By Mike Mitchelson
Bruce Taher, CEO of Taher Inc., doesn’t describe his business as a catering company. “Sometimes people think catering is food prepared elsewhere and brought in,” he said.
Taher Inc. operates more than 400 kitchens located in private schools, universities, corporations and retail outlets in 10 states. Each location has an executive chef at the helm, and the food is prepared fresh on-site. “We have the chefs preparing the food on the line.”
But Taher Inc. is now adding restaurants to their portfolio. They opened recently the Wayzata Eatery in Wayzata, Minn., and, in September, plan to open the Alaska Eatery in nearby St. Louis Park. “Well, this probably defies all kinds of business plans and logic that you’ve heard,” Taher joked.
The Wayzata Eatery does have logic behind it, however, and it’s global in scale. It’s an opportunity for Taher corporate chefs to flex their collective muscle, which have been strengthened for several years with worldly infusions. Taher Inc. has a seven member “chefs’ council” (which includes Taher himself) that picks out two international destinations to visit each year. Trips have included France, Spain, Turkey, Thailand and, most recently, India. “This has been our way of staying up with what’s happening around the world, and bringing that stuff to our customer base,” Taher said. “We go there and eat and drink and do all that fun stuff-it’s like a vacation as well-but, of course, we talk about the food.”
All those conversations and experimentations from kitchens the council visits across the globe eventually make it to the company’s menus in various forms, but still, Taher wanted to push the envelope. “We really wanted a place for these guys to play,” he said. “So, I’ve been looking for a restaurant where I could go and play.”
The Wayzata Eatery’s location is the former Louie’s Habit, a split building shared with a Bruegger’s Bagels in the middle of a parking lot, surrounded by a non-descript strip mall. But enter the restaurant and it’s a different environment entirely. Warm colors, dark wood, booths and tables in the dining area with seating in front marble-top counter looking into a large, open kitchen. Wine cabinets line one wall, local art and posters hang on the others. It’s a deliberately intimate space.
“We want it to be a neighborhood restaurant,” Taher said. “We wanted it to be something that the immediate area would use, where, when you come in, people know who you are, they would stop at your table-including the chef. …We want to have very good food, wanted to be a bit upscale, yet casual, and moderately priced.”
The menu reflects Taher Inc.’s global experience-appetizers on one evening ranged from the ubiquitous calamari to Indian jaipur samosas. “It’s really been a hodgepodge of the things we like to do,” Taher said. “When we were in the southern part of France and helped in the kitchen, we cooked some nice cassoulet, and so we want to try some of that when the weather gets cool. We’ll probably do a paella, but we’ll do it in an upscale way. It’s the things that we know people like, it’s fresh, kind of different, and it’s not going to cost a fortune.”
Taher initially wanted to name the restaurant “The Experiment,” but was persuaded otherwise by staff. “So, internally we call it the Taher Sandbox,” he said, laughing.
Wayzata Eatery Executive Chef Matt Quist has been a corporate chef for Taher Inc. for eight years. He’s a member of the chefs’ council, and jumped at the chance to run the restaurant’s kitchen. “I loved how the place looks; it’s a place that my wife and I want to come to eat,” he said. “It’s a small chef-driven restaurant, we use local ingredients, and we do everything from steak Diane to fish tacos.”
The other unique side is that all the chefs in the council have input into the recipes, he said. “We all sit down, look at the stuff and share opinions.”
In addition, chefs from other Taher facilities also work a day or night shift to keep their creative juices flowing. “It’s really provided some opportunities,” Taher said.
While the Wayzata Eatery is a serious restaurant, it was developed to provide opportunities and for the continued evolvement of Taher Inc.’s overall quality goals. The Alaska Eatery is a deliberate step toward becoming a player in the restaurant market. “Frankly, we see an opportunity to maybe inch away at the restaurant business to see if we can do it or not, using the experience we have,” Taher said.
Located in the former Shelley’s Woodroast, the Alaska Eatery’s menu will feature fresh fish and aged meats prepared on a wood-burning grill.
Both restaurants are near Taher Inc.’s headquarters, and can be observed and managed easily. But there are other restaurant opportunities in the metro area. Taher considered the former Fhima’s site in St. Paul and The Depot in Stillwater, but turned them down. “We’ve had discussions with five or six other ones, as well as some developers who have some places,” Taher said. “So, if we see an opportunity, we might go for it.”
Taher believes the calculated expansion into the restaurant business is made a safer bet because of company’s skilled management. Serving about 200,000 meals per day in 10 states, the company’s primary focus has remained preparing fresh, high-quality food. That said, skilled management is required to make it all work financially. “What we see in the food business, because we have a lot of chefs, we find chefs are artists and they’re talented and creative-it’s just like painting,” Taher said. “I think what we see as a negative, as a profession, chefs aren’t very good at managing numbers. So that’s why we have directors and managers. And we, as a company, are very good about managing numbers, and then giving the chefs some bookends.”
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