As one of the two principles in Clark Cooper Concepts, Grant Cooper has his finger on the pulse of Houston's dining scene. Along with chef Charles Clark, the pair own three high profile restaurants: Ibiza in Midtown, Coppa Ristorante on Washington and Brasserie 19 in River Oaks. Beginning in August, they'll add two new restaurants to their stable in Rice Village's newly constructed Hanover development. The first is Coppa Osteria, a more casual sibling to Ristorante built around a wood-burning pizza oven. The second is Punk's Simple Southern Food, which will bring a chef-driven approach to Southern food, courtesy of Coppa's Brandi Key.
Below, Cooper discusses the two new restaurants, the keys to his success, including the all important Cheers factor, and offers some commentary on the future of Houston's restaurant scene.
Tell me about Punk's Simple Southern Food. Why are you doing it now?
I've always wanted to do a Southern restaurant in Houston. I've always thought that there really aren't any, not a lot of options for Southern food, as far as chef-driven type of restaurants. We live in Houston, Texas for God's sakes, you know? I know a lot of people have their opinion about Southern food, but for the last four or five years I've been thinking about it and I wanted to do it about five years ago but it wasn't the right timing, so now we feel like this is the time to kind of do this concept.
Beaver's offers a version of chef-driven Southern food: a little barbecue, a little fried chicken
Yeah, Max's Wine Dive I guess touches on it and all of that. So I mean there are touches of it, but I guess as far as just thinking Southern, you know, I think this is going to be a little different twist. I think people are going to be surprised a little bit about how it comes out; what it looks like. It won't be quite as heavy. Not saying it's going to be health food conscious all the way, but we'll be taking certain aspects of the South, taking like I said those Southern greens and incorporating them into a dish that we feel I think is more in tune with our customer base. And that's what we really look at, or I look at is you know; listen to my customers over the last 20 years, understanding what they want. They kind of have them coming into Ibiza or Brasserie or Coppa every night. So I want to be able to have them come in on a different night, or a day or weekend maybe with their kids or not with their kids. So those are the angles that I go with as far as trying to create businesses.
Do you have two or three dishes in mind that will really define Punk's?
What we'll do is take classic Southern ingredients from here all the way up the food to the Carolinas and basically give it our chef's interpretation. But they'll be as basic if you want, just a pimento cheese sandwich. I mean I know it sounds kind of redundant but it's our take on it and it will go up from there. We'll probably do fried chicken, which probably won't be on the menu. I think we'll just do that on the one day, maybe on like a Monday only type of thing. I have some little tricks up our sleeves, so to speak, on some things and I think later on definitely kind of release some of those things.
Turning to Coppa Osteria, do you expect that to open in August?
Potentially in August. Construction's always an unknown. I'll have a better grasp on it probably about two weeks. Our landlord is moving fast as far as what they're finishing up in the space itself.
From what I've read, you intend for it to be more casual than Coppa Ristorante.
Again it just comes back to where you are, even within Houston, inside the loop, the demographics are a little different. Rice Village is a different kind of movement what they do during lunch as opposed to right here we're sitting at Brasserie, you know, its just a different animal so to speak.
But Osteria is going to be more neighborhood and if you think neighborhood I generally think even a little more casual. I grew up in Europe for 20 years so hopping down to the neighborhood restaurant sometimes was the best thing, as opposed to maybe a two-star Michelin restaurant.
The kind of place you can go a couple times a week.
Yeah, and we're going to do sandwiches there, more of a sandwich part especially with all the retail around there. Like I said, you have a different clientele base, I think, and we want to be able to reach out to those people. We're doing a pizza by the slice window so you can kind of create more of a pedestrian area. Rice Village I think is pretty much the only true pedestrian area I think in Houston inside the loop as far as you literally can see people out walking about from store to store, you know more reminiscent of some of these other cities in our country. But other than that, people, you know, they'll hop in their car to drive across the street.
In Rice Village, they have numerous stores and the lack of parking in a sense kind of forces you to get out of your car and just go ahead and walk around. The fact that you have store after store, or pop in for a coffee here, go to a restaurant there. So we feel comfortable with trying to create a more pedestrian storefront there where you can just pop up and kind of get pizza by the slice if you want or just get it and go. So definitely we're still gonna feature all our entrees and everything: all pasta is made in house, all sausage is made in house, things like that. It's certainly more neighborhood where (that means) it's more casual.
I don't really foresee our restaurants being super fine dining. I like to think it's chef driven fine dining food; we don't try to get too pretentious with the whole ambiance or the energy of our restaurant. And that's I think what our customers appreciate. Kind of, you know, just a Cheers factor. People like to come in, feel like everyone knows their names, and that's pretty much in my business plan from 20 years ago is the Cheers factor. We always want our customers to feel like they can come and talk to someone and they feel good. If I can get a lady by herself reading a book having lunch or dinner, then I know we've created a comfortable environment in a sense. So that's kind of our outlook on it.
There was a story in the Chronicle business section a while back where you said that these new developments like the Hanover, Gateway Memorial City and BBVA Compass Tower are creating new spaces for restaurants.
Obviously there's a tremendous amount of growth in Houston right now. I mean the economy here, it's not gonna slow down I don't think for at least the next five years. There's a plethora of restaurants. We're getting a good name for having great restaurants in our city, which we do have, and I think you're just going to continue to see a lot, which is almost scary. But with the amount of people moving into Houston, I think the economy is going to help drive that to be able to support so many of these restaurants now.
If I had a nickel for every person that approached us and wanted to do a restaurant, doctors, whoever, everybody that's not in the restaurant business thinks they want to open a restaurant. It's almost an insult because people just assume that they eat then they can open a restaurant. It's almost like me assuming I can watch American Idol and say wow I can sing, you know, or I can watch CSI and I can be an investigator. People laugh at you, but people think "oh how about I open a restaurant, get some people, I'll hire a chef, I'll hire a this," and then after that they forget that you actually have to do work and keep an eye on everything 24 hours a day. And if you have a staff of 50 people in each restaurant it adds up quickly as far as what you have to monitor and make decisions so.
All three of your concepts have been really successful. What do you think is the key element? What have you figured out?
I know what makes us work. It's finding good people and being able to understand that those are the people that are going to help build your brand, build your concept, and make sure that they understand what my philosophy is and what my outlook on restaurants are and how they should be run and what the whole concept of them are. Every restaurateur has different ways of what they envision as how their restaurants should be, but just getting good people obviously, keeping them on track with what your beliefs are.
The other thing is I always tell everyone, I mean if you had to sum it up in one single word of this business is "consistency." And that goes with the ambiance, with the product, with everything that you do within the business; it has to be consistent because this is the one business that I know that people literally, I mean in Houston they don't go in their kitchens I mean they got brand new kitchens that have never been used. They're eating out a lot. And so if you come in and eat in our restaurants four times a week, which they do four or five times a week, I mean some of them are in our restaurants every day of the week between the three of them and so consistency obviously plays a big factor.
It's not just on the food. It's on the ambiance, the music, the lighting, whatever, the valet, which is not even really our business but is an extension of us. So everything between the time they arrive and the time they leave has to be consistent. It kind of goes back to that Cheers factor and that's what those two things kinda come together as far as if you want to sum it up as simple as it is, not overthink it, people want to go in, get their food, have a consistent product, and know that the next time they come in it's going to be the same. They're going to have the same kind of staff, they're going to have the same kind of service, and all those type of factors, and as simple as it sounds its very hard to do.
It's like some basketball player trying to make free throws, you know, it takes practice, it takes discipline, and that has to be carried all the way down from the top to the bottom down to everyone, and it counts on everyone in the restaurant. I always use sports analogies for everything to try to correlate, because it's such a team effort really, you know, the dishwasher doesn't show up, guess who's washing dishes? It's either going to be me or someone else jumping in there. My staff laughs at me all the time because I use sports analogies but it's as close as I think as how it is.
To me, it's a competition. I'm always trying to win the game. Each shift is a game, and we have to win it and we have got to dominate it in a sense, and you can't take any prisoners. You just have to have that kind of that little bit of that killer instinct in a sense that you have got to view it in a short window to get through the week you know look at it by the shift, lunch; etch a sketch it, erase it start all over at dinner: a Broadway show, whatever the analogy you want to use. You go to the show on Friday night you come and tell me "Hey Grant you gotta go check out this show." I go Saturday afternoon for the matinee and it's horrible, I'm like what are you talking about? Same thing with our food, or our restaurant experiences so that's where it has to be consistent.
With Chris Shepherd at Catalan and now Brandi Key at Coppa, you've done well identifying talented executive chefs. What are the qualities you look for when you hire someone to run a kitchen?
I look for is a passion, you know, just a passion for the business and when I say that I mean business, and that's one thing Brandi understands, she undersees it as a business, because you can cook the greatest food, you can be a research chef and create and all this unbelievable stuff, the critics love it, and it's the hoopla, but at the end of the day if you're not looking at the rest of your business that's going to phase out, and the next thing you know you're going to be shutting down.
We want our chefs cooking, our chefs don't sit there and expedite all day. If you don't cook the food, how can you project your image of what that food should be if you don't actually touch or feel it? And that's one thing with Charles, my business partner, he's on the kitchen line every day, and so as far as consistency you're not going to go wrong with that plan. I have a lot of respect for when the chefs are actually cooking the food, I'm sure, there are a lot of restaurants where they're not cooking.
Have you seen what's going on downtown these days?
I think it's a good thing that they're going at it again for the third time
You were downtown.
We were downtown originally at Tosca in 1998, and actually that exact corner is kind of where they...
That's where Batanga just opened.
I haven't been down there honestly. We've been approached for that, and I always say you can't pay me to go back downtown. And that's no offense, I think it's a great thing what they're doing and I think they're getting it better, its my opinion only. But when you start infiltrating things with a lot of bars I figure you're going to lose the longevity of any kind of infrastructure to be able to develop anything as far as businesses. We've all been in our 20s, but that's not the best way I think to approach it. But they have restaurants going in, I mean obviously there's a lot. I was down there actually, I went to see Blue Man Group and there's always construction going on. I mean still, 15 years ago they were building up and down Prairie and I drove down Prairie, took a right, and I'm like what the hell, they got the streets tore up again
What are they doing? But I don't know, in the big picture you know the hotels don't work here as well the, there's not any retail I mean why are you going to go downtown? You're going to go eat, and that's the biggest thing they have to offer, the restaurants, so I think that's the best thing, but I think there's definitely a lot of good potential down there