HOOKED ON RESTAURANTS
By Heather Daniels, Nside Texas Business / January February 2014
Chris Tripoli’s A’ la Carte Foodservice Consulting Group is on everyone’s menu – and judging by its success so far, it will stay there for many years to come.
He vividly remembers helping his mother with all chores related to the kitchen while his brothers helped with other household chores. As he grew up in Phoenix, Ariz., the Southwest has always been what feels like home to him. Enjoying Little League, Pop Warner football and track in high school, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Plant and Van Morrison became his teenage idols. At 15, he started to work at Ralph Gaines’ Colony Steakhouse bussing, dishwashing and doing pantry prep work. This was only the beginning of what was to become his calling.
While managing Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse, a famous western tourist attraction, Tripoli attended Phoenix Community College. He met a man named Chandler, and they quickly became friends. He was opening his first restaurant in Houston and wanted to put a small team of young managers together to develop creative concepts. “I liked the idea and moved to Houston in 1975,” Tripoli says. “I helped develop Luther’s BBQ and quickly expanded it to nine units before I left in 1980. In September of 1981, I opened my first restaurant.”
Tripoli’s continued success kept him well focused on the restaurant industry. Little did he know that when he moved to Houston, he would not be returning “home” to Phoenix. Instead, Houston became home and it has been ever since.
Giving credit to the COO of Sonic Industries at the time, Tripoli explains how Vern Stewart helped him during his early years in the restaurant business: “He consulted with me when I owned my own restaurants and helped me greatly when I started to consult on my own. He encouraged me and believed I had the quality to influence and taught me to trust my instincts. He taught me that the difference between good consulting and bad is the ability to listen.”
In 1996, Tripoli started consulting and opened A’ la Carte. He knew that when he started, it might take some time to become known and developed clients. He developed a network group that still meets regularly. “I also spent a good deal of time writing for trade associations and speaking at trade shows. I knew there was a need for the smaller restaurant operator to receive the same type of services as the larger restaurant and franchises.“As the word got out, a few clients turned into more clients, and Tripoli was convinced that his theory was true.
A’ la Carte Foodservice Consulting Group works with restaurants and food service establishment in hotels, convention centers, airports, theatres, parks and stadiums. The Houston team assists existing operators with menu development issues, cost management, revenue building, management development, staff training and financial planning. A very popular service is operations assessment.
“This allows the smaller restaurant owner an opportunity to learn how their current operation compares with industry standards. This identifies strengths and opportunities for improvements, as well as provides a written plan of action. Our tagline (“from idea to opening and beyond”) represents the vastness of issues our services cover.”
Tripoli explains the two aspects in today’s market that are in high demand: small established restaurants (one to three units) wanting to grow through franchising and restaurants from other countries wanting to expand into the United States, A’ la Carte has worked with a few groups from Mexico, and they are beginning to work with one coming to the United States from Sweden.
“These clients will require an understanding of how their existing operations will adjust in order to be accepted and operate successfully in our country. I enjoy the challenges involved in setting operators for franchising and providing the ongoing franchise field services.”
Over the years, Tripoli has developed the opinion that “everyone really must eat in restaurants, but everyone doesn’t need to own one.” This was one of the reasons he developed a course on the proper way to open a restaurant. The class is called “So you want to open a restaurant,” and it’s taught at the University of Houston’s small business development center. Teaching the course for 10 years, Tripoli feels that it has saved the industry from some terribly unprepared and poorly financed first-time restaurant concepts.
“When you consider the high cost of opening and operating a restaurant, the increasing competition, the ever-changing consumer and the tight margins of profit, restaurant consulting and ongoing advisement is needed today more than ever.”
Developing restaurants in non-traditional locations are some of Tripoli’s favorite projects. These include Artista in the downtown Hobby Center for Performing Arts. The Grove in the downtown Discovery Green Park, Food Court restaurants in Houston’s international airport and Niko Niko’s (a kiosk in Market Square Park), and the future food service for Buffalo Bayou Park, Evelyn’s Park, and the Library Plaza in Houston.
Others are Ragin Cajun and Niko Niko’s in Houston, MAX’s Wine Dive in Austin, Dallas and Houston, La Pampa in Brownsville and McAllen, Genghis Grill in Dallas, Angelo’s in Washington and Pennsylvania, Boondock’s in Ramrod Key in Florida, El Huarache in Mexico City and Café Vertigo in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
“I find working internationally very interesting. It never ceases to amaze me just how well accepted American brands are abroad. Some of the busiest national chain restaurant units aren’t inside the United States anymore; they are in China, Europe and the Middle East. These clients may not be our target clients, but their success has created a new clientele for us.” Now there is a new market made up of independent restaurant operators in countries wanting to expand and/or operate in a way to better compete with growing American chains that are there.
Tripoli lives by the motto, “to work with people I like, on projects I think I am going to like.” He enjoys the group he has assembled around him, and he wants to spend the next few years maintaining a good balance of projects on helping existing restaurant operators on operational improvement issues, expansion-growth related issues for successful restaurant concepts and creating new restaurant concepts from scratch.
“My 10-year plan is to remain relevant to the industry I love and have spent my entire career in. I enjoy teaching and my work on the board of the Texas Restaurant Association’s educational committee. I also look forward to working on the board of the National Restaurant Association’s education committee.”
Tripoli has plans for a book, and as he slows his consulting in future years, he will have the opportunity to complete it. Considering all of the marketing menus that A’ la Carte has created and new, innovative ideas for future dining venues in the works, Tripoli has made his mark in the restaurant industry and A’ la Carte will be on everyone’s menu for many years to come.