Nick Holmes
Even as the business models have adjusted over time, Doc B’s continues to feature fresh food carefully sourced, such as the Spicy Tuna Summer Rolls with tuna brought in from Hawaii.

Doc B’s Fresh Kitchen Finds its Footing, Sets Sights on Expansion

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Doc B’s Fresh Kitchen proves that you can lead a guest to the counter, but you can’t make him order. Not if the guest wants full service.
By Linda Formichelli September 2016 Chain Restaurants

When Craig Bernstein was 10 years old, his family drew straws to determine which of the three siblings would get to go to the New York Knicks game, since his family had won only two tickets. Bernstein had the lucky draw, and he and his dad enjoyed the game from the last row in Madison Square Garden.

During halftime, Bernstein’s dad pointed to a viewer in the courtside seats called “celebrity row,” and said, “See that guy down there? He’s my friend.” They climbed down row after row to meet the friend.

Soon after, the friend called Bernstein’s father to tell him what a great kid he had and to offer them tickets to another Knicks game, with dinner beforehand at a restaurant called Morton’s Steakhouse. 

After experiencing the food and hospitality of Morton’s and then sitting on the court at the Knicks game, Bernstein asked his dad what his friend did for a living—because if it involved amazing food and courtside seats at the game, he wanted to do it himself.

Turns out, the friend was Allen Bernstein (no relation), and he was the owner of Morton’s Steakhouse. From that point on, he became his mentor. Soon after, Bernstein had to write an essay for school on what he wanted to be when he grew up. The answer? Restaurant entrepreneur.

Fast forward to today. Sadly, Allen Bernstein died in 2011 and wasn’t there to see Bernstein open the first Doc B’s Fresh Kitchen, named after his father Doctor B, which he opened in Chicago in September 2013. 

He also wasn’t there to see the brand’s launch struggle that winter, which the nation dubbed “Chiberia” due to the frigid temperatures. Doc B’s was assaulted by burst pipes, blown-out transformers, and insulation problems that made the inside temperature plummet to 20 degrees.

To sum up those first six months in business, Bernstein says, “We persevered.” Despite the challenges, we never had to lay off staff or miss payroll. Bernstein had learned from his parents and mentors that the expression “expect the unexpected” is a cliché only because it’s true. 

So he made sure, before he started, that there was enough funding to handle emergencies, instead of merely enough funding to make it through the launch and hope that sales would take over from there.

The first Doc B’s location was set up as a hybrid model. “The premise of Doc B’s when it opened was to take traditional restaurant-quality food and table service, and put it in a counter-order environment,” Bernstein says. “It involved the architecture, the level of service, the plateware and glassware, and the cooks in the kitchen to execute that level of food.”

However, the model that was clear to Bernstein and his staff wasn’t so clear to customers. “Our guests came in and were slightly confused as to what we were doing,” Bernstein recalls. That’s because the atmosphere resembled full service more than fast casual or quick service. Though the staff would attempt to guide guests through the ordering process, many diners replied, “How about if we just sit down and you take our order ... because that’s what this place feels like.”

These guests dictated the direction that the restaurant took down the road. They were given the choice to order at the counter or sit down and have a server take their order—and 95 percent chose the latter. “We started to adapt, as well, saying, ‘Follow me and we’ll seat you,’” says Bernstein. “Over time, that’s what we became, 100 percent.”

Even though the hybrid concept didn’t work out at the first Doc B’s location, the second unit was built on the same model because it was already in construction before the first one opened. It had the same fast-casual feel and the same point-of-sale counter, hostess stand, and digital menu boards. 

The result? Once again, confusion reigned. “On day one when we opened the second restaurant, I think guests were even more confused,” Bernstein says. “They knew us seven blocks away as full service, and then came into this one that was set up even more for queuing up at a [counter], and with a water station in the middle of the restaurant.”

Again, the owner and staff had to persevere. The manager started standing up front and explaining the concept and the ordering process to guests. Eventually, though, Bernstein had the digital menu boards taken down. He left the POS counter up front, which made guests wonder, but having the menu boards gone went a long way toward moving the restaurant away from the fast-casual atmosphere toward full service. Guests can still order from the counter if they like, but now the staff seats customers right away instead of leading them to the counters. Bernstein believes that the location of his first two restaurants influenced the way customers reacted to the hybrid approach—perhaps if they had opened in another part of Chicago, guests would have embraced the concept, he says—but new Doc B designs are strictly full service and have no elements of a fast-casual operation.

Doc B’s now boasts three locations—two in Chicago and one in Tampa—and has more on the way. One new location will open in Fort Lauderdale this fall, and three are planned to open in Texas next year. In 2018, Bernstein plans to open three more restaurants in Florida.

The food will remain mostly the same among locations, such as featuring local produce, tuna sourced from Hawaii, lo mein noodles from San Francisco, and humanely raised meat. 

This will be a logistical challenge when the restaurants are spread so far and wide. But each location will have its own feel that reflects the community it inhabits. “It’s more inspiring to always be innovating,” Bernstein says. “We don’t want to feel like a cookie-cutter brand.” 

For example, the first Chicago restaurant is light and open, with exposed ceilings and marble walls, but the Fort Worth location will boast an old-school cowboy feel, with walls made from the same material as footballs.

Not only is the décor of each restaurant different, but the type of real estate varies widely. The Fort Lauderdale location will be street retail; uptown Dallas will be on the ground floor of a new building called McKinney & Olive; Orlando will be a freestanding unit; and the Austin and Fort Worth locations will be in outdoor-centric, pedestrian lifestyle centers. 

“Our vision for real estate is to be opportunistic and to get the best-in-class real estate in that market, as opposed to saying we can only be in ‘fill-in-the-blank,’” Bernstein explains. “We ask ourselves, where will we capture the most people who will appreciate the levels of service, hospitality, and architecture we offer?” 

Bernstein is planning for the long haul. When he makes decisions regarding architecture, real estate, or anything else, he asks himself what will bring success for his future child taking over the business 30 years from now. Seems fitting for a restaurant that has Bernstein’s father’s name over the door—and that was inspired by a childhood dream of his own.