About a year ago, in its annual predictions of the hottest hospitality trends, international restaurant consultants Baum + Whiteman warned that the "misuse of words like 'artisan' and 'heirloom' and 'local' will pollute their meaning, especially as chains co-op them for marketing slogans."
B+W seemed to assume that it would be impossible for any restaurant with more than one location to serve real food cooked from scratch, using whole ingredients sourced from farms just down the road.
I agree that operators should be able to walk the talk and back up any claims they make on their menus. If you say you use "local" ingredients, they shouldn't be part of the 17 percent of the U.S. food supply that comes from other countries. If you say you use "fresh" ingredients, they shouldn't spend half their time in the deep freeze. And if you say you serve dishes that are house-made, they shouldn't start with ingredients prepared elsewhere and then get assembled on your line.
That's been the traditional way high-volume operations have kept price points low and quality consistent (if not necessarily high). So, is it possible for any multi-location operations to serve nutritious real food at prices that are competitive with the deep-frozen, pre-packaged standard? And how do they do it?
That's exactly what I asked Sean McDonald, concept chef at Joe's American Bar and Grill in Boston. The 38-year-old casual chain was part of the Back Bay Restaurant Group acquired by privately held Tavistock Restaurants USA, based in San Francisco, in 2011. Joe's now has a dozen locations throughout New England, with outposts in New Jersey and Florida.
Joe's has built its reputation on serving traditional American cuisine made from the freshest quality ingredients in a fun, family friendly, neighborhood atmosphere. The burgers are righteously famous as was the amazing French Onion Soup I thoroughly enjoyed! McDonald's All American BBQ Bacon Cheddar Burger was a finalist in the first-ever Boston Magazine Battle of the Burgers cook off earlier this year.
McDonald is based in Boston, where he oversees menu development for the whole Joe's chain. Each individual location also has its own executive chef who is in charge of the daily menu. McDonald said he has always cooked from scratch, and teaches it with a passion.
"Every new manager hired goes through a 10-week training to maintain the quality and consistency of the menu," he said. "And every new hire in the kitchen is trained by Joe's experienced staff members."
Rising to the challenge
Consistency is a challenge for a scratch-cooking operation by its very nature. If you're throwing some factory-frozen rolls in the oven, you know exactly what you'll have at the end of 10 minutes. But there are no microwaves in Joe's kitchens, and there's only enough room in the freezer for the homemade ice cream. So, if you're baking a batch of dinner rolls mixed by the morning crew that have been rising all day, you have to pay attention. But it's worth the extra effort, according to McDonald.
"The benefits of using fresh and local ingredients can be seen in the quality and the taste of our food," he said. "Our diners love that we cook from scratch. We have a very loyal clientele."
McDonald said that although Joe's kitchens are dedicated to using fresh ingredients and scratch cooking techniques 100 percent of the time, they can't always source those ingredients locally, especially when the New England winter sets in.
This is where being part of a larger chain actually works to help keep quality up and prices competitive, he explained.
"Our parent company helps keep costs down by bulk buying," McDonald said. "That includes making commitments in advance to growers to ensure we always have fresh ingredients available."
For example, Joe's wildly popular French fries are always cut by hand from whole potatoes just before they hit the deep fryer. To ensure a steady supply of spuds, the parent company negotiates with growers a year in advance to buy massive amounts of potatoes. That way, the potato farmers know they have a solid market for their produce and the chefs at Joe's know they will be able to maintain the quality that they promise on the menu.
It's all about relationships
"Relationships with our suppliers are absolutely key to maintaining quality control," McDonald said. "They know our reputation is built on our dedication to cooking from scratch, and the quality of their ingredients is a big part of that."
Maintaining these relationships is perhaps more important in a scratch kitchen than a typical corporate chain operation. The whole point is to make nutritious dining more accessible and affordable, and diners like to feel a connection with the people growing and preparing their meals.
A local supplier can also help the operator keep costs in line. He or she can let the chef know when a particular vegetable is coming in big or another is taking a hit from the weather, for example, so the kitchen can feature one and take the other off the menu that week.
Scratch cooking with fresh ingredients offers that kind of flexibility, McDonald said. Because the staff knows everything that goes into every dish, Joe's kitchens can be particularly responsive to requests from diners. Anyone with a food allergy, intolerance or sensitivity – that would be about 4 percent of the adults in the United States, about 8 percent of the kids – will appreciate that.
"We can alter any menu item at any time to accommodate our patrons," he said. "People really love that they can let us know what they need and we can give it to them."
Diners have also been asking Joe's for nutritional information on their menus. With the seasonal nature of fresh ingredients, a complete analysis can be tricky, but McDonald said he's seriously considering giving the people what they are asking for.
Like every other foodservice operation in America, Joe's felt the Great Recession. It could have been tempting to cut costs by cutting corners, outsourcing production, bringing in pre-prepared sauces or substituting lower-quality ingredients.
But McDonald said Joe's always maintained their commitment to cooking from scratch and using fresh, wholesome ingredients. Instead of lowering quality, they got creative in the kitchen to keep prices in line.
"We got through the recession while still scratch cooking by reducing our labor costs," McDonald said. "We cross-trained everyone in the kitchen so we could keep doing what our patrons expect when they come to Joe's."
As I sat at the bar watching a football game at Joe's the day before this interview, I saw firsthand why this concept, its methods and menu are such a smashing success. Food: great, staff: top of the line and entire experience for me: memorable! Thanks Joe's