PHILADELPHIA — Jose Garces describes his new all-in-one culinary destination in downtown Philadelphia — Jose Garces Trading Company — as a market/cafe/wine boutique. But even this catch-all description explains only part of what the most recent Next Iron Chef winner has going on here. And it doesn't reference the most unusual aspect: Garces' partner in the wine boutique is none other than the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.
This eclectic concept has everything a food lover could want. There's a 75-seat restaurant, a vast takeout area that offers boil-in-a-bag meals, a bakery, a fresh-cut flower stall and several walls full of both house-made and imported food stuffs, most of which carry the chef's proprietary label. Those who want to explore the outer limits of personal brand extension should study what Garces has done here: He's got his own line of coffee, honey, olive oil, vinegar and charcuterie. Patrons can even take home the burger blend Garces serves at his Village Whiskey restaurant. It goes for $13 a pound.
Surprisingly, the vacuum-sealed prepared entrees have been top sellers early on. Each GTC At Home package feeds two, and is ready to eat after a 10-minute hot water immersion. Two choices are available at a time, rotating each week. For the opening back in February, the options were Camerone Enchilada and Coq au Vin ($26). Other operators will want to note that Garces is demonstrating there's another way to play the takeout market beside shoveling hot food into foam containers and hoping it's still palatable by the time the customer gets home.
Yet the food-to-stay component holds its own, despite being surrounded by all the merchandise. The full-service restaurant sits in the center of the Trading Company's space. The challenge for Garces here was to come up with something different from the fare he serves at his other Philadelphia restaurants (Distrito, Amada, Village Whiskey, Chifa and Tinto, all but Village Whiskey being Latin-themed). That's why Garces Trading Company offers what's best described as an Old World-style menu.
“Our menu reflects my Spanish cooking heritage and also includes other European cuisines, including some French and Italian dishes,” Garces says. “Most of the items on the menu were chosen because they are familiar, and they're the sorts of foods that I crave from my travels when you stumble upon a sweet little no-name cafe with great food.”
GTC's antipasti lineup features baby artichokes with preserved lemon, honey, dates and walnuts.
Offered are pastas like pappardelle with lamb ragu, sun choke puree and piave vecchio ($16/$24) and Tuscan fusilli alla carbonara with guanciale, eggs, black pepper and pecorino ($10/$15); pizzas of both the thin crust ($12-$13) and deep dish ($24) varieties; and a nightly special plat du jour that feeds two: bouillabaisse with gambas, halibut, mussels, cockles and saffron rouille ($38) or steak frites, grilled hanger steak with duck fat fries, asparagus, maitake mushrooms and bearnaise ($30).
This lineup satisfies the dual challenges of providing Iron Chef-worthy food in a destination dining setting yet being straightforward enough to encourage multiple visits per week by heavy users. Garces, busy on many fronts, tapped Adam Delosso to head the kitchen as chef de cuisine/general manager at Garces Trading Company.
But it's the wine program that has the town talking — some of them Garces' fellow restaurateurs.
Everyday fare has a place on the GTC menu. This is the Garces rendition of the traditional Cuban sandwich.
The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board leases space inside Garces Trading Company for its wine boutique. Of the 200 labels — many coming from Spain, France and Italy — offered there, 100 are available nowhere else but at GTC. Because customers are buying them from a state store, they pay straight retail, even though they are welcome to bring their bottles to their table and drink them with their GTC meal. Both the pricing and the availability are phenomenal by restaurant standards, and what Garces loses in wine markups he's going to make up in volume and foot traffic to his restaurant and market.
It's a win-win … unless you're a nearby competitor restaurant to GTC and sell your less-imposing array of wines at traditional markups and you can't sell bottles to go.
The PLCB plans to do more boutiques with other chefs and restaurants, so keep your eye on how this issue plays out. In the meantime, Garces is going full speed ahead with yet another concept. All he's saying about this unnamed venture so far is that it will be a farm-to-table restaurant located in the 29-floor Cira Center next to Philly's 30th Street Amtrak Station. He's also moved the headquarters of his Garces Restaurant Group there, and why not? It's only five blocks from his house. This guy thinks of everything!
This article originally appeared in Restaurant-Hospitality magazine, a sister publication of Supermarket News.
Edited by Bob Krummert, Restaurant-Hospitality