Chris Coombs opened Boston Chops in the South End a year ago with business partner Brian Piccini; the duo also runs Deuxave in Back Bay and dbar in Dorchester under the umbrella of Boston Urban Hospitality. Coombs spoke with Eater about how the first year has gone, from the high points (like a Food & Wine cover) to the low points (like the man who ate a 32-ounce porterhouse and wasn't full). He also revealed that a late-night, industry-focused burger is coming very soon.
Does it feel like it's been a year?
For sure. In the scheme of things, a year isn't that long of a time, unless you're in the restaurant business, in which case I think statistically it's about 80% still don't make it through a full year. It's an exciting milestone for everyone involved with Boston Chops to just continue to do what Boston Urban Hospitality has been known for — assess the neighborhood, assess the location, take over these places that are essentially snakebitten, and swing for the fences. It's definitely an exciting landmark, and what's even more exciting is to have the data and know that Boston Chops is going to be here for a very long time.
What do you remember from opening night?
Opening night here was very, very different from my experience with opening Deuxave. Deuxave was a nice, slow ramp up. When we first opened Deuxave, it was like, Ok, who's this kid from Dorchester? Why does he think he belongs in the Back Bay? The first night we did 40 covers, and then we did 50 or 60, and we had a couple weeks before we did our first 100-cover night.
The interesting part about opening up Boston Chops was that with all the media coverage and the reputation that my team and I have built, it was very eagerly anticipated by the neighborhood. We didn't really know what we would be capable of, but we were ready — we had the team in place, and I had all my key team members from all the restaurants scrambling here for the first night. That first night we fed about 250 people, which was a major success, but we also turned away about 350 people. Our first Saturday open, we did 424 covers, which for me was so crazy. I've never worked in a restaurant that had more than 100 seats, so to open and own a dining establishment that has 165 was a pretty serious learning curve for me, but it's been a super amount of fun, and I think that we've been very well received by the neighborhood, which is very rewarding.
Is there one moment you can pinpoint as the high point of the year, a moment when you were like — ok, this is working?
One point that really stood out to me when I was like Wow, we've made it! was getting the cover of Food & Wine. Ultimately I never thought I'd have an opportunity in my career to grace the cover of Food & Wine, and I actually didn't even know it was coming. I landed in Miami Airport — I had just gotten back from vacation — and I looked over at the newsstand and was like, Jeez, the steak on the cover of Food & Wine looks an awful lot like mine. Sure enough, it was. It was pretty neat to be ranked in that article about the top five new steakhouses in the country. That was one of those moments, like Wow, Boston Chops is an institution that's going to be around for a really long time.
What was the lowest point of the year?
I've gotta say Boston Chops has been a pretty smooth ride, because we've had such a loyal following. And with three restaurants and 130 employees, I really rely on my team. I believe in hiring well, training well, teaching well, and paying well, and my business partner Brian Piccini is always such a great support system when it comes to those days when you're like, I just can't keep up.
But a personal low point for me — there was one point when I just became disgusted in humanity here. We had a guest at the bar who ordered a 32-ounce porterhouse, which, depending on how many sides you order, feeds two to four people comfortably. This gentleman, which I'll refer to him as, ordered a 32-ounce porterhouse by himself, ate the entire thing, and then said it wasn't enough food. He got very, very aggressive with me, and I said, Look, sir, I typically gear all my meals at all my restaurants to be about 24 ounces, which is about the normal amount of total food that you can eat, and I'm sorry you weren't satisfied with a 32-ounce prime porterhouse. It was also a $99 steak. So I bought his steak for him and cordially invited him to never come back to Boston Chops, because I just don't have the ability to make those types of people happy. If 32 ounces of beef isn't enough for you, then this isn't the steakhouse for you.
So that was a personal low point where I just questioned everything I knew. I don't understand how anyone could eat 32 ounces of beef and not die in front of me. It was an impressive display, but speaking with a couple of the other steakhouses in town, this gentleman has a reputation for this sort of thing. We've all got him pegged now; we know who he is.
What has surprised you most this year?
The biggest surprise for me was actually related to one of my biggest concerns about people tying this location to the previous operators. You had two major failures that were large-scale openings with Banq and Ginger Park, and you had this architectural masterpiece in the ceiling that used to be here that I decided to discard. We actually donated the ceiling to a wood-reclaiming company that makes children's school desks down in Zimbabwe — it made some 600 desks.
One of the more surprising things is that people walk into Boston Chops, and with the beautiful renovation that Stephen Martyak and Brian Piccini put together for the space, many people can't remember what was here before. That was a major surprise to me because I felt like we were going to have to answer the question of Why did you take the ceiling down? to so many people, but interestingly enough, I think everyone really loves what we did with the space.
Have you made any major changes to the menu, hours, etc. based on feedback you've received or reviews that came out throughout the year?
First, brunch — we just wanted to walk before we could run, so we opened for brunch and were just sort of feeling it out and figuring out what the South End needed for brunch, because ultimately, there are a million places to go for great brunch in the South End. A lot of it was just identifying what is going to make Boston Chops a special brunch? What is going to set us apart from what else is happening in the South End already? We basically stuck to our roots, and about two or three months ago, we rebranded brunch as "prime brunch." Since we did that, we have just seen this tremendous, tremendous response, and it's been super fun.
The next big change that's coming is that we're going to be taking a look at our late-night scene here, 10 p.m. until 1 a.m., seven days a week, and within the next week or two, we're going to be introducing a late-night burger. It's going to be very industry focused. It's going to be a four-ounce patty, and it's going to be six dollars. So the idea is that industry can come in here, get a burger and fries for six bucks, a shot of Fernet for three, and a beer — come in and have dinner for $15 — because we've got the largest bar in the South End; it's very Eastern Standard-esque.
There's going to be no late-night menu; it's literally going to be a burger and fries. After the first couple services, I'm going to bring in my good buddy Sam Monsour — I call him "Grime Time" — to do a little celebration of the launch of the late-night burger. I'm going to bring in the king of late-night, and we're going to do dueling burgers one night just for fun. I think people will really appreciate that there's another place to go for late-night food in the South End, so that's pretty exciting.
Boston Chops has its own beef program. We've found that while we try to use all of the parts of the steer that are available to us, we've actually gotten a little bit out of balance with our ability to use a responsible amount of chuck and some other parts that we're just not selling enough of at brunch, so to sort of keep our cow utilization more in balance, a late-night burger's a great solution, and I think it's going to be cool, you know? Honestly, I think there's something to be said just for a great burger. You won't be able to come to Boston Chops between 10 and 1 and expect a salad. It's going to be a burger and fries only — maybe a milkshake here and there.
Do you think that you'd ever open a fourth restaurant, or are you set with three?
I will most certainly open a fourth restaurant. The opening phase is the hardest part. The ongoing operations — I really rely on my team, and right now where I sit, I certainly feel like I'm capable of opening more restaurants, but I'm kind of enjoying having three right now. I certainly wouldn't mind opening a fourth within the next year or two or so. It's all going to depend on the deal, and ultimately I need to do something that I can be as proud as I am of Boston Chops and Deuxave and dbar, so we'll see what happens. I'm certainly not done yet. I'm 29 years old, so I have nothing but time.
Any concepts that you've been playing around with for that future new place?
I've got a couple ideas in my head that will maybe show up in the next couple of years. Maybe it'll be five years; who knows? Boston Chops is certainly a concept I could see there being more than one of because it's such a home run, whereas Deuxave is very location-specific. While I feel like Boston Chops is something that could fit into another market, I'm in no huge hurry right now, but when the time is right and the deal is right, I'll be there. There are always a lot of opportunities and a lot of restaurants opening around Boston last year — and the list is even more mind-blowing this year — so I may just wait around to pick up the pieces. I'm a very buy low, sell high kind of guy, so we'll see how that goes.
Would you ever cross the river to Cambridge, Somerville…?
It depends on the deal; I would never rule out anything. I think the best thing going on in Somerville right now is The Kirkland Tap & Trotter. I was a little disappointed to read Corby Kummer's review this week because I've had six great meals there, and I think his review is a little bit out of touch with where food is right now, but that's just my opinion. Ultimately I'd be open to any ideas in any neighborhood as long as there's a concept that's needed there. I'm all about taking a broad look at the neighborhood — who's there, what they need, what they have, what they don't have — and then seeing how I can fit into that puzzle as a businessman, go in there, make people happy, make some money too.
Any other thoughts about the year?
Ultimately Boston Chops is such a big restaurant, and it's really my first experience in my career with a big restaurant. I've really learned that I can't do everything myself, I really can't, and I'm so thankful to have the managers, the employees, the staff, the cooks, the dishwashers, the busboys — everyone who comes to work every day and works so hard for this. I could never do it alone, and I just feel blessed to have people who really, really care about the restaurant as much as I do, and that's really the most rewarding thing at the end of the day.
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