John Shields & Karen Urie Shields: Restaurant Project

I became an instant fan of chefs John Shields and Karen Urie Shields as soon as I read the New York Times article about their work at Town House restaurant in the rural hamlet of Chilhowie, VA. I was smitten with the accompanying photos of their food – the ingredients, composition, color and texture all combined to make some beautiful dishes. I put Town House on my list of destination restaurants I would like to try to get to. But I never made it.

businesscard-3.5inx2in-h-front

In early 2012 came the announcement from John Shields that he and Karen were resigning from their posts at the helm of Town House and relocating to the Philadelphia area in order to be closer to family. Having studied the Philadelphia real estate and restaurant market I immediately thought that I could help them develop and design a restaurant concept for them in their new home city. Additionally advantageous to this prospect was that my brother works in Philadelphia commercial real estate so he would be able to guide us through all of the neighborhoods and available spaces. I contacted John and we quickly started talking about putting a restaurant project together for he and Karen. It was probably helpful to everyone’s comfort level that we had all worked in the Chicago restaurant scene in prior years so knew a lot of the same people and stories.

12-demian-Shields-Philly-combo-1

Over the next few months my brother showed John, Karen and I 15 or so available properties. For each of the spaces that resonated with them I would draw plan sketch options of how a restaurant for them might fit in it. In one dark and dingy warehouse property we discovered a few older gentlemen, sitting among the stacks of junk. Upon hearing we were scouting for a restaurant space one of them said, “I have a restaurant in New Jersey with Mario Batali! Me and Mario are buds.” Um… oh yeah?

During this time I wrote most of the business plan for this restaurant project, compiling comparable restaurant surveys, culinary maps of Philadelphia, equipment lists, writing updated biographies for John and Karen, etc. Each possible property was different, so the build out numbers and operations projections would get added in once they had selected a specific space in which I could develop details of the design around.

In between property searches I had several concept conversations with John and Karen. We talked about their thoughts on Town House, what they liked, what they wanted to change in a new restaurant situation, the characteristics of other restaurants that they liked or that we agreed made them stand out and be successful, etc. I guided them through concepting exercises of thinking through not only the food that they were excited about doing but also the experience that they wanted the diner to have. How would meals be structured? Prix fixe or a la carte? How would an evening be paced? How many courses would be optimum for the type of food? Do diners start with something unexpected? Do they end the meal with something? Many questions and possibilities to discuss. This was all very beneficial not only in helping John and Karen coalesce all of their ideas into one unified concept but also to give us direction as to what kind of pricing this culinary experience would require. Deciding on a pricing ballpark is important in order to generate operational budget projections and further, profitability projections for potential investors. It was always very fun to talk about food and ideas for their dream restaurant. Designing and developing a concept is one of the things I most love to do with partners and clients.

In addition to that I worked closely with John and Karen on several other issues related to putting together a restaurant project. I designed a temporary business card for John and Karen to use until we had a permanent restaurant home. The vegetal illustration I did for the card is above. I started getting the word out about their Philadelphia plans to my friends in media. We met with Collin Flatt, Eater Philly’s main writer, to talk restaurants (and his knowledge of sour beer). We made initial connections and presentations with potential investors. I helped them write emails to big media outlets. I even wrote a press release and compiled photos of the party they threw for their daughter’s first birthday. Many and varied tasks! But all fun in their own way and all in an effort to build momentum for them into the opening of a new restaurant in Philly.

Alas, John and Karen, as much as they liked Philadelphia, decided that they wanted to take a step back and explore possibilities in Washington DC. While I would love for them to be in Philly as it is closer to New York and I have family there, I understand their desire to explore all potential location options. They have to be completely comfortable with whatever they decide as this will be their restaurant home from which to grow. Wherever it ultimately happens, I look forward to John and Karen Shields new venture. Because they care so much about every detail both on and off the plate, their restaurant will certainly be amazing. Not to mention- John Shields plays for keeps;)