, taken directly from San Diego’s powerhouse Consortium Holdings Projects’ website, succinctly sums up the group’s mission and customer experience, which means they have experienced success. How much success? They currently operate 12 very different concepts, with more in the works. They are innovative, bold, and don’t do anything half way. The industry lessons abound with this group as they continue to grow and almost defy trends. If anything, they are setting them.

Creativity Counts

Consortium Holdings Projects has many aspects of a new venture locked in, and creativity is at the top of the list. Their concepts are thoughtful and thought-provoking, and simultaneously all-inclusive and polarizing. Examples of these things can be found throughout the guest experience and throughout the CH Projects establishments. Bars without vodka? Burgers and fries without ketchup? No televisions? These seem like terrible ideas for many bar and restaurant owners, but for the most part, guests in CH Projects don’t mind. CH Projects have a way of creating a guest experience that eases customers into an elevated, immersive “craft” experience. An experience that tries very hard to satisfy guests, yet doesn’t try to win everyone over by watering down the concept. This is the biggest, head-turning reality that is CH Projects: run as deep with an idea as possible and make guests forget about their expectations based upon prior experiences elsewhere. CH Projects are unusual, from top to bottom. Take their speakeasy-style project, Noble Experiment. This tiny super-craft bar that was special-ordering ice in blocks and various sizes to fit the assorted glassware back in 2010, before “craft” was seen in so much marketing and on so many menus. The business model isn’t one that looks attractive to most: a secret bar accessed from the inside of a neighborhood bar and grill (fittingly named Neighborhood) that requires text message reservations in order to be seated.

The bar offers prohibition-style beverages, and vodka is not on the list of spirits available for consumption. There are only 32 seats, there are no televisions, and the drinks require time to build, as ice is shaved, crushed, and chiseled to order. Their website contains an email address and a phone number, and Google maps still has guests walking around outside wondering where to find the door. What they are doing right, however is creating a tremendous word-of-mouth. The décor inside the bar is interesting, bold, and beautiful creating a jackpot for guests who immediately feel like they cracked a secret code. While you wait for your seats to open up or after you get turned away because you don’t have a reservation, there are options from the menu or bar in their establishment.  

Redefining the Hospitality Experience

CH Projects range from the aforementioned “speakeasy” bar to Fairweather, where colors are light, there is plenty of fresh air, and staff wears Hawaiian-style shirts when they mix “cocktails from sunny places.” They have a complete tiki bar in the works that will be inside another one of their projects, Craft and Commerce that is undergoing a renovation. They are working with Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove fame to be sure the experience in their tiki bar is as authentic as possible. These examples are a testament to CH Projects’ success in that they go above and beyond to make sure the theme is carried out perfectly throughout the concept. They show small eccentricities in their establishments that get people talking, both positively and negatively.

While they do not attempt to be everything to everyone, they certainly go to great lengths to please guests that are willing to be taken on the adventure that is dining or drinking in one of their establishments. They are thorough and create a new kind of experience in the industry. Take their ramen bar, Underbelly: a straightforward menu with authentic and delicious cuisine found at a traditional ramen house paired with a robust local beer program. All of this complements the open-air feel of each location, giving it a decidedly “San Diego” feel. Some guests can’t get past the fact that they don’t offer spoons, encouraging guests to pick up their bowl to finish off their broth. These chances they take become eccentricities that many guests overcome because of all the positive features they encounter along the way.

Take Chances

Noble Experiment Menu | Brian Murphy for Foodable WebTV Network

Noble Experiment Menu | Brian Murphy for Foodable WebTV Network

When a concept is as solid as possible, and every last detail has been thought out, some calculated risks can be taken. The movement toward unconventional dining is what Millennials and much of the public are after. Individuality counts, even when there are several locations and the individuality is calculated. Guests notice when a concept or establishment really means it, so the most successful concepts are thorough with ideas, procedures, and training. Giving guests an authentic, original experience requires patience and dedication from the entire staff, and it starts at the very top. Responsible owners and managers are assembling a staff that not only buys in to the concept, but lives it. Only then, can a concept responsibly attempt the risky decisions involved with having a truly unique establishment. 

Presenting an extraordinary, innovative, “craft”, etc. experience to guests should be considered for a variety of reasons. Guests are craving new experiences and are ready to talk all about it. Employees need to be motivated, and a novel idea and environment gives them something to get excited about, leading to better service, food prep, etc. Training is key, as is the planning process; a poorly executed extraordinary concept will be perceived as a novelty, and if the service or deliverables are not meeting expectations, that novelty will not be worth returning for and employees will lose interest. Be passionate. Be thorough.  Take a risk.