Wednesday, September 16th, 2009
The lead-up to Xoco’s opening actually started about 2 years ago when I was brainstorming with some of our chefs, lamenting the fact that it was almost impossible to find a place on the Frontera and Topolo menus for a few of the flavors we’d fallen in love with on our many teaching and research expeditions through Mexico—flavors that aren’t focused on the long-simmered moles and sauces that those restaurants specialize in; flavors that slap you in the face with their simple, bold brightness; flavors that you only find in Mexico from some of the street vendors and marketplace cooks. That, plus the fact that for decades now, being the live-fire-cooking aficionado I am, I’ve wanted a wood-burning oven in our restaurants for doing overnight cochinita pibil and barbacoa, but simply had no space. All complicated by the fact that I don’t have much interest in opening a taquería. There are already so many taquerías and Mexico has so much more to offer than just tacos. I want everything I tackle to broaden our American perspective on Mexican food, not reinforce stereotypes.
So we designed the place around the oven, we came up with the idea of using the overnight braises to fill tortas, and we decided to add some of the rustic street-food char to the tortas by toasting them in the wood-burning oven. But we knew we could never reach financial sustainability (let alone pay River North) rent on tortas alone, given our commitment to small-scale local agriculture, hiring skilled chefs and paying living wages, so we decided to flesh out the menu for breakfast lunch and dinner. We’d been playing around with grinding our own chocolate in the restaurants, like they do in the market in Oaxaca City, so we made the commitment to grind chocolate right in the front window, for making into Mexico’s iconic hot beverage. Churrería El Moro has forever been a favorite in Mexico City (I used to live within walking distance; I’ve written about it for Saveur), so why not pair the fresh-ground chocolate with churros to offer during the morning hours.
And for evening? There’s nothing better than a steaming bowl of pozole or caldo de pollo or mole de olla from a street cart in the chill night air in Mexico’s mountainous communities.
A Balancing Act
I am a chef who likes to cook more than proliferate and manage restaurants. That’s why Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and, now, Xoco are all together. I can slide from one kitchen to another, tasting and training and coaching and cooking. Cooking is why I became a chef, and I never want to get too far from it.
And I’ve been pretty successful with my chosen path. I’ve created busy restaurants that employee 110 people—now 130 with Xoco—and I knew I could do nothing to unstabilize the well-oiled organization of what we already had going, risking the livelihood of so many families. So everything in Xoco is designed to offer something new and different from what we’ve done before: order at a counter, simpler and different and less expensive fare, communal seating. My hope is this: When you’re celebrating a special occasion, want to impress out-of-towners or are looking for a truly remarkable gastronomic experience, you’ll think of Topolobampo. When you’re in the mood for great Mexican antojitos and a plate of mole enchiladas, tacos al carbon, birria, wood-grilled fish a la veracruzana, and the like … plus a few rounds of fresh-lime margaritas … you’ll think of Frontera. When you’re looking for a lighter, simpler meal—but one that’s packed with flavor just like the other two spots—with a fresh-fruit agua or a beer, you’ll think of Xoco.
And as with street food around the world, the “kitchen” is in full view, everything at Xoco is made right in front of you; in fact, it’s kitchen is in the front window, so you don’t even have to come inside to watch what we’re cooking. Street vendors—and Xoco—offer live Food Network.
Hopefully, as we work through balancing food costs, labors costs, rent and management, we’ll have created a thriving business that will not only successfully employee more Chicagoans, but create a better quality of life here in Chicago.
During Opening, What Went as I’d Expected
We carefully planned what we considered a very strong menu for opening. There are about a dozen tortas that range from more mainstream (chicken, shortrib) to more exotic (suckling pig, head cheese/tongue), six caldos that seem to have wide appeal, and we beefed up the churros and chocolate by offering variety of hot chocolates (from Oaxacan style made with water) to thick and rich (more like they serve in Spain); plus we thought we’d have a few baked goods for those who didn’t want churros.
You have to have a few people to practice on, so most restaurant openings include a mock service for friends and family. It’s for the restaurant to practice and work out kinks, not really for the guest. Mock service is not an opening party.
Our menu and food seemed well received during the six mock services that we did, except that folks seemed to be looking for savory food at breakfast. So we added it. Otherwise, we seemed headed in the right direction; we just needed more practice to come together as a team. And we decided we needed a few more team members and they’re not easy to get on a moment’s notice. A little concerned, but I figured we’d make due until we could add staff.
We opened our doors on Tuesday, September 8 at 7 am, and the menu started selling pretty much as we’d expected, and the line started moving as it had during mock service—except, of course, that we were a little more practiced and had corrected a number of oversights that had come to our attention.
Well, almost everything
During Opening, What Didn’t Go as I’d Expected
I’d made the commitment to be at Xoco for one full week every minute it was open—7 am to 9 pm. That’s the only way I know to develop a real understanding of a new enterprise’s rhythms, strengths and weaknesses. P
lus I love the whole restaurant birthing process, the chance to train and solve problems and cook and tailor the food to the vibe of the place.
Right away I realized that our savory breakfast creations were going to take off. And, being a last-minute addition, we weren’t at all ready for it. We needed more staff and a different way to serve. When a fellow came in and ordered 25 scrambled egg empanadas to take to his office, we knew we were in for trouble. Hand-made dough, hand-formed empanadas: 1 cook, 3 hours to make 50 from start to finish. The sustainability equation was instantly thrown out of whack and we’re still trying to right it. Stay tuned.
We stop serving the savory breakfast offerings at 10:30 to allow time to set up the line for 11 am torta offerings. Except that there were so many people waiting for breakfast stuff at 10:30 we couldn’t pull breakfast until 10:50, making torta set up a crazy mad dash right in front of the customers who’d already started lining up to order tortas—remember, our kitchen is completely open to view. But we more-or-less made it, looking up to see that torta line had reached the door. And within a few minutes had gone out the door to a place down the street I couldn’t see.
That, I never expected. Of course, any restaurateur worth his salt does a business plan, estimating how many customers he’ll serve, what menu prices need to be based on ingredient costs, labor and overhead, hours and days of operation. And I felt good with ours, knowing what our break-even point would be. And I planned our prep sheets based on it and our cooks were ready.
Except that I hadn’t based that business plan on a line out the door and down the block for 4 hours. So about 1:30 we started using the prep for dinner and by 5, when the line reached the door again, we were half done with everything we’d planned to use for dinner.
So what I thought was going to be a more observational role, helping out and training where needed, became a 5 day, all day, line position at Xoco. Amado Lopez and Shaw Lash, Xoco’s two chefs, had to turn their attention to getting in more product and prepping it.
At the end of day one, we knew we were in trouble with product. We work with a lot of small farmers: you can’t just call up and say you’d like to triple your order. They have to grow it. Nor can we call the rent-a-cook agency and say send over people who can make red chile adobo and achiote paste.
The Frontera and Topolo staffs rallied, especially Quique Gomez, who is in charge of the sauce kitchen for those restaurants—the very heart of our operation. He gave up his right-hand cook, Adriana, to work just for Xoco. And Hector Catorra, who does all our purchasing, kept finding real, honest-to-goodness product (not just commodity stuff from a national purveyor) for us to cook.
That was the start of the wild ride, the roller coaster that never stopped to let us off until 9 pm on Saturday night. My anticipation of 400 guests a day needed to be adjusted to 600 by close on Tuesday, to 950 by close on Saturday. I don’t think any person on the staff has worked less than 13 or 14 hours a day since we opened Xoco. “We need more …” has started practically every sentence I’ve spoken this week.
No, the staff hasn’t completely gelled yet, but we’re moving in that direction. No the food’s not 100% where I want it. But, by god, we got through the week without running out of any food. I’m more proud of that than anything else. And only once all week did I have to turn to the line of customers that was standong right in front of me and ask their patience while we close down the line for 10 minutes, clean things up, restock, re-collect and breathe. Only once. I was actually pretty proud of that. It avoided the train wreck I knew we were inches from.