Digital reservations, customer loyalty programs, great-tasting healthy food and green, high-efficiency kitchens – how restaurants evolve to meet changing customer demands and demographics is the secret sauce to their success. Just ask Chef Andy Revella.
When he dipped his first basket of French Fries in the deep-fryer at a New York City burger spot, Chef Andy Revella knew that he wanted to work in a professional kitchen. It was his first job as a teen with a culinary knack passed along from his Italian family. For him, the heat and hectic pace didn’t feel like work at all.
“I remember thinking, ‘and they pay me to do this?’ I fell in love,” he says, of a passion that’s taken him to kitchens across the country, running his own restaurants and then leading creative culinary teams to establish new restaurant concepts like the eco-forward Rain Forest Café. (Everything in the café, including the design of the dishwasher and the cleaning fluids, had to be natural and environment-friendly.)
“I just love all the sights, sounds and activities in the kitchen. I love taking raw food and creating something. I always believed eating is the most personal choice we make. When you go to Macy’s you can only buy what someone else has put there, yet eating is something you are going to do your entire life. And we choose what we are going to eat, where we are going to eat it, when we are going to eat it. So that really boils down to a personal choice.”
Influencing personal choice has become Revella’s expertise. His knowledge and experience of the restaurant and food industry run deep, and he’s made a name for himself as a consultant for top companies like Coca-Cola, Sara Lee and Cirque de Soleil.
He was the guy who developed Fat Ernie’s for a Ramada Inn in Baltimore. While he was there, he invented the deep-fried Monte Crisco sandwich cult favorite. That was in 1974 and that sandwich, along with Fat Ernie’s, took off.
“At Fat Ernie’s, we had a picture of a very chubby guy’s face and back then there was no health movement, it was about eating great-tasting food that made you feel good and it was all about these oversized portions,” he says.
“The fried Monte Crisco was triple-layered with ham and turkey and two kinds of cheeses. You batter dip it, you fry it and it comes out with sprinkled powdered sugar on it. You serve it with raspberry preserves, so it’s very dietetic,” he jokes. “In America at that time, it was all about frying.”
But Revella is a lot more than a one-hit wonder. He’s been innovative throughout his career, adjusting his approach to the changing tastes and preferences of consumers and restaurant-goers through the decades. Now he’s focused on no-fry kitchens where that delicious crispy-coated southern chicken, for example, is prepared by lightly coating with extra virgin olive oil and baking in a high-speed oven. So you still get the mouthfeel of old-fashioned crispy chicken without the heavy-duty fat and calories.
He founded the Cookery and Food Institute, a development and education center in Dallas, Texas, to lead what he aptly calls the “green movement” in the restaurant industry with a focus on healthier, safer and environmentally-conscious technology to literally transform the way recipes are developed and prepared.
His kitchens are ventless and greaseless, so ovens don’t require hoods and employees aren’t breathing in all those gasses from the fryer and the grill. State-of-the-art equipment in commercial kitchens improves the indoor air quality for both the people enjoying the food and the employees working in the kitchen.
“I’m talking about fundamentals that you can’t argue,” Revella says. “We all want clean air, and everybody talks about outdoors, but what percentage of our time do we spend inside? Then there’s water, it’s the liquid of life. So it’s what we put back into our environment through our water system. What are we putting down those drains in our kitchens? You can argue about global warming, but you can’t dispute air quality and clean water. Our kitchen platform puts those front and center so you can create a better environment for everybody.”
These are the kind of things Revella and his team think about so that people can have great food in a clean environment. Last July, for example, the company completed a Canopy by Hilton project, a 150-room boutique business hotel catering to the millennial crowd. It is the first full service, ventless, greaseless hotel in the world, and is located in Dallas, Texas.
It’s a surprising thing, in our tech-obsessed society with supercomputers for phones and self-driving cars, that we walk into an average kitchen and see the same technology that we had in the 1950s. Sure it has some bells and whistles, but it operates the same way it did back then.
Revella says capital costs are always a concern, but his green kitchens make environmental and economic sense in the long run.
“Just to run an eight-foot hood every day in your restaurant costs $20,000 a year in electricity. And that doesn’t include the cleaning costs, the fire inspection. So, our kitchens actually cost less. You build it once, but you operate it every day. I see people save $300 on a refrigerator only to give back $500 on electricity costs. So we make sure you know what the real costs are.”
Now he and his business partner, Brad Beltto, offer a turnkey service for restaurant entrepreneurs, “from the front door to the back door and beyond.” The starting point is the story and everything fits into that concept, including the design of the facility to the kitchen design all the way down to being onsite for training and opening with the staff.
They’re experts in branding, looking at consumer trends and demographics, and making sure that the whole dining experience is cohesive and has you coming back for more.
Dunn Brothers Coffee out of Minneapolis, and Saladworks out of Philadelphia are two great examples of client restaurants adapting to demands and moving forward.
“Dunn Brothers is a coffee shop that’s better than Starbucks because we roast the coffee every day and we also fresh-bake all the items right in store,” Revella says. The baristas now also slice the meat to make sandwiches on request. In fact, Dunn Brothers does more food sales per square foot than any other coffee shop chain in America, he says.
And Saladworks is a 30-plus-year-old company where the self-serve salad bar has transitioned to made-to-order salads that offer roasted Brussels sprouts and roasted yams, and grain bowls with brown rice or quinoa.
For the first time in American history, there are four distinct generations participating at the same time and moving along in their lifecycles, so you have aging baby boomers who are very different than 20 years ago. Then you’ve got the millennials who are now buying a home and starting a family, Revella explains.
To meet the changing needs, Dunn Brothers have updated their menu to cater to millennial moms so that they don’t have to give up their latte. They can have a coffee while the kids have something nutritious like yummy chicken fingers with 70 percent less fat.
Restaurants need a strategy to build on. And with all his experience in the food industry, Revella is clearly excited about what’s coming next. “I think we are going to have a tremendous round of innovation in the restaurant business. We don’t have buggy whip makers anymore or watch spring makers because innovation replaces them. And I think that will be our green kitchen. We think that our platform due to labor and safety and economics is the way of the future.”