Scott Harris: the Most Underrated Restaurateur in the Country?
LET THEM EAT CARPACCIO: On the back of Mia Francesca, the modest Italian restaurant in Lake View, Harris has built a dining empire now on the brink of expanding to both coasts.
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“I loved it and also I was a wreck,” says Scott Harris of Mia Francesca, one of his more than 20 restaurants. “It was my first place, my dream restaurant, and I was worried all the time that it wasn’t going to succeed.”
At a table at Francesca’s on Chestnut, Scott Harris—his six-foot-one, 300-pound frame decked out in shorts and a sports shirt—is hunkered down, intensely studying the menu. It’s an unusual sight. After all, Harris, 50, is a Chicago restaurant mogul, the owner and executive chef of the Chicago-based Francesca restaurant chain, as well as a partner in multiple other local eateries, including the highly praised Davanti Enoteca and The Purple Pig. He could recite this menu in his sleep, since he created it for his first restaurant, Mia Francesca, in 1992. And today he’s already ordered lunch—carpaccio and a half order of gnocchi—so, for once, the food isn’t capturing his attention. Rather, it is the graphic design of the menu that is making him pause.
First he examines the long-established template that is used in all 20 of the Francesca venues in Chicago and the suburbs—plus an outpost in Madison, Wisconsin. This broadsheet, with a narrow black-and-white image of a beguiling woman’s face at the top, has half of the culinary offerings printed by hand. Then he picks up a spec design for a new Francesca menu. It is also a broadsheet with the same food items. But there the similarities end. The handwriting has been replaced with a script font, and a black-and-red collage of women’s faces borders the page. The first menu looks like it belongs in an Italian trattoria; the other looks like it could be found in a franchised restaurant in Anytown, USA. The first look is indicative of Harris’s winning formula: great Italian food at reasonable prices, with a helping of homey charm. The second look is a proposal from Reconstruction Partners, a Nashville-based management team whose claim to fame is the franchising and expansion of Sonic, a chain of drive-ins.
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Harris has hired Reconstruction Partners to help him as he begins a national expansion of his signature restaurant. This fall, he will be opening one Francesca’s in Scottsdale, Arizona, one in San Diego, California (plus a Davanti Enoteca in that city’s well-established Little Italy neighborhood), and one in Raleigh, North Carolina. On the drawing board are six more and seven new “affiliates”—restaurants in which Harris has a stake. Ultimately, Harris wants to ramp up his reach and solidify his business into a national dining juggernaut, one that will not only provide future security to his family (which, by Harris’s definition, includes his longtime employees) but also allow him to step away from the daily frenzy.
“I hate the word ‘corporate,’ but I have to get a little more corporate,” he says, explaining why he’s brought in an outside team to help restructure his dining empire. “I’ve been running all of this like individual mom-and-pop restaurants. I want to keep that mom-and-pop flavor but do it on a much bigger scale.” One of the first suggestions from his corporate team: Change the look of the menu.
“Do you think this handwritten menu looks sloppy?” he asks, waving the original. “Is it hard to read? I like it, but I’ve been told that we should go more to this printed style for the expansion. It’s supposed to be neater and easier to read.” Such are the challenges that Harris now faces as he moves beyond his local roots. Can a multistate operation keep its original emphasis on quality and neighborhood charm?
It is one thing to be the master of a boom of restaurants in your hometown—no one except Lettuce Entertain You honcho Rich Melman has accomplished as much as Harris has here—and quite another to successfully replicate those venues in other cities with different tastes and cultures. Particularly in this economy. According to data released by NPD Group, a market research company based in New York, the past several years have been the worst for the restaurant business since NPD started tracking the industry in 1976: In May 2010, after eight consecutive quarters of decline, total restaurant visits reached a plateau, compared with a 3 percent loss the year before. But the Francesca operation has bucked that trend. In 2009, it grossed $42 million. The next year, gross sales rose to $48 million, a 14.5 percent increase. The first half of 2011 shows a growth of over 4 percent.
Expansion in the restaurant business usually doesn’t occur during a recession, but then Harris has never played by the rules. “His concept of Mia Francesca was a total refinement of what was being done at the time,” says the Chicago Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel. “Instead of big, elaborate dishes, he offered a couple of pizzas, a couple of pastas, not much beef. And the atmosphere was relaxed. The food was more sophisticated than it seemed, yet everything was geared to put the diner at ease—right down to the handwritten menu.” In the last nine months, Harris has also opened DiSotto Enoteca, a late-night wine and charcuterie spot downstairs from Francesca’s on Chestnut, and Dough Boys, a pizza counter and delivery operation in the Little Italy neighborhood. “He’s feeding half of Chicago every night,” says Penny Pollack, Chicago magazine’s dining editor.
He has had some recent failures along the way, too, but sentimentality doesn’t seem to paralyze him. If things aren’t working out, he makes big changes quickly. Aldino’s, his traditional Italian restaurant in Little Italy, opened in 2010 and garnered excellent reviews, but it couldn’t pull in any crowds. Four months in, Harris shut it down and retooled the concept into the current Salatino’s, bringing in Joe Farina, the longtime chef at Rosebud, and shifting to what Harris calls “a red gravy, Sopranos-style” menu. His T-Bones Steakhouse in St. Charles also didn’t find its market, so Harris changed his vision and opened Fat Rosie’s Taco & Tequila Bar in the same space.
“He may just be the most underrated restaurateur in the country,” says Jimmy Bannos Sr., owner of the New Orleans–style Heaven on Seven and Harris’s partner in The Purple Pig. Clearly, Harris likes to keep a lot of plates spinning.
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Photograph: Saverio Truglia; Prop Styling: Angela Finney; Food Styling: Joseph Farina; Make-up: Morgan Blaul