Local restaurant groups on the rise in Delaware
By Pam George
Special to Delaware Business Times
In early June, diners in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, will see a familiar face in a new restaurant. Bryan Sikora is the executive chef of Hearth Kitchen, which will specialize in pasta and pizzas cooked in a wood-burning oven. It’s been some time since Sikora, formerly of Talula’s Table, cooked in Kennett. He and wife Andrea have been busy in downtown Wilmington, where they’ve built a culinary enclave. Hearth Kitchen, however, is a departure in more ways than one.
“It’s something we hope to replicate in other locations,” said Andrea Sikora.
The Sikoras are only a few of the many Delaware-area restaurateurs who own multiple establishments. Some stay hyper-local. Rehoboth Beach-based SoDel Concepts has 10 restaurants along the coast. The Platinum Dining Group, owned by Carl and Lisa Georigi, has four in New Castle County. Others, including the Big Fish Restaurant Group and Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant, have jumped both state and county lines.
Seeds of growth
For some, the impetus to own multiple restaurants comes from the desire to do something different. Before his death in August 2014, Matt Haley, the founder of SoDel Concepts, had opened nine restaurants, only two of which were the same concept (Papa Grande’s Coastal Taqueria). Betty’s Pure & Simple was the only one that closed, perhaps owing to its comfort food focus in an area where diners want seafood, steaks and the unexpected.
Scott Kammerer, the current president of SoDel Concepts, is now more interested in replicating successful brands than starting new ones. In the past year, SoDel opened a second Matt’s Fish Camp. A second Bluecoast Seafood Grill & Raw Bar will open in June.
The Sikoras hope to do the same with Hearth. In Wilmington, their business started with La Fia Bistro, which features European- and Italian-inspired dishes with American flair. Nearby Cocina Lolo offers Mexican and Latin cuisine, while Merchant Bar boasts a “gastro” menu that complements craft cocktails. “We wanted to … attract new customers beyond the people who came to La Fia,” Sikora said of the three different concepts.
Eric Sugrue, managing partner of the Big Fish Restaurant Group, would never open a second Big Fish Grill in the Rehoboth Beach area. Instead, the group owns The Crab House, Salt Air and The Summer House in Rehoboth.
Big Fish Restaurant Group opened Bella Coast on U.S. 202 to have a concept that didn’t focus on seafood, which has a slim profit margin.
But seafood was exactly what interested Xavier Teixido, who noticed that customers at steak-centric Harry’s Savoy Grill had a penchant for fish. He and executive chef David Leo Banks partnered to open Harry’s Seafood Grill on the Wilmington Riverfront.
Then there are the opportunities that are too good to miss. The availability of Kid Shelleen’s Charcoal House & Saloon at the same time that Teixido and partners were looking for a casual concept was serendipitous. “In this case, we were buying a location that we couldn’t get otherwise,” said Teixido, who bought the building as well as the business but did not purchase the operating company. (Teixido has an unusual relationship with “Kid’s.” As part of the 1492 Group, he helped open the restaurant in 1983.)
Lee Mikles and Jim O’Donoghue of Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen in Newark knew from the start that they wanted to expand, but they didn’t plan on going from one to three restaurants in a matter of months. The partners recently turned Aqua Sol in Summit North Marina into Grain H20 and Half Moon Saloon in Kennett Square into a second Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen. The timing, Mikles said, was just right.
Along the same lines, The Summer House and Salt Air were popular restaurants that Big Fish Restaurant Group snatched up. In those instances, the group kept the brand but tweaked the menu, service and dÃ©cor.
But some restaurant groups, including Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant and Two Stones Pub, stick with what they know. Touch of Italy is building a location in Stanton that will seat between 140 and 170. In Milford, it is opening in a former bank. The intimate Touch of Italy on a corner in downtown Lewes is dominated by to-go cases.
Bob Ciprietti, co-owner of Touch of Italy, is on a fast track. Within the past few years, the concept has expanded to Ocean City, Maryland.
Ciprietti isn’t the only beach-based business swimming in New Castle County’s pond. Big Fish Grill, which started on Coastal Highway in Rehoboth Beach, has a location on the Wilmington Riverfront and in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania.
Arena’s Deli has also leapfrogged up the state. Former owner Jeff Hamer plans to take his Fins Alehouse concept – currently in Berlin, Maryland, Bethany Beach and Rehoboth Beach – to Middletown. “I like the growth potential,” he said of the Middletown-Odessa-Townsend area.
Hamer is looking to fill a niche in Middletown much as he did in Bethany Beach. However, a restaurant group might also enter a proven market in which its competitors are faring well. Hari and Orion Cameron, for instance, want to take their grandpa(MAC) build-your-own pasta, quick-casual concept to downtown Newark.
Admittedly, the restaurant industry is demanding, which is why Hamer sold Arena’s. At one point, he owned that chain as well as Fins Fish House & Raw Bar and three Java Beach locations. He remembers when his daughter’s classmate asked her what he did for a living. “He just works all the time,” she replied. Hamer relies on the help of a district manager and other support staff, including a CFO and assistant. He’s not alone.
“Employees are our greatest asset,” said Hari Cameron, who in addition to two grandpa (MAC) locations owns a(MUSE.), a fine dining restaurant in Rehoboth Beach. “No restaurant, no concept, no one business is one person – even if it’s owned by a chef. I lean heavily on my brother, Orion.”
Having multiple restaurants helps with training. “The advantages are clearly cross-utilization of employees and management,” Sikora agreed. “Almost of all of our employees work in at least two locations.”
The drawback, she said, is that the group might compete within itself for customers. Distance will help eliminate that problem for Hearth.
Kammerer of SoDel Concepts said when one of the group’s new restaurant opens, sales go up at all. That said, many have opened in spring and summer when sales at the beach surge. Regardless,
each restaurant is tasked with being the best it can be, he added.
In the end, the creativity and attentiveness required to own more than on restaurant is “a catalyst for good work,” said Banks, who co-owns three of the restaurants in Harry’s Hospitality Group. “It’s more exciting and more rewarding. It comes down to something I think Xavier and I do well: It comes down to systems vision and people Without systems, it could be chaos. But with systems, it is just the business in