Jose Garces, who has been parlaying his status as an Iron Chef on the Food Network to build a dining empire, will open three restaurants at Revel Atlantic City, the $2.4 billion megacasino scheduled to open in the spring.
The project catapults Garces, already the city's most prominent celebrity chef, to yet another level. Few restaurateurs have grown as quickly as Garces, 39, who opened Amada, on Chestnut Street, in 2005, and won his national television deal nearly two years ago.
Garces owns seven restaurants in Philadelphia (with an eighth on the way next year), is a partner in a Chicago restaurant, operates a catering division, and sells a line of branded foods. He manages a hotel's food-and-beverage operation in Scottsdale, Ariz., and is rumored to be doing the same at a posh hotel in Palm Springs, Calif. - all moves that prompted him to recently drop restaurant from the name of his company, once known as Garces Restaurant Group.
Construction is under way on supersized versions of his Old City Spanish tapas restaurant, Amada, and his Rittenhouse Square pub, Village Whiskey, as well as a taco stand, based on his Guapos Tacos truck, next to Revel's gaming floor.
Revel, being erected on the beach at New Jersey Avenue and due to open fully by May 15, will have eight other restaurants; no other operators have been identified.
To say Garces is a workaholic is understatement - a whirlwind of national appearances tucked into trips to New York City for Iron Chef tapings and business meetings around the country; he bought a Bucks County farm ostensibly as a weekend retreat. He renovated the farmhouse, yes, but also hired a farmer and turned its 40 acres into a supplier for his restaurants.
"It wasn't really a hard decision to join this project," said Garces. "I've been along for the ride since [planning began in] 2008. I'm a fan of the ownership and I believe in what they're doing: It's elevated pure fun."
Although a casino experience may exude pure fun, expanding a fine-dining empire even 60 miles from the home base is a challenge.
Asked how he will maintain quality over a far-flung empire, Garces said: "Hire the best people." He will need 250 employees for Atlantic City, his representative said, bringing his payroll to about 850 employees.
Staffing is only one part of the issue.
"Besides the quality control, you have different regulations, liquor codes, pricing concerns, the availability of different foods, different work habits, union environment," said Barry Gutin, who with business partner Larry Cohen expanded Cuba Libre to Atlantic City in 2004, to Orlando in 2008, and to Washington last year - all cities easily accessed by plane or train.
Garces' rise out of Philadelphia follows that of his former employer, Stephen Starr, who owns 20 restaurants in Philadelphia, two in Atlantic City, two in Florida, one planned for Washington, and - as of this weekend - three in New York City, plus a catering division. Garces, a Chicago native, got his Philadelphia start at Alma de Cuba near Rittenhouse Square.
Garces is the latest Philadelphia restaurateur to taste the Atlantic City casino market, following Georges Perrier and Chris Scarduzio (Mia, Scarduzio's), Gutin and Cohen (Cuba Libre), Starr (Buddakan, Continental), Michael Schulson (Izakaya), and Susanna Foo (the now-closed Suilan). Atlantic City, Las Vegas, Miami, and other resort areas use celebrity chefs, such as Bobby Flay, Michael Mina, and Wolfgang Puck, to lure patrons.
Restaurateur Danny Meyer said he has resisted expanding his white-tablecloth world outside of New York City, where his Union Square Hospitality Group operates such destinations as Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, and the Modern. He's taken only Shake Shack, a string of burger shops, nationally; coincidentally, a Shake Shack is expected to open next summer at 20th and Sansom Streets, across from Garces' Village Whiskey.
"I've never been able to cross the Rubicon," said Meyer, who said he has great admiration for Garces. Though he insists that some restaurateurs (namely Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud) adroitly spread their brands across the time zones, he said he is stumped at how to do it while "maintaining solid relationships with staff, guests, and the community." As a New Yorker, "I also think that I'm maybe overly sensitive how it feels for somebody to bring their brand from afar into someone else's city," he said. "It can be done and has been done, if they commit themselves to bringing their own managers and not hiring fly-by-night help."
Garces plans to send Philadelphia-trained managers to Revel, a practice that Starr and Cuba Libre follow. Atlantic City has a solid employment base, as well.
What Garces has planned for Revel seems nothing short of lavish. An 11,000-square-foot Amada, nearly twice the size of his first restaurant on Chestnut Street, will feature views of the Atlantic Ocean and flamenco performances daily. The Village Whiskey, on Revel's city side, will be able to handle parties larger than four, unlike the original at 20th and Sansom Streets. Distrito Cantina, a variation of his University City restaurant, is the name of the Mexican themer, which will specialize in tequila.
Garces recently opened a Village Whiskey-like bar and a branded Garces Trading Co. coffee shop at the Saguaro, a luxury hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz. A branch of Distrito is also planned there.
The Saguaro deal is a management one; his company is also handling the Scottsdale hotel's catering, banquets and room service, he said.
Closer to home, Garces said his sole 2012 opening will be Frohmans Wursthaus, a beer-and-brats spot at 13th and Chancellor Streets. Besides Amada, Distrito, Garces Trading Co., and Village Whiskey, Garces also owns Tinto, Chifa, and JG Domestic, and is a partner in the Chicago restaurant Mercat a la Planxa.