Photo by Mary Lee
Chef Peter Chang, seated in his eponymous new Arlington restaurant
If the onslaught of Richmond’s expanding restaurant empires is any indication of success, then it’s clear that business is a-booming. It seems the Mid-Atlantic has become its own game of Risk, with River City restaurateurs setting out to conquer new lands by Samoa doughnut or dry-fried eggplant. Of course, to win a game of Risk, you need strategy.
Chef Peter Chang is a busy man. As I type, he’s running the press gauntlet while opening two restaurants at once: one located in Arlington and another in Rockville, Maryland. He also just dropped a mention of what could mean world domination: Peter Chang Wok, his new fast-casual concept. Come late May or early June, Wok will open in Virginia Beach, taking its basic structure from P.F. Chang’s Pei Wei Asian Diner, with made-to-order Asian cuisine that’s brought to you at a fraction of the price you might find at any of Peter Chang’s full-service restaurants. But Chang would never make his move without careful calculation.
Each future Peter Chang Wok will first be anchored by one of his full-service restaurants, to both ensure quality in the more casual counterpart and provide a classier first impression for new guests.
“We don’t want to just expand and lose the quality. That is what we are concerned about,” says Gen Lee, Chang’s business partner and consultant of five years. “We said, ‘Let’s go to one region at a time when we’re ready and set up a central kitchen first.’ ”
And when it comes to region number two, it’s Richmond’s turn to Wok.
Though Chang and Lee first collaborated in Charlottesville, Lee says it’s actually the VCU neighborhood that’ll get the second Wok, and it’ll happen later this year. This, again, is more strategy.
“Richmond is the central location for us, so we always pass by there. We always stop,” he says, adding that Chang will often drive 200 miles on a given day, splitting time between his restaurants when they close for private functions. With all that driving, it makes perfect sense for a chef to choose a territory that’s easily manageable. From there, he’ll plant Wok flags in Northern Virginia — possibly by George Mason University — and Washington, D.C., and then, in a surprise move, turn back to the South. Possibly, Lee says, Atlanta.
But what happens when you stray too far from your base? In Chang’s case, he and Lee are open to partnering, or potentially franchising, in order to maintain quality from afar. It’s the culinary equivalent of bonus armies.
“But we want to totally control the food quality,” Lee says, later adding, “Our minds are open.”
Chang and Lee aren’t alone in their quest. Richmond’s own Burger Bach just launched its third location, now bringing grass-fed, New Zealand-inspired burgers to Durham, North Carolina, in addition to the Carytown and Short Pump crowds. Our beloved Sugar Shack is sweetly attacking full-force, stationing its doughnuts in Fredericksburg, Charlottesville, Midlothian and even Cocoa, Florida, by June.
For John Haggai, expansion just made sense. When his investment group decided to part ways with Café Caturra, it was only logical to convert the licensed locations into Tazza Kitchen — his new venture with fellow Tazza co-owners John Davenport and Jeff Grant. The three now man locations in Short Pump; Arlington; Columbia, South Carolina; and Raleigh, North Carolina, with a location in Midlothian on the way. But even this has its strategy.
“We’ve been spending about two or three years building a regional supply chain with farmers and suppliers,” says Haggai, “so we have a footprint that we’re comfortable working in. Our footprint will stay from D.C. to the Carolinas for the foreseeable future.”
And there’s almost no restaurateur leading the charge quite like Travis Croxton. Blazing his trail through Northern, Central and Eastern Virginia, as well as North Carolina, Croxton has mastered manifeast destiny with multi-locational restaurants and concepts like Rocksalt and Rappahannock.
“For some of us, we just get bored. We want a continuous challenge,” he says. “I don’t do drugs or anything, but it’s like getting that high of a new restaurant. To me, it’s the challenge.”