Why D.C.’s Chiko concept is more than a restaurant. It’s a trend.

‘Chinese-Korean Alliance’ wok-fry the future of restaurant food

“Chef-inspired concept” is a phrase that many inside the restaurant industry may want to vanquish in 2019. How about chef-driven or chef-managed? This appears to have more purpose and significance. On that point, enter Chiko (Chai-Koh), a three-unit chain, born and bred in Washington, D.C, and expanding nationally (but quietly). Chiko is not just a restaurant, it’s also is a trend at the same time. And it’s growing into a chain, with three locations now open (two in D.C. and another in Encinitas, Calif.), but doesn’t feel like a chain.

In the food world, the embodiment of artisanship is a care for food and technique that is readily apparent. It’s a dedication that is often conveyed in some of the best of kitchens, and occasionally full of real-world humility. Chiko is the type of restaurant that’s run by people with an honest wholesomeness. Chiko’s founding partners are Scott Drewno, Danny Lee and Drew Kim, of Matchbox fame. Last year, Kim was dispatched to open the West Coast restaurant. Drewno hails from the kitchen of The Source by Wolfgang Puck and other top destinations, including Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Vong and Stephen Hansen’s Ruby Foo’s. From such an unassuming leader, the culinary resume is to die for. Together, the partners form the Fried Rice Collective.

Lee hardly needs any introduction: He was brought up in food businesses, in and around D.C., owned by his family, including restaurant Charlie Chiang Kwai, where he learned the management side of the food business. His mother opened the Mandu restaurants, and played a significant role in his restaurant training. Mandu has been a long-running best Korean restaurant. Lee has also worked at Oceanaire. Danny Lee and the Fried Rice Collective will open a Korean pub, Anju, during winter 2019, according to Washingtonian Magazine.

Kim was a partner at Matchbox Restaurant Group, which became a multi-unit concept with the opening of Ted’s Bulletin. Chiko is Kim’s renaissance after closing his own chapter with Matchbox Restaurant Group, and with his co-founding Matchbox restaurant partners there. Matchbox went on to be guided by restaurant management company Thompson Hospitality, after it invested a major stake in the company in July. Kim’s expertise in branding and entrepreneurship should serve Chiko well, as the chain looks to expand methodically outside of the D.C. region to strike a unique palette wherever it goes.

By operating concurrently on the West and East Coasts, the restaurant partners are taking a page from chains that D.C. residents know all too well: Cava and sweetgreen. Urban enclaves on both coasts are ideal testing grounds, and provide plenty of finicky diners, today’s version of the “taste panel.”

Humility. Family. Community: Is this a recipe for success?

If humility and a sense of community is part of a recipe for success, than Drewno embodies that. At the MetroCooking DC Show, held in December, Drewno displayed a dedication and care for better food. The down-to-earth persona was on display in a cooking demonstration. This is the same infectious and endearing quality displayed by staff at Chiko’s restaurants. That attitudes toward food and consumers could easily be parlayed into the restaurant chain’s growth and cultural development.

At the show, a sense of pride and an appreciation of the audience, even, was on display—a recognition that these attendees could be current or future guests. One day they’ll fuel the beating heart of a larger business venture. These attentive attendees are—or could be—part of the Chiko community. How to pick good red cabbage? How to get the recipe for the spring rolls Drewno just demonstrated how to make? These are all answers Drewno readily provides at the show.

“The world is changing more and more, and people care about how their animals are being treated—where their food is grown, and who the farmer is,” said Drewno at MetroCooking DC. “We’re kind of active with the James Beard Foundation… I’ve sat on some of their panels on traceability and sustainability.” Increasingly, restaurants are approaching ingredients with respect, and chefs can drive that forward. Chefs and entrepreneurs are responding to consumers’ desire to want more from their food. MetroCooking DC was more than a cooking demonstration. It was the precursor for a much larger, national stage that Chiko’s partners are headed for.

Chiko received a RAMMY Award for Best New Restaurant last year in D.C. “I’m dedicating this to all the women in my life,” said Drewno, during his acceptance speech. The RAMMYS are D.C.’s restaurant excellence awards and a great honor, since the city is now an established culinary and foodie destination. There’s no shortage of talent in the nation’s capital and those who are recognized are the best of the best. The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW), a restaurant advocacy group, and Events DC, the sports and entertainment authority for the city, host the RAMMYS and pay tribute to the culinary and entrepreneurial professionals in the local industry.

Swizzle Chill TV had the opportunity to interview Chiko, as well as other winners, at the RAMMYS 2019. “It’s casual, fun and funky,” said Drewno of the then-one year-old chef-driven concept. “We wanted to form a fun, kind of family-oriented company (Chiko’s parent, Fried Rice Collective). We decided to make the first step into it—the three of us—with Chiko.” Chiko was also a semi-finalist for the Best Restaurant Award in 2018 from the James Beard Foundation.

[Related story: RAMMYS 2018 Award winners announced]

Are two cuisines better than one?

By combining Korean and Chinese cuisine, Chiko is taking the best of comfort food, but drizzling it with adventure. Hip, upscale Korean concepts are a trend. Consumers in D.C. and beyond are eager to be grounded in their egg rolls, but also ready to try something new and exciting. In the socio-economic climate we’re in, they want both the familiar and adventure. That’s why regional American cooking is back in. That’s why we see plant-based proteins emulate the meat we grew up with, even as we try to shake loose of so many carnivorous meals.

The U.S. restaurant industry is going through a constantly maturing consumer palette. Diet regimens and diet choices are evolving and becoming more complex, and are driven by several forces at once, including financial, political, socioeconomic, in addition to diners’ transparency and sustainability goals.

Chiko was a Best New Restaurant Award-winner at the RAMMYS.

Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides and a top forensic trendologist in the country, told us on the dusk of 2018 that consumers are not feeling particularly grounded or confident. This is why Chiko’s emergence is so timely, and its popularity and rise will be emboldened by a “perfect storm.” The concept strikes a delicate balance between chef-driven food that is tasty, is served quickly, is comforting, and priced within reason. It’s challenging to deliver such a product successfully in such a diverse and eclectic city as D.C.: There are so many dining options to choose from.

In culinary and industry circles, fusion became a short-lived bad word for a few years. Some chefs went too far with combinations and did not provide the authenticity that global cuisine deserves. There was also a lack of respect for the food’s origins and provenance. But now, there’s a window for a broad acceptance of flavors, and chefs are executing in ways that are true to international food’s origins.

With Chiko, the partners are balancing adventuresome Korean flavors, with comforting familiar dishes and textures of Chinese food. Chiko’s founders have found a formula that is years in the making and is a gateway to sophisticated dining markets. Not all new concept winners can be healthy-focused. The timing is right to take Chiko to the next level.

Dishes on the menu range from $8 to $18. One could easily spend $50 to $100, and that’s the point. Chiko is an example of a fast-casual concept that’s not really that fast casual. Those who track segments could give Chiko several different names. Safe to say, it’s a polished version of fast casual. But with no artificial price barrier, so much of the categorization that has come before will not fit (more on that momentarily). Chiko also offers counter service via hard-to-snag reservations, which gives guests access to a chef’s tasting menu.

The Crispy Chicken Springrolls appear to be a hit. And they run $9 and are served with Chinese mustard dipping sauce. Rib Eye & Rice Cakes will run $18, but with bulgogi, baby carrots and some nice shitake mushrooms on the plate, who cares? Not likely that even the most restrained customers would be able to stop at just one Pork and Kimchi Potsticker. These are the types of dishes that can be had in quick fashion, and deliciously.

Chiko's artsy springrolls. Photo by Chiko.
Chiko’s artsy springrolls. Photo by Chiko.

This is no Tom Sietsema piece (nor a review), but the top D.C. food critic did say he expected the Dupont location “will be a smash, and I project that having squeezed my way to the counter on the Hill for its crazy-good smoked catfish fried rice, “orange-ish” chicken and whatever special might be offered. Hope for roast duck, stuffed with chicken dumpling filling and perched on sliced zucchini splashed with XO sauce.” Sietsema has called the venture a “Chinese-Korean Alliance,” which it definitely is.

The building of trends, not restaurants

Chiko was propped up as an example of a new type of eatery. Polished fast casuals may be what the industry is looking for to solve a myriad of economic problems. (For background, in this chronology, fast-casual 1.0 was Chipotle and Panera Bread, 1.2 were Cava and sweetgreen, 2.0 was Eatsa.) A report by international food consultancy Baum + Whiteman called out Chiko as an example of an elevated, polished quick-service concept—one that has no (artificial) price barriers.

Additional fast-casual 3.0 concepts have been found in Manhattan and Oakland, Calif. For those of us who have grown up around food businesses, Chiko is different. And according to these trendologists, Chiko is the next step up—a place where one can get chef-driven food, with minimal wait times.

[Related story: Restaurant, food trends of 2019]

Said the Baum + Whiteman report, “Expect generally to be jostled by delivery boys and carryout customers hurrying for the door … because 50 percent (or more) of these places’ food is consumed off the premises.” Baum + Whiteman suggests fast-casual 3.0 makes perfect sense. The economics of a fun, chef-driven fast-casual concept with minimal space because of digital takeout and delivery orders makes perfect sense. Millennials and Gen Z are taking their food to go.

For these (younger) adults who have lived an entire lifetime with fast casuals like Panera Bread, Au Bon Pain and Chipotle, Chiko is a restaurant for their generation—the next evolution. Millennials and Gen Z consumers—as they are known—are quasi- or full-digital natives, respectively. For them, quick-service settings with access to chef-driven cuisine that is fine-dining caliber is the “next big thing” in restaurant food.

Chef-driven and operated concepts can rework space, but still offer delicious food. This is the evolution of the fast-casual restaurant: to improve the economics of restaurants that are so costly to build and operate. Fast-casual 3.0 restaurants have a chance of making a greater profit as they rethink small spaces for more takeout/delivery, keep chef-driven menus, add a little booze for good measure, and offer limited hours, and pack it all in fewer operating hours. It’s not a slam dunk by any means, as these concepts can pay up to 30 percent off the top to have delivery companies dispatch food to customers.

Yet, the ability of restaurateurs to operate in a smaller space, offer booze for those looking for a night out, and also realize that many folks just want good food in the comfort of their homes, could be the future of restaurant food. It can also become a strong foundation for success, provided that costly delivery sales are balanced with on-premises dining business. Beyond the all-important embrace of customers, Chiko may be just what the restaurant accountant ordered.

Focus on the experiental. The expansion.

For New Year’s Eve, while other restaurants in D.C. were spending big money on publicist and ad funds to lure customers into their restaurants and book reservations, Chiko’s partners recognized that many folks don’t even go out. Thus, they combined takeout/delivery into their holiday ground game and offered a $55 to-go meal. With minimal space, the move by Chiko’s founders was a bit of brilliance. Not all D.C. residents celebrated the 2019 New Year at home. Many did, and perhaps, even always do stay in. Chiko’s delivery extravaganza consisted of Double Fried Chicken Wings + Caviar, Rockfish With Ponzu Glazed Veggies, Cumin Lamb Noodles
Coconut Custard, Shredded Coconut, and Toasted Wild Rice.

Chiko’s food will also be headed to Capital One Arena. Said Washington City Paper, “The Fried Rice Collective is excited to announce that CHIKO will be landing at Capital One Arena starting January 18th. Serving our Korean fried chicken wings, crispy spring roll, and the bulgogi hoagie. We look forward to cooking and cheering alongside you.”

Chiko hosts a near-monthly series, called “Chiko After Dark.” It’s a fun evening, with access to food from guest chefs and cameos by the culinary visionaries of D.C. and other top food destinations. Recent events have included local chefs, including chefs Gerald Addison, Chris Morgan (Maydan and Compass Rose), Boston’s Jamie Bissonnette, and Adam Greenberg and Brandon Langley from the Coconut Club. In February, Chiko will pay tribute to Mardi Gras with its own ‘Nawlins-themed celebration, featuring David Guas of Bayou Bakery and the ever-popular Gina Chersevani of Buffalo & Bergen.

D.C. is a great breeding ground for restaurant chains, with some great ones having launched here. But restaurant concepts can expand in unrestrained fashion, as well. Thankfully for Chiko, only so many markets will yield consumers looking for a quick $50 meal. Growth will surely be moderate, although, there are a good 12 to 15, or possibly 20 such markets, each with enough cozy spaces to welcome two or three Chikos.

The partners opened their newest restaurant in Dupont Circle on Valentine’s Day. It will surely find a passionate and cult-like following, there, as well. Dupont is also home to a plethora of hotels and tourist activity, ignited fully in the spring and summer. The new outlet on P Street, which has a dedicated takeout window, will have its own beat and also add to the chorus of night-time activity that is already there.

[Related story: The Fairfax at Embassy Row is redesigned]

The DMV has already experienced comparable initially-delicate expansions: Cava and sweetgreen. Their founders had to tweak and finesse changes at these fast-casual concepts over time, before they were ready for the big leagues. The restaurants and cultures at Cava and sweetgreen were eventually successful, but not world-ready right away. It’s a process and the timing has to be right. It’s a recipe for the patient. With the help of investors, Cava finalized the acquisition of its competitor, Zoe’s Kitchen, for $300M in November. And sweetgreen tapped a cool $200M that same month to fuel its next chapter of growth.

Brilliance in the restaurant world is not always apparent early on, nor discernible by the casual observer. For Chiko, it will pay (much) more to be a trend, than a flash in the pan. To check out Chiko’s website or reserve a spot at the trendy, emerging spot, before it becomes a full-fledged chain, navigate to its website: http://chikodc.com/

Messages requesting comment sent to a John Rorapauh at Leading DC, Chiko’s publicist, were not immediately returned.

Photo credit: Chiko, Eatery Pulse Media, Chipotle (inline gallery), Au Bon Pain (inline gallery), Panera Bread (inline gallery)

Author credit: Rick Zambrano

Rick Zambrano has nearly two decades in food businesses, and has experiences in menu analysis, menu rollout support, consulting, financial analysis, content marketing and research. As a thought leader specialized in the areas of menu analysis and restaurant trends, his insights appear in research reports, foodservice magazines and business periodicals. He is also the editor of The Swizzle Chill Channel. Zambrano can be seen around D.C. scoping out new stories and supporting consulting clients.

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