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Cashing In On a Concept

With T.G.I. Friday’s money, Star Canyon and AquaKnox are going national, marking the decline of independent restaurants in Dallas.
By Mary Brown Malouf |

THE BUSINESS WRITER FROM The Dallas Morning News had lots of questions: “OK, Herren sold out for cash. You and Michael sold out for cash and equity. Will you give me figures? How much did you sell out for?”

Stephan Pyles. wearing his custom Star Canyon chef coat, was pale and tired. His face twitched whenever he heard the words “sold out” and finally he broke in and said, “’We really like to think of it as a merger. We ’ re merging our strengths with Carlson’s.”

And no. he can’t say for how much he merged. But it had to be a bundle for Stephan Pyles and Michael Cox to sell Star Canyon and AquaKnox to T.G.I. Friday’s parent company, Carlson Restaurants Worldwide Inc. Pyles and Carlson will be part-owners of Star Concepts, the new company formed by the merger.

We were seated at the table behind the barn-red doors of Star Canyon’s private dining room when Pyles announced that he and partners Cox and Herren Hicking-botham had sold out. Merged. As I heard Wallace Doolin (president and CEO of Carlson) and Pyles outline the future for one of Dallas’ last high-profile, chef-owned, independent restaurants. 1 didn’t write down what they were saying. Instead, I found myself writing, “Andre Solt-ner really is gone.”

Soltner’s Lutece in New York was the top chef-owned restaurant in the country, and his much-publicized 1994 sale to Ark Entertainment of the hallowed restaurant he’d owned, cooked in, and lived over for more than 30 years was an event mourned not by just New Yorkers, but diners everywhere. It’s not quite a perfect parallel- Star Canyon is a much more casual and conceptualized restaurant than the personality-driven Lutece, and Pyles never planned to be in his kitchens every night. Still, it’s another indication that the American restaurant business is headed straight for Wall Street.

’The business has changed in the last 15 years,” Cox kept telling me. Say it again, please, Fifteen years ago, we were just seeing the dawn of the American chef. Fifteen years ago, American cuisine had finally achieved serious stature. Chefs like Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters, and Stephan Pyles weren’t just cooks, they were the missionaries of an idealistic new movement preaching regional ingredients, French techniques, utilization of the small supplier, the hands-on expertise of the chef/artiste. We’d finally come up with the Yankee version of European fine dining. Until then, American food had never even merited the word “cuisine.” Until then, our main contribution to world cuisine had been McDonald’s.

Guess what? It still is.

At one time it looked like we would have a landscape of chef-run restaurants, each representative of an individual culinary vision. But, as David Holben, founding chef of The Riviera and Mediterraneo- another upscale restaurant intent on replicating itself-says, running a five-star restaurant isn’t enough anymore. This is America, after all. and money is our medium. All over the country, the best restaurants are being gobbled up by large groups. The Buckhead Group in Atlanta, Real Restaurants in San Francisco, and the Restaurant Development Group in Chicago specialize in niche-market restaurants, a “collection” of different concepts, whereas Foodstar (Méditerraneo’s parent) in Dallas and Wolfgang Puck’s Spago roll out duplicates of a prototype. We didn’t know Star Canyon was a prototype, of course. We thought it was Dallas’ claim to culinary star power. Now their vocabulary is full of terms like “multi-unit consistency,” “international marketability,” and “co-development.” Nobody says “sold out.”

But then, “selling out” used to be a bad thing. Now it’s the goal-or gold-at the end of the kitchen career track. New restaurants are now just “emerging concepts” to be harvested by the big restaurant groups. According to the new scenario, you serve enough time in a corporate kitchen to develop a clientele for your own restaurant, which, if you’re successful, will be subsumed by a corporation or swallowed into a restaurant portfolio. If you fail, you close.

Investors have been shopping Star Canyon for years, says Cox. “We turned down three offers on our way to this one, What they (Carlson) appreciate about us is what won us over.” In other words, Doolin {who’s been an enthusiastic customer of Star Canyon since it opened) was drawn to Pyles and Cox because of what they could bring to his company: Their restaurant’s assumption that the dining public was sophisticated enough to be casual about fine dining.

A more sophisticated dining public means that Friday’s menu of fried mushrooms and potato skins isn’t enough. From Carlson’s point of view, says Doolin, T.G.I. Friday’s needs to diversify, expand into a more upscale market than their 470 T.G.I. Friday’s occupy. The entrepreneurial chef is the person to find the new concepts for that market. The plan is to roll out a bunch of nearly identical new Star Canyons and AquaKnoxes in other locations, such as, you guessed it, Orlando and Las Vegas. And at the same time, Pyles and Cox will be coming up with a third “concept,” formerly known as a restaurant, which they will test-market, that is. open, in Dallas. Pyles, of course, has been promised creative control. “Those things lend to happen that way for a while,” says Nick Barclay, who still mans the stove at his restaurant, Barclays. “Obviously, they have to promise creative control, but often it fizzles out.” In any case, when a chef moves from a restaurant to a concept, “You don’t cook really, anymore,” points out Barclay. You move completely from the stove to the desk.

That’s OK. Part of what makes these high-end chains possible, says Doolin, is the enormous pool of talent to draw from to do the actual cooking. The “star chef phenomenon that started in the ’80s means that kids who were being primped for law school or the business world are going to culinary institutes instead. To be a celebrity chef is more glamorous, and there’s the possibility of a lot of money.

Holben agrees with Doolin that those newly trained culinary institute kids are what it takes to support a chain of high-end concepts. But aren’t these kids looking to become another Stephan Pyles, star chef, themselves? Wolfgang Puck has many restaurants, multiple Spagos and Postrios, each with its own chef. But the names of those chefs are unimportant because Puck’s is the “brand” under which they’re working. What about the famous chef’s ego, the obsessive artistry and personal quest for perfection that has characterized, even caricature-ized, chefs from Carême to Pyles? Doolin rubs his fingers together to answer that question. Money. Of course, those fabled egos can be bought like anything else.

But, Pyles wonders, is Spago even a chain? “Chain,” like “sell out,” is a hard word for him to swallow. I say it is because it’s repetitive-Spago is Southern California, whether it’s transplanted to Chicago or Houston. And no one cares who’s in the kitchen. After all, who’s in the kitchen at Friday’s? What matters is that we know what to expect.

So is the era of American chefs already over? Just as we had matured to the point where we knew from experience that blueberries on flounder wasn’t a good idea?

It seems to me that the American chef was gone as soon as he got here, probably because we are a nation of businessmen as much as the English are a nation of shopkeepers. Consistency has replaced creativity as the buzzword that opens investors’ doors, and the chef/artiste sensibility has been replaced by the chef/entrepreneur, a more naturally American idea and one which will probably subsume Europe’s culinary culture before long, since all things American seem to be infectious. Certainly Paris is high on the list of expansion sites for Star Canyon and AquaKnox.

I’m glad the futures of Michael Cox’s kids have been secured. But I’m sad tor the business.

“We are pleased with our new strategic partner,” says Pyles.

“They have a network of systems and benefits that allow us to compete with the hotels in terms of compensation and benefits,” says Cox. “I don’t feel a loss of control,” he insists. This is the man who shopped a thousand forks just to find the right one for AquaKnox. “I feel a sense of support.”

I can’t help it. I feel a sense of loss.

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