Designs on Food
Ralph Lauren’s Polo Bar has brought comfortably luxurious steakhouse dining back to Manhattan, and Tommy Bahama is rolling out its island cuisine and resort-minded ambiance in white-tablecloth settings from New York City to Waikiki to Tokyo. In both, the food and restaurant become a natural extension of the designer brand.
“The restaurant really is the brand in 3-D,” explains Rob Goldberg, executive vice president of marketing for Tommy Bahama. “What I like is that the restaurant instantly gives the consumer an understanding of who Tommy Bahama is. [Guests] can see what is important to us, our aesthetic, and everything in the restaurant brings the brand to life—from the music to the plateware to servers’ uniforms and all the materials and color palette.”
That proves particularly useful when trying to convey the personality and emotion of a fictitious character that appears to channel the sophisticated intellect of Hemingway with the vigor and spirit of Jimmy Buffet. Thanks in part to the three-dimensional immersion provided by its restaurants, Goldberg suggests Tommy Bahama has actually come to represent more of a feeling than a person.
A 3-D translation is just as meaningful for bringing the very real persona of the Ralph Lauren brand to life. The legendary designer opened The Polo Bar, his first New York City restaurant, in January 2015, located next door to his flagship store. From the sporting polo mural that greets guests as they enter the front door to the saddle leather and equestrian art inside, the restaurant’s décor and ambiance reflect the lifestyle that has become synonymous with the brand. Similarly, the menu speaks to classical steakhouse fare just as the apparel has always been a nod to the traditional country club set.
The Polo Bar is Lauren’s third restaurant, following RL Restaurant, which opened in Chicago in 1999, and Ralph’s, which opened in Paris in 2010. In talking about his latest restaurant, Lauren has said he wants to offer “vibrant food that people want to return to time and again.” It’s not about inventive, emerging cuisine: It’s all about timeless classics and luxurious comfort—in food, in setting, and in service. Again, The Polo Bar is simply a culinary personification of Lauren’s namesake brand—right down to the servers, who are clad in Ralph Lauren gray flannel trousers, leather wingtips, and silk repp ties.
While servers at Tommy Bahama also don the brand’s signature apparel, the motivation is very much about the restaurant experience, not the retail line. “A number of retailers have announced in the last couple of years that they would like to enter the restaurant business, and I think for a lot of retailers it’s a question of increasing traffic,” Goldberg says. “Our inspiration for Tommy Bahama restaurants wasn’t about how we were going to generate traffic. Ours was: How are we going to fully ensconce our guests in our brand? We think about every single detail, and we really sweat the details in terms of how we present—because we present as one brand. We are not a retail company with a restaurant attached to it. We have a restaurant company, and we treat it as such. We have a culinary director, a vice president of operations, regional managers, executive chefs, and beverage experts.”
In fact, the first Tommy Bahama retail store opened alongside its signature restaurant in Naples, Florida, and that was nearly 20 years ago. Now, Tommy Bahama has 16 restaurants, 140 stores, and a commitment to culinary expertise that equals its commitment to designer fashion.
“I want people to realize we take the food just as serious as [the designers] take the clothing line,” says Don Donley, culinary director for Tommy Bahama. “That’s something I want to make sure people know: We have chefs in our building; we make everything from scratch; we work hard at staying current with the trends. … And, we’re really serious about what we do and who we are.”
Donley, who has a bachelor’s degree in hotel and restaurant management, also graduated from the Johnson & Wales culinary school in Vail, Colorado, and clocked time at several world-class restaurants in Vail that afforded him insights into what he calls a “melting pot of different cuisines.” Before joining Tommy Bahama 11 years ago, Donley served as corporate chef for a Ruth’s Chris Steak House franchisee with locations in five states. These experiences have served him well as he leads the menu development across the Tommy Bahama portfolio, keeping the core menu firmly focused on upscale island cuisine.
“We’re doing an Ahi Tuna Burger, with lemongrass, kale, crispy shiitakes, garlic aïoli, edamame purée, and fries, that we feel is a great rendition of who we are,” Chef Donley says. Other staples include the Macadamia Nut Encrusted Snapper with Hawaiian Red Sea Salt, grilled asparagus, almond rice, and Wasabi Soy Beurre Blanc; as well as the Grilled Baby Back Pork Ribs with a sweet and spicy blackberry brandy barbecue sauce and cauliflower-chive mash.
Each Tommy Bahama restaurant typically has three chefs, although the highest-volume operations have four chefs while the smallest restaurant, in Laguna Beach, California, only needs two chefs. “I focus a lot of my time on chef development,” Donley says. “I hire all the chefs so I do a lot of interviews, a lot of tastings. We’re always looking for the brightest and best out there, but the main thing I look for is passion. A person who is passionate about food will be able to work the long hours. I can teach anything someone needs to know about our operations, but I can’t teach someone to be passionate about this business.”
By definition, fashion is in a continuous state of flux, always evolving, experimenting, and exploring. Restaurants and chefs need to do that with their food as well, or the brand becomes stale.
Goldberg concurs, noting when he talked with FSR in November, “After this, I’m going to another meeting where we are talking about spring of 2017—the color palettes, patterns, and prints that design thinks are going to be relevant in 2017. You have to think far out in the fashion world to stay on top of trends and where the consumer is going, and the same is true in restaurants. We have to stay ahead of the game, stay ahead of the competition, and—more importantly—we have to stay ahead of the consumer. Because the minute they come in and feel [the restaurant is] tired and played out, it’s too late. You can’t react fast enough to trends, whether its décor or menu or style of service. All of those things matter.”
To keep a firmly established brand relevant in an ever-changing marketplace requires the vision to lead diners into new experiences as well as an understanding of the core attributes that diners associate with the brand and that keeps them coming back. For the Tommy Bahama brand, this means marrying its core island cuisine—that reinforces the perception of transporting guests to exotic, tropical settings—with a contemporary nod to the locality of each unit, effectively bringing fresh, local ingredients and dishes into the menu so that each experience is personalized to the moment.
“I split my time up between the locations to work with all of the chefs, go through the kitchens, and look at all the products,” Chef Donley says. “We talk through the local, regional cuisine, and I’m constantly challenging the chefs at each location to find more local farms.”
As a standard practice, the Tommy Bahama restaurants produce a rotating “fresh sheet” in each market to augment the core menu with local cuisine. “It gives us credibility, especially with repeat guests, so one of my focuses is to develop our chefs to be more creative in that local market,” Donley continues. “My other focus is menu development; I have a small team that I’ve trained and developed to come up with new menu items, and we constantly look at what’s going on in the market and the trends. We’re in the process now of rolling out a new menu that will be corporate-wide, but our guests are crazy about some of the items on our core menu, and if we take things off that menu, the guests are upset.”
Some of the staples have been in the company longer than he has, Donley explains, adding that these dishes are synonymous with the Tommy Bahama name but aren’t necessarily identical in all of the locations. “In Manhattan and California and Hawaii it’s a little different than in Florida and the desert region, which are more similar,” he says. “We have to develop [and maintain] a core menu so our guests are familiar with who we are.”
Sticking to that island-inspired cuisine in markets like New York City and Tokyo, while also incorporating the local cuisine, is a challenge. “That’s a big test for us,” Chef Donley acknowledges. “If you look across all of our markets, Manhattan is the first one in a cold climate, so we had to go in to that particular city and figure out: What would Tommy Bahama do if he was walking around New York? What would he like? How would he fit in? What would be on the menu? We went in with the mindset that we wanted to do island food but in a city format, and we want every guest who comes into the New York restaurant to see it as an oasis in the middle of Manhattan.”
Mission accomplished, according to Donley, who asserts that the light, open, airy setting is the antithesis of the typical dark, cloistered ambiance in most upscale Big Apple eateries. “I still did the core menu there because that’s who we are, but this is where we decided to go even more in-depth with the regional, local feel of food,” he says, adding that the menu pulls in calamari, fresh cod, and swordfish to play on the seafood of that region, as well as produce from nearby farms.
Prices also vary, rather significantly, by market. Unsurprisingly, prices run highest in the Hawaii locations and lower in markets like Jupiter, Florida, and The Woodlands, Texas, while prices at the New York City location fall somewhere in between.
“Our Ahi Tuna Tacos ($17 on Hawaii menus / $12.50 in smaller markets) have really come to the top of the appetizer list, and our World Famous Coconut Shrimp ($19.50 / $16.50) has put Tommy Bahama restaurants on the map—it’s our No. 1 appetizer in the entire company,” Chef Donley notes. “Another item we’re feeling really good about is our Kona Longboard Fish & Chips ($29 / $22) served with Asian slaw, island tartar, and jerk Yucca Fries. It’s a recent addition that’s done extremely well.”
He also highlights the Macadamia Crusted Goat Cheese ($14.50 / $12.50), served with mango salsa, sweet soy glaze, and flatbread, as a long-time staple that has a great following. However, the one that is closest to his heart is one he added to the menu 11 years ago: the Seared Scallop Sliders ($18 / $14.50), with chipotle aïoli, basil, Romas, crispy onions, and Asian slaw.
The No. 1 entrée salad at Tommy Bahama is the Lump Blue Crab & Avocado Salad ($22 / $18) with shredded Romaine, vine-ripe tomatoes, Feta, and lime-caper vinaigrette. Best-selling desserts include the Piña Colada Cake ($12.50 / $10), made with Myers’s dark rum, diced pineapple, white chocolate mousse, and toasted coconut; the Key Lime Pie; and the Pineapple Crème Brûlée.
All of the menu is made from scratch and made in-house, and the average check cashes in at $70 per diner. “Tommy Bahama is very rooted and very understandable to a guest,” Goldberg says. “It would be easy to chase each food trend, but in the process you’d lose yourself and you’d just be a trendy restaurant.
“We approach it the same way as we do fashion; we are constantly looking at the marketplace, at the consumer, and at the leaders. And also at ourselves: You [cannot] take it for granted and just develop your product and your offering by looking in the rearview mirror and saying, ‘This sells well; let’s keep doing it.’ If you’re going to be successful in fashion, you have to keep taking risks, and the same is true in restaurants. You cannot become predictable and played out—otherwise you’re gone. It’s too competitive these days.”
Bringing the Brand to Life
In the case of Tommy Bahama, the restaurants not only help personify the brand, they also drive retail sales. Restaurants are always located with a store, and those stores that are fortunate to share space with the restaurant typically tally sales that are 25 percent higher than stores without restaurants. “Part of the reason for higher sales is surely the traffic—the restaurant generates a certain degree of traffic that otherwise the retail store wouldn’t have,” Goldberg says. “And secondly, it may be partly due to the location—the best locations are going to have a restaurant.”
When the brand began developing stores, the first five locations included restaurants, and Goldberg says the company toyed with the idea of not opening a store without a restaurant in it—but that wasn’t a practical strategy since many great retail locations simply are not conducive to restaurant operations. The next restaurant/retail unit is scheduled to open early next year in the Plano area outside Dallas.
The location that had both Goldberg and Donley most excited when they spoke with FSR was the recently opened flagship store in Waikiki. One of the company’s three units in Hawaii, it opened in October, and the development of this newest restaurant and store commanded a hefty capital investment—an estimated $12 million, more than double the $5 million typically spent to open a new restaurant and store.
“It’s bigger than anything we’ve ever done,” Goldberg explains, adding it encompasses more than 19,000 square feet with 10,000 square feet dedicated to the restaurant. “And, we did a massive overhaul of the building to accomplish what we wanted to do in terms of presenting ourselves. We took out one of the floors in the building so we could get high ceilings on the second floor, and we put in a huge living wall inside the grand stairwell that goes up three stories. It really is an impressive presentation, with indigenous plants growing in the wall that is 14 feet high and 55 feet wide.”
The restaurant has a second living wall installed on the roof, this one planted with USDA-certified organic herbs including basil, thyme, mint, and oregano for use in the kitchen.
Presentation is a primary focus in all of the restaurants, and, while every detail is strategically planned, the objective is to achieve a refined and comfortable ambiance that underscores the message that guests are being treated to an upscale escape. “I tell the chefs, ‘Don’t overcomplicate the dishes; we need to be simple but elegant.’ That’s how we design our plates,” Chef Donley says. “About five years ago, I changed all the plateware throughout the company to really bright white plates. We’ve diversified with some rectangle-shaped plates, squares, and rounds so we can setup to make the presentation a little different—but all of the plateware is a bright white. It’s elegant, approachable, and fits into who we are as a company.”
For color, the chefs need look no further than the ingredients and dishes on the menu—as Donley explains, “We’ve got some really cool colors going on.” And of course, the apparel line is known for its bold patterns and energized colors. While servers and front-of-house staff wear Tommy Bahama apparel, the chefs and cooks wear professional chef coats and uniforms.
“We aren’t sure what drives what: whether it’s retail that drives restaurants or restaurants that drive retail—but we really aren’t concerned about that,” Goldberg concludes. “We think of ourselves as one lifestyle brand, so I don’t mind if there is a very blurry line between retail and restaurant. It really is more of a lifestyle that people like, and that’s one of the benefits of the brand. … When we ask consumers, ‘What do you think of when you hear Tommy Bahama?’ they generally say they think of a place, an island, or about being on a boat. But when asked that question about our competitors, consumers talk about where the restaurant is [located] or maybe a dish that the restaurant serves.
“The Tommy Bahama [brand] transcends those ideas, and when you can leverage emotion like that, it is very powerful. We take every opportunity we can to use that imagery and that feeling to our advantage.”