Nation's Restaurant News salutes culinary creativity with its annual MenuMasters Awards. Honorees will be celebrated at the Drake Hotel in Chicago on May 17. Read in-depth profiles of all 2014 winners >>
Michael Stebner, executive chef, True Food Kitchen
True Food Kitchen, a seven-unit chain owned by Fox Restaurant Concepts, has won over its customers with what it calls “honest food that tastes really good.”
Inspired by the anti-inflammatory diet of natural food advocate Dr. Andrew Weil, the restaurant offers increasingly mainstream items like Chicken Sausage Pizza as well as less conventional items like the vegetarian “Inside Out” Quinoa Burger — two quinoa-based patties sandwiching hummus, tzatziki, tomato, red onion, cucumber, avocado and feta — and Edamame Dumplings.
The 6-year-old chain is on a roll, with plans to open three additional units by the end of the summer in Atlanta, Houston, and Fairfax, Va.
True Food Kitchen teams with wellness author
What’s your approach to menu development?
It’s kind of a three-pronged approach in that Dr. Weil has his anti-inflammatory food pyramid, and [Fox chief executive] Sam Fox had his vision of what a great restaurant should be. What I brought to the table was that farm-to-table seasonality approach that I’d been using for the past 20 years. They all kind of synced up.
If it was just [Dr. Weil], it would be more of a vegan restaurant with fish, but the bison burger definitely fits on the menu, [along with other] grass-fed red meat. It also synced into Sam’s need to appeal beyond the crunchy-granola-vegan crowd. I like to say that we never count calories, but I’d rather eat and serve food that is dense in nutrition.
Are there distribution challenges as you expand?
We’ve been in Dallas for four months, and we’re bringing in products that are obscure there, such as tempeh, gluten-free flour, shirataki noodles. In Southern California they’re part of a way of life, but they’re not something that every broadline distributor carries in Texas. We’re doing a lot of less-than-load shipping to get the right product in.
Have you modified the menu because of that?
We’re figuring out how to get the product in those markets. That’s something we started nine months before we opened. But we do want to use local seafood, so we might be serving a different type of whitefish in the taco in Atlanta than in Dallas, which is different from the whitefish in California.
We did put a grass-fed New York strip steak on the menu in Dallas because every restaurant in Dallas has a steak, and we didn’t want to alienate people. But it’s not a big driver of sales; we sell six or seven a day. The inside-out quinoa burger is the No. 1 seller in Dallas. That tells me that maybe there’s no other place to go in Dallas for that kind of thing.
Has the menu changed a lot in six years?
Probably about 20 percent of the original menu is still intact. The evolution has sped up quite a bit as we expand, which seems odd since you’d expect it to slow down. But [the evolution] is something we need to hold on to and continue as we try to become a nationwide brand that’s seasonally driven. I’m excited about being a pioneer when it comes to that.
We started with the anti-inflammatory food pyramid, but now we’re listening to customers who want low-carb and gluten-free food. We also have some Paleo-type items with no complex carbohydrates or dairy.
Has the menu become more healthful?
I think it’s gotten healthier. In the beginning we were so worried that we were going to be perceived as this health food restaurant that no one wanted to go to. We had more sort of mainstream food on the menu. Now Sam Fox is always asking: “What about this dish is healthy? What ingredient sets it apart from other dishes?”
Contact Bret Thorn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow him on Twitter: @FoodWriterDiary