Year of Fundamentals

jonathan rodriguez wilfredo bravo xoco 3rdarm arthur mullen xoco manager chicago 2015 vision

It’s January 2016, we made it! The year behind us was named, “The Year of Fundamentals.” As a team, the three of us (Chef Wil, Chef Alonso and Arthur) focused on training our staff. The payoff was a consistently great Xoco experience, above and beyond any fast casual restaurant in the country, for every guest, which lead to a increase in sales and last but not least, positivity in Xoco amongst our team.

We began by mapping out our time for menu tastings, with Chef Rick, and the staff, so that everyone was clear on the expectations. The tastings every 2 weeks, the menu change every 4 weeks, and the staff tasting on the Wednesday before the change were all ironed out ahead of time. We developed a menu change form for Roxanna that she recieved the weekend before the menu change week, in order to have enough time for design and printing. We developed an education form for the FOH and BOH staff that always included ingredients, allergies, and background for each dish. The afternoon of the menu change, we scheduled a photoshoot that included Chef Rick and worked to roll out high quality photos and a blog post to our social media audiences as soon as possible.

jonathan rodriguez wilfredo bravo xoco 3rdarm arthur mullen xoco manager chicago 2015 vision

For the FOH, 2015 was all about training, testing and accountability. For every menu change we tested on ingredients, allergies, and background. Every month we trained on a different position and then tested to make sure all servers were up to speed on the standards and sidework for each position. Failure to score at least a 75% on the menu change and standards / sidework tests lead to a disciplinary write-up. There were only a few instances of a server underperforming, and we found it was more productive to discipline over a test than have to clean up errors and miscommunication in restaurant operations.

For the BOH, in 2015, it was all about education as well. Every menu change we met with all the cooks and went over the keys to each dish (ingredients, allergies, background). The BOH does so much of the hard work of changing the menu, it was exciting for them to become storytellers of each new menu. When guests asked cooks questions in the open kitchen, they were often surprised by the knowledge and enthusiasm, all of which increased positivity in the restaurant. Some of our BOH stars really took to being keyed in to the story of each dish, to the point that they asked Chefs Wil and Alonso to include them more in the creative development. Now we have more talented hands than ever in the creation of our new dishes!

jonathan rodriguez wilfredo bravo xoco 3rdarm arthur mullen xoco manager chicago 2015 vision

Xoco is fundamentally different in its dine-in ordering style than any other restaurant in Chicago. We turned that from a perceived weakness into a definite strength. The Bill Blair art was moved from the serving area to the seating area: the serving area is now all about storytelling and tastes. We worked with Roxanna to create a series of “Where Our Food Comes From” signs, that rather than just listing farms, fleshes out the story behind our partners in local agriculture. When Bill Shores came to eat at Xoco, he had his photo next to his sign, Hollywood Walk of Fame style! We are also telling the story of our chocolate program, using Roxanna’s talents as well as photos from the Zagat photographer, Nick Murway. Every guest who comes through the serving line now knows how special our ingredients are, and the amazing behind the scenes process of making chocolate.

The bottom line, after all this work, is sales performance. After years of studying patterns, 2015 was when we really delivered on numbers. Caviar, our delivery partner, opened up a whole new stream of revenue that continues to feed an increase in sales, and because they are the best in class at chef-driven restaurant delivery, the guests received the best possible experience. The addition of an extra table to the patio built in extra sales every day we were blessed with warm, dry weather. We also designed a special teeshirt for the To-Go cashier to wear, on the back it said, “Ask Me for a Beer or Margarita.” We were surprised how many guests advantage!

jonathan rodriguez wilfredo bravo xoco 3rdarm arthur mullen xoco manager chicago 2015 vision

The PM side of the spectrum was bolstered by the addition of new dinner specials, like chilaquiles with shrimp, and smoked ribs. Jay and I moved the seasonal margarita into the agua fresca machine, and started serving new 12 oz bottled cocktails for sharing. Inspired by the psychedelic colors of Mexico City pulque, these larger bottled cocktails are displayed in the newly lit ice box. The green of the cucumber cocktail glows for the guest, making it irresistible. These new pulqueria-inspired cocktails are served with Kold Draft ice cubes in glasses with wild garnishes, like sal de gusano. And of course we were always working on the next special event…

Rather than any single day special events, we made month-long events that created excitement in the city at large, and brought in new guests and repeat guests alike. For the first time ever, we participated in a Chicago Restaurant Week, although in a nontraditional role of three courses for $20, for dine-in, to-go and delivery. For 2 weeks arounds Valentine’s Day, we offered sweets for lovers, in a beautiful pastry display in store, but also for those who would rather eat at home. This trend continued on as Chicago warmed up, with a month-long menu specifically geared towards the James Beard awards, and then a beer pairing menu for a month, and then a Millennium Park picnic menu in the summer, followed by a menu featuring a collaboration with like-minded restaurants, spearheaded by Chef Wil. In the summer we also stayed open late on Friday and Saturday, with our late night walk-up menu adding to the bottom line.

It took all three of us, Chef Alonso, Arthur and Chef Wil, working together as one, to drive the Xoco machine in 2015. We found that with a team well-versed in the fundamentals, and with the knowledge of what works, we were able to arrive at a special place by January 2016. And yet, for the three of us, it was never really as much about the destination as the journey!

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