Features Switching A Restaurant Concept
Switching A Restaurant Concept [in the Same Space]
From White Tablecloth Fine Dining to Hip and Casual in San Diego
January 2010

The prognosis for San Diego's upscale restaurant Laurel wasn't looking good. The longstanding fine dining destination was bringing in an average of 15 diners a night, and the economic outlook for white tablecloth restaurants wasn't headed for a quick turn around.

Rather than watch the special occasion restaurant wither on the vine, restaurateur Tracy Borkum decided to cut her losses and rebrand. Borkum had the idea of a casual, wallet-friendly Italian spot for years; after consulting with her management, they decided to make the switch. Laurel shuttered its doors on May 26th; Cucina Urbana quietly opened on June 23rd.

The restaurant transformation happened in just under 30 days with a budget of roughly $300,000. Laurel's etched glass and turn of the century décor gave way to Cucina Urbana's junk-turned-art adornments, graffiti'd walls, and leather and burlap dining room chairs; the kitchen made room for a wood burning oven and the menu was recast, from beurre blanc to Bolognese. Much of the staff remained on for the switch, including chef Joe Mangnelli, who was asked to stay on but given the option to move on. Magnanelli decided he was up for the change—and up to challenge of going from a few dozen covers a night to several hundred.

Interview with General Manager/Sommelier Ben Kephart and Chef Joe Magnanelli

Antoinette Bruno: What was the tipping point that made you finally make the change in the restaurant?
Ben Kephart: The decision was officially made in fall of last year. This was a concept that [owner] Tracy [Borkum] had in the works for two or three years and was looking for the right place to put it. As timing presented itself, and as you saw last time you were here, there were not so many people in the restaurant. [Chef] Joe [Magnanelli] and I are both really proud of this restaurant before and loved being here and believed in the product. But look at the change—it’s night and day. There were 15 people in the [Laurel] dining room and now we’re turning away 150 people a night.

[Cucina Urbana] was a concept Tracy was work-shopping for a few years, but the component that gels here is the neighborhood. There’s a captive audience within a mile of this: high-end condos, lots of residential. [Laurel] was a special occasion restaurant; once you get that tag it’s hard to shake. It was a case study and a massive decision to roll the dice, and luckily it’s paid off.
I think a lot of people are [thinking of changing their concept] now, and I think it’s a little late in the game [for them]. This [concept change] doesn’t happen overnight. As soon as you start to see you’re losing money and then restart, it can take six months.

AB: How long did it take to revamp?
BK: Once the doors closed, the day after Memorial Day [2009], Joe and I were back here at six in the morning with box cutters ripping up carpet. We did some pretty heavy demolition work.
Four weeks of tasting wine and work-shopping dishes every day. I’ve never been a part of anything like that and to go from one extreme to another. You saw Joe’s intricate food and now it’s more rustic.

AB: How much did it cost?
BK: We shot for $300,000 and we came pretty darn close.

AB: And you lost a month’s revenue during the renovation?
BK: Yes.

AB: And what about starting up?
BK: As far as soft opening or grand opening goes, we didn’t do that. We kind of snuck the doors open on June 23rd and had 60 or 80 people in the restaurant. And that lasted a week.
[Chef] Joe Magnanelli: That was our slowest day ever.

AB: Was it difficult to re-launch in the same space?
BK: We retained half of our staff from Laurel, and even though we had a new restaurant, we knew the lay of the land and the flow of the space.

AB: Is the kitchen the same?
BK: Yes, except adding the Rolls Royce of pizza ovens. It’s a Woodstone pizza oven.
JM: The biggest trick [with the pizza oven is] to keep a consistent temperature. What we find is when we’re doing a lot of pizzas the temperature drops. You can feel the heat when you walk by.
BK: That took some time to learn the nature of the oven.
JM: I know a lot of the guys that are so serious about their ovens it has to be the right everything.

AB: High volume pizza and pasta is a lot different from what you were doing before.
JM: It’s different; it’s a definite challenge—it’s not any easier than doing the other stuff.
It’s a different environment than Laurel. There’s high energy; there’s more energy in the streets; the city is alive again.

AB: You were a fine dining chef, is what you are doing now as fulfilling?
JM: It’s a different type of fulfillment. Because we get such a good reaction from people—that’s fulfilling. We’re focusing more on the flavors than the presentations […] or the frills. To do three times the amount of covers, that was an adjustment. We had to make some changes in our philosophy and [how we] come up with the dishes, but it makes the food come out better. And we’re a more focused style of food—instead of coming up with stuff from anywhere. [We have] no time to over-think what we’re doing: What do I feel would be right on the dish, instead of what looks right on the dish. It becomes a little more about tasting the food; [it’s] more from the heart instead of from an outside source.
BK: When the decision was made to do this [change], it was presented to Joe and the ball was in his court whether he wanted to stay and take on this challenge. [Otherwise] we [would go] after someone who was already doing this. I thought he would walk in a second. I’ve worked with more than a couple chefs in my lifetime, and to see Joe doing what he was doing before, and to pull this off is amazing. There is equal challenge in creating savory, simple, rustic food as to creating French Laundry [level] high-end cuisine.

AB: Do you get a different kind of response from your patrons?
BK: When you start doing food that everyone knows—when you’re doing pizza and rigatoni Bolognese, everyone’s a critic. “This doesn’t taste like my grandmother’s ragu.”
JM: But then when you put those dishes out and someone says this tastes like my grandmothers’, that’s great. We have old Italian people come in and say we make the best pizza outside of Italy.