A Premier Chicago Restaurant Group Targets National Expansion
When it came time for Chicago’s Rockit Ranch Productions to expand across state lines, CEO Billy Dec placed the group’s restaurant portfolio under a microscope. There was one concept that immediately surfaced and seemed perfectly suited for a trip to Nashville, Tennessee, this fall. Not because it was the flashiest, but because it was battled tested. Or, as Dec puts it, “if it really looked like a great horse, we’d bet on it and go after it.”
Sunda is a concept worth wagering on, Dec says. Compared to what the acclaimed Chicago institution has already weathered, exploring a new zip code shouldn’t be a problem.
Sunda opened in Chicago’s River North in February 2009, when restaurants were blinking out by the day and The Great Recession was collapsing businesses across the country. The Rockit Ranch team, which also owns Rockit Bar & Grill, Rockit Burger Bar, The Duck Inn, Bottlefork, Otto Mezzo, and The Underground, strategically designed the concept to survive even the most adverse conditions.
Firstly, it serves modern interpretations of traditional pan-Asian cuisine. A third of the menu hails from Japan, a third from China, and the final from Southeast Asia.
“What that really does is it allows us to put our modern spin on these traditional dishes,” Dec says. “On one hand, you can get really high-end expensive sushi and sakes and different wine, and really have a high check average experience. Or if your price sensitive, as we knew people would be back then, you can enjoy the same ambiance and same high-level experience because of the décor, the energy, the level of service, and ingredients, but enjoy exploring Southeast Asia from Thailand, Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines, and find that a lot those dishes were quite accessible and a much lower price point.”
“What it allowed people to do was navigate their own journey within a budget they felt good about,” Dec adds.
Sunda just kept growing and improving, both operationally and financially. The numbers steadily rose and the cuisine was nimble enough to never flame out. Generally, Asian cuisine has continued to interest foodies, and Sunda covers all spectrums. Over time, the restaurant developed what Dec calls the “dream team” staff of the organization. Mike Morales, chef de cuisine and partner of the Chicago location, is making the move to the Music City to lead the new venue.
“We’re basically bursting at the seams with elevated talent after so many years of breaking records at that particular location,” he says. “It actually put a fire under our butt to open a new one because we would have lost some of these employees eventually. The talent of the team was getting too big for one location.”
Rockit Ranch found a nearly 8,000-sqaure-foot space that was formerly occupied by a Cantina Laredo in the ground level at the Icon in the Gulch condo tower.
The move is being executed in tandem with Nashville-based Fresh Hospitality, a group that owns more than 100 restaurants, including Biscuit Love and Martin’s Bar-B-Que.
The journey began in earnest around seven years ago when Dec asked his social media networks where to find the best barbecue in Nashville. The answer came from a partner of Fresh Hospitality, which at the time was just getting started. They became friends and Dec started to nurture an acquaintance with the city itself.
“It was out of home but close to home,” Dec says of Nashville. “…I will be there quite a bit just because I am such a huge fan of Nashville, which is weird because being born and raised on the streets of Chicago I never thought I would find myself there. … For being in the city my whole life I feel like it has a great mix of all kinds of awesome things, people, business, traffic. It’s just kind of the perfect nest for our first one.”
Dec also discovered that the two cities aren’t all that unfamiliar. “There is this amazing relationship between Nashville and Chicago,” he says. “A lot of Nashvillians, I’ve been told over and over again, say that Chicago is their favorite city to escape to. It is kind of their bigger city that they go to for shopping and hospitality and nightlife. So there are a lot of Nashvillians already eating at Sunda. And then Chicagoans started going to Nashville more. It started becoming the bachelorette capital of the world. I noticed a lot of our friends going there for bachelorette parties. And so yeah, it just became the perfect fit.”
Dec, a two-time Emmy Award-winning TV personality, says he also admires the depth of culture in Nashville and its thriving music scene. Its restaurant industry isn’t far behind. The National Restaurant Association counted 5,395 restaurants in the fall of 2016.
This move, Dec says, is just the beginning of Rockit Ranch’s expansion. He says the company is already looking for new cities and talking to developers. They’re targeting secondary cities that are up-and-coming and will allow the group to place down roots.
“We really like to service people that we know we can earn their return business quite honestly by being friends and serving amazing experiences that we know we can turn into ongoing future business. We’re already looking at cities like that,” he says.