CEO, Barteca Restaurant Group
Jeff Carcara serves as CEO of Barteca Restaurant Group, where he builds and leads successful teams, implements innovative changes, and oversees disciplined yet aggressive growth.
Carcara brings more than 15 years of hospitality management experience to his role at Barteca. Prior to his current position, Jeff Carcara was Chief Operating Officer at Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group, where he oversaw 50 restaurants in 25 states. Prior to that, he served as Director of Operations for five regions at Seasons 52, a restaurant concept within Darden’s Specialty Restaurant Group, from 2004 to 2012.
Carcara also served as Director of Food and Beverage for the Kessler Collection Hotels. Carcara graduated from the University of Central Florida with a Bachelor of Science degree in Hospitality Management. He has also completed his Level 1 certification from The Court of Master Sommeliers.
Founded in 1996 by Andy Pforzheimer and Sasa Mahr-Batuz, Barteca creates vibrant, stylish and affordable restaurant concepts that focus on impressive food and beverage programs, as well as excellent customer service. Jeff Carcara joined Barteca in 2015 before being named Barteca’s CEO last year.
Barcelona Wine Bar was the first concept to open, in 1996, and is a winning tapas restaurant with 14 locations spanning across Reston, VA; Atlanta, GA; Washington, DC; Boston, MA; Philadelphia, PA; Nashville, TN; and throughout Connecticut. The menu includes seasonally-inspired tapas, composed with the finest ingredients sourced from local farms, as well as specialties from Spain and the Mediterranean.
The company’s second concept, bartaco, has 15 locations in Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Inspired by a healthy, outdoor lifestyle, bartaco combines fresh, upscale street food with a coastal vibe in a relaxed environment. Rustic design complements the spirited bold and bright flavors of bartaco’s eclectic menu.
When did you guys start?
Barcelona was founded 21 years ago and then in 2010 we came out with bartaco, which is when we also took on a private investment at that point to help us continue to grow. We have 15 bartaco’s and 14 Barcelona’s today so 29 restaurants in total.
What was the niche that you saw with both of those concepts and how has that niche evolved over the years?
With both of our concepts, Andy and Sasa had a goal of creating a full-scale experience. It was an approach based on the basics of great food, beverage and service. Their main goal was to create a New York City type of experience here in Connecticut.
What do you think it was in that experience that captured the imagination of the suburban diner if you will?
I believe it was the vibe that you don’t normally see in the suburbs. A lot of the restaurants out here were your everyday mom and pop restaurants, where the tables are crammed together and little time and energy is put into the design portion of it. The way Andy and Sasa went about designing Barcelona, and later on bartaco was a little outside of the norm. They put more time and energy into the design aspect of their dining, so that when people walked in they would feel as if they’re escaping their every day lives.
How would you say the menus have evolved over the years?
The original Barcelona menu probably hasn’t changed over the past 20 years; however, the chefs do have 60 percent control of their menus so while the structure is the same, the entrees are always changing. Changes in the menu vary depending on the season and what is trending in that particular moment. The bartaco menu is very much the same as it was 7 years ago with the exception of adding some more mainstream items than before.
Have there been any changes in your menus due to your clientele looking for healthier options?
Absolutely, we have seen more requests for vegetarian and vegan, as well as gluten-free options. We are very well-known for our gluten-free offerings. From a portion size too, our tacos are smaller, so you can not only try different flavors, but also a side dish. In Barcelona we always have vegetables for our vegetarian clients.
What has it been like going into new markets?
The new markets thus far have been very kind to us. Some of the criteria for new markets are whether we can be a neighborhood restaurant. We are not the concept that goes on to ‘the restaurant row.’ We are always looking for a place where we can really fit in. The design of our restaurant varies depending on the location — we are not only looking to build something that we think is great but what the location and clientele calls for.
What is the process when designing a new restaurant?
Our goal is to blend in with the area, to build a place that fits with the culture and the architecture of that location, in order to ensure success. With that said, when we are looking to build a restaurant, we send our team in to get a feel of the neighborhood, take pictures and report back their observations. Those trips and those photos and the understanding of the neighborhood is the inspiration for the new restaurant.
Is there a single kitchen spec and do you work with a single dealer?
That is always evolving. We have used a lot of Southbend ovens and equipment, but as technology grows, different things begin to surface that make our lives easier. We’ve been testing a new flat top with plancha, which are basically flat top cooking ovens that recover heat quickly. We are always looking to find better equipment.
Have there been any scenarios where a location has failed to live up to your expectations?
We’ve had a location or two that have not come out of the gate as strong as our other restaurants. We once started slower in a particular market as we were attempting to cater to a specific clientele that was always there but it was not necessarily who we are. They were looking for more of a quiet place so we turned down our music a bit to fit to that specific clientele but it took us a year to realize that this was not who we are. We realized that we could not fit everyone’s needs, and we could not change our original concept. As soon as we realized this and began to stay true to ourselves, we began to see an increase in our sales year after year.
As you look at the growth of this company, do you see a third concept?
Right now the company we are building is around these two concepts to be able to grow in a disciplined fashion and to keep our culture as well as the guest experience where it has been for the last 20 years. With that said, we have looked at a couple of different concepts over the last few years but it is not immediately on the horizon.
What are you looking for every day for you to run your business properly and is it in the marketplace now or is it in the pipeline?
I think nowadays you can pretty much find a company or software to manage the data you want. We have a couple of different pieces we use, but I believe in analysis paralysis. Using data can be good – but too much of it as an influence can be negative. At the end of the day, the restaurant business is about people, it’s about the food, the service, and the experience. The truth isn’t always in the numbers – the truth is standing in your dining room at 7:00, or standing at the dishwashing machine, seeing what is going in the trash on any given night. We’re kind of old school in that way – when we want to look at the data, we look at it, but when we want to understand the reason behind something, we like to be out there and observing those results of a certain night in person. The data is only a piece of the equation.
What is the other piece of the equation?
It is in the restaurant and the feeling we get when talking to our guests and reading what is being said on social media about our customers’ experiences.
What does your marketing strategy look like?
We don’t really do much marketing. We believe more in word of mouth than anything else.
Are you a company that goes out to bid every week? Tell me a little bit about your vendor relationships.
Honestly it is a little bit of both. We have vendors that have been with us for 20 years and vendors that come in when they spot a good opportunity. We really don’t go in with long term contracts with larger distribution because we have found that our purchasing department does a better job working with local and regional players in our restaurants rather than going with larger national buying programs.
Nobody does a better job at managing the bar and beverage program than bartaco. Can you tell me a little bit about the approach?
We have the most incredible beverage director in the business. Gretchen Thomas is someone who is constantly thinking about how to better the program. The difference between an average beverage program versus having great cocktails is a difficulty. If you watch our bartenders you’ll see that it is a workout in itself to work behind our bars. In our company, it is about quality first not ease.
What is on the horizon as you look at the rest of this year and 2018? Do you have any new restaurants in the works?
We have a couple more restaurants under construction that we were hoping to open before the end of this year but it looks like they will not be ready until early next year. One is going to be a bartaco in Virginia, just outside of D.C., and then we have a Barcelona opening in Denver. We are also thinking of expanding and opening a bartaco in South Miami, Florida.
Is the long term to remain private or is there any thought of an IPO at some point?
Up until now we have not been talking about IPO or going public nor do I think that is something we’ll see soon. I think we are better off as a private company right now.
To learn more about Jeff Carcara and Barteca Restaurant Group, visit their website.