In the vibrant culinary landscape of Miami, where flavors fuse and cultures collide, one name has been synonymous with innovation, taste, and trendsetting experiences: John Kunkel. As the visionary founder and CEO of 50 Eggs, Kunkel has carved a delectable niche for himself and his ventures. We caught up with this culinary impresario to delve into his journey, inspirations, and the secret ingredients that have seasoned his path to success.
Your journey in the restaurant industry has been remarkable, with 18 successful restaurants and five more in development. What inspired you to start 50 Eggs Hospitality Group, and how has it evolved over the years?
I’ve been immersed in the restaurant world since I was 15, starting from the trenches as a dishwasher and working my way up the culinary ladder. This hands-on experience gave me a deep-rooted insight into the inner workings of the industry, the nitty-gritty that’s essential for running a successful restaurant.
The foundation of 50 Eggs Hospitality Group was marked by a distinct approach—a blend of corporate culture and an unwavering pursuit of excellence. In any business, and particularly the restaurant realm, the key is perpetual learning and an unrelenting focus on the finer details. That’s where we set ourselves apart. Our hallmark lies in evolution; even well-established concepts like Yardbird and CHICA are in a constant state of refinement, geared to meet the evolving desires of our patrons.
We enhance design, experiment with marketing strategies, and stay closely attuned to our customers’ preferences. It’s about maintaining an open mindset and an insatiable thirst for knowledge, always embracing change and progress.
John Kunkel, Founder & CEO, 50 Eggs Hospitality Group
The core is keeping an open mind, approaching every challenge with a fresh perspective, and ensuring that there’s always room for improvement. It’s akin to keeping an empty cup, ready to be filled with innovative ideas and continuous learning.
Yardbird has been one of your signature concepts, gaining international acclaim and numerous accolades. What do you think sets Yardbird apart, and what challenges did you face while expanding the brand to various locations?
Yardbird has been a wonderful adventure spanning over 11 years now. We just unveiled our eighth location in Denver, which is a testament to the growth and dynamism of the concept. What sets Yardbird apart is the unwavering commitment we have nurtured since its inception. It’s like raising a child – from the very first day of operations, we’ve never allowed complacency to sneak in.
Our Miami Beach flagship serves as our culinary compass, a point of reference that keeps us grounded while we explore new horizons. We’re relentless in our pursuit of excellence, constantly refining the menu, rejuvenating the ambiance, and keeping our finger on the pulse of what our customers crave. Even after a decade in Miami Beach, we embrace change with open arms, recognizing that evolution is essential to stay in tune with shifting tastes and preferences.
Each Yardbird location is a unique masterpiece, meticulously tailored to the locale it calls home. From farmers’ market-inspired offerings in Los Angeles to Dallas’ homage to local steak and barbecue, we adapt, we customize, and we create. Chicago brings its own array of charcuterie and substantial steaks, while Denver showcases 30% of its fresh new menu. Change isn’t a four-letter word for us; it’s an opportunity to innovate, to infuse fresh flavors, and to refine our craft. It’s about meeting the cravings and curiosities of each neighborhood while retaining the essence that makes Yardbird shine.
CHICA, your Latin-American concept, has also seen significant growth. How do you approach adapting and evolving a concept to appeal to different audiences while maintaining its core identity?
CHICA has been a transformative journey, particularly since its debut in Las Vegas. It began as a vibrant canvas, an amalgamation of diverse Latin American cuisines and cultures. We dished up a melange of flavors from Peru, Argentina, Venezuela, Mexico, and beyond. However, what makes CHICA special is our willingness to listen, to learn, and to refine.
Sometimes, we introduce concepts close to our hearts, those our chefs believe in. Yet, we recognize that our diners are our North Star. The path we carve must make sense to them, guiding them through a culinary adventure that feels both exciting and familiar. Thus, we streamlined CHICA’s ordering process, weaving a cohesive narrative that marries countries and cuisines seamlessly, all while being attuned to our customers’ voices.
Adaptation is key, and it’s a dance we share with our patrons. When we noticed their flavor preferences, we responded. Introducing Jasper Ovens and Woodfire grills allowed us to elevate our offerings, honing in on the tantalizing notes our customers craved. CHICA’s evolution took us towards a heightened, refined Mexican cuisine, all shaped by our customers’ discerning tastes.
CHICA’s celebrity chef and partner, Lorena Garcia, recently returned from an inspiring culinary tour to Oaxaca, soaking in the vibrant tapestry of Mexico’s gastronomy. Her travels have inspired her with a wealth of new ideas that have found their way onto our menu. That’s the beauty of our brands and our approach – they’re in a constant state of evolution. The best idea always takes center stage, regardless of its origin. Staying relevant is the heartbeat of our philosophy. The restaurant scene can grow stale, and as consumers, you want to be enticed, surprised, and treated to fresh experiences. Alongside your beloved classics, we offer reasons to keep coming back, to relish not just your favorites, but the excitement of what’s new.
Collaboration seems to be a theme in some of your ventures, such as with Chef Lorena Garcia for CHICA and Chef Tetsuya Wakuda for WAKUDA. How do these partnerships influence the culinary vision and overall success of the restaurants?
Those partnerships truly blossomed in the most natural of ways. I crossed paths with Lorena Garcia 17 years ago during a real estate transaction—I was actually selling a property. That initial encounter laid the foundation for a friendship that has endured over the years. So, when the idea of a Latin culinary concept began to simmer, my instinct led me to Lorena. She was the first person I reached out to.
Now more than ever, I have learned that factors like personality and cultural synergy, alongside culinary expertise, are crucial in our search for chef partners.
Innovation has been a driving force in your success, introducing cutting-edge concepts and forward-thinking restaurant operations. How do you stay ahead of the curve in an ever-evolving industry?
For us, staying innovative is about keeping an open mind and taking inspiration from our travels. Personally, I’m a bit of a wanderer, always eager to explore the culinary and hospitality scenes worldwide. It’s amazing how different cultures interpret taste and hospitality, and that’s what sparks my creativity.
Innovation is deeply ingrained in our company’s ethos. Whether it’s creating a poolside restaurant concept in Vegas, launching a new cocktail bar, or venturing into fine dining with WAKUDA, we approach everything as eager learners of the industry. We stay attuned to what’s missing, what’s trending, and what’s on the horizon.
We’ve noticed a shift towards experiential dining, where entertainment and food intertwine. This trend informs our humility-driven approach. Our focus is on serving, not on imposing our desires. We’re attentive listeners, paying heed to customer feedback and global culinary shifts. This awareness guides our innovative strategy—keeping us in sync with local and global developments is our key to innovation.
Your restaurants are known for their authentically curated menus. Could you shed some light on your approach to menu development and how you ensure a cohesive and memorable dining experience?
Our approach to menu development is an ever-evolving art. Over the past few years, a pivotal shift has been our consideration of how a dish translates visually in the digital age. With the world capturing every plate before savoring the first bite, creating dishes that are not only bursting with flavor but also photogenic has become an essential ingredient.
When we craft a dish, we’re attuned to the multifaceted tastes of our diverse clientele. Flexibility is key, embracing the spectrum from health-conscious and gluten-free to indulgent offerings. We aim to fashion an inclusive dining experience that caters to a broad audience. However, it’s a fine balance – while variety is essential, we understand that we can’t be everything to everyone. Our menus feature a thoughtful selection of choices, ensuring that each option embodies our culinary ethos.
I have a more cohesive vision when it comes to menu development. Whether it’s Mediterranean or Italian cuisine, we explore the possibilities each canvas offers while ensuring a seamless connection. It’s about making sense to our customers, not just from a cuisine standpoint, but also within the overarching concept of the restaurant. Achieving harmony in flavors, aesthetics, and concept is what transforms the dining journey.
With international locations and expansion plans in prominent cities worldwide, what factors do you consider when entering a new market? How do you balance maintaining consistency across locations while embracing local nuances?
Our international ventures unfold through a dual approach. We evaluate the feasibility of operating our outlets directly in certain markets, such as London, where accessibility favors corporate management. Simultaneously, we seek out reputable local restaurant groups that share our passion for quality to partner with us. This is especially relevant in regions like the Middle East or parts of Southeast Asia. Each market holds its own distinct character, but our underlying principle remains consistent: aligning ourselves with partners who uphold the same rigorous quality standards as we do.
Our philosophy echoes “quality over quantity.” Patience is a virtue we embrace as we meticulously study these markets over years. We’re not in a hurry to saturate; instead, we strive to understand the intricacies and tastes that define each locale. Our American concept, Yardbird, for instance, made its debut in Singapore, introducing a new cuisine to the market. The journey involved educating the audience while remaining agile to their preferences. The culinary landscape, dietary habits, and preferences can be notably different. Flexibility is crucial – insisting on a rigid approach isn’t a blueprint for success.
In the end, the key lies in active listening, accommodating variations in taste, and being responsive to local preferences. It’s not just about exporting a concept; it’s about translating the essence of the brand while acknowledging and adapting to the nuances that make each market unique. It’s an artful dance between consistency and customization that guarantees our global presence retains its true flavor.