Grace Dickinson | August 5, 2022, 09:42 AM CDT
Coined “Peru’s original restaurant power couple” by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, chef Gastón Acurio and pastry chef Astrid Gutsche have racked up an impressive list of accolades since opening Astrid & Gastón in Acurio’s hometown of Lima, Peru in 1994. Between the two, awards include the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants (Acurio), 2015 Latin America’s Best Pastry Chef Award (Gustche), 2017 Art of Hospitality Award (Astrid and Gastón), and rankings in the first 20 spots on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants for three consecutive years (Astrid and Gastón).
A graduate from France’s Le Cordon Bleu (where Acurio met German-born Gustche), Acurio originally sought to cook classic French cuisine. But as time went on, the couple started experimenting with Peruvian ingredients and traditions. Soon, they’d become among the most important promoters of Peruvian gastronomy, popularizing and modernizing classic dishes for diners worldwide.
Today, under the restaurant group Acurio International, Astrid and Gastón has grown from one location to a multi-concept enterprise that includes 64 restaurants spread across a dozen countries. To learn more about the operation and its growth, we sat down with Thomas Medl, Acurio International’s director of operations for North America.
Medl, a part of Acurio International for seven years, shares insight into the challenges of expanding, keys for entering new markets, and how resisting a corporate structure has allowed Acurio to remain agile and rapidly scale.
Chef Gastón Acurio has long been a prominent figure in Peru. Can you share some insight into when and how he started to expand his culinary influence worldwide?
Initially he was creating all this French food in Peru, but once he expanded to do more of a modern twist on Peruvian food, that’s when he really gained recognition and started to expand. At first, it was mostly within Peru, but then he went to Chile, Argentina, and Mexico, and then in 2008, he made it to the U.S. and opened his first outpost in San Francisco. Then we opened in New York, then Chicago, then Miami, and so on.
In the meantime, he has concepts in Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, Geneva, Dubai. We have 64 restaurants, and so we’re really rapidly expanding around the globe.
We have eight major concepts, and within that, we have three or four that we really try to emphasize, and that’s the La Mar brand, the Tanta brand, and the Yakumanka brand. And then we also have Manko, and we’re opening a huge Manko concept in Greece that’s going to be a 400-seat beach club just a half hour outside of Athens. We’re very excited about that.
What went into the reasoning to create individually distinguished concepts, as opposed to opening the same concept across cities?
Manko was born because we partnered in Paris with a group that specialized in nightlife operations. We were right next to a cabaret, and we wanted to have this hybrid model where you still have this nightlife scene but really good food served with it. It was just so successful that we expanded with it.
La Mar was born in Lima. It’s a cevicheria, and it really showcases the best ceviches of Peru. We operate in nine different countries, and it’s just a concept that never gets old, and it’s always evolving.
The Yakumanka brand, we call it the little brother of La Mar. La Mar needs to be in an iconic space, and we can’t always find that in a city. So that’s how the Yakumanka brand was born. It’s a smaller cevicheria, but still with high quality products and showing a love of seafood.
As a restaurant group, it's very important to respond to what the audience wants but also stay true to our roots and really capitalize on the amazing food that our chefs make.
What aspects of your restaurant group do you think set’s Acurio International apart and has allowed it to successfully expand?
The most important thing is that we don’t have a huge corporate structure, so we can maneuver and move quickly. Decisions are made quickly. We can find partners quickly in other cities that want to have us and provide the right environment for us to be successful. And I think that’s the number one reason we have so much success.
We have a COO who pretty much oversees all of the stuff that’s happening on the international side of Acurio. He has a couple of directors of operations – one for the U.S., one for Europe, and one for the Middle East. And that pretty much sums it up from a corporate structure.
So what we really rely on is having strong GMs and strong executive chefs at each location, and we check in with them on a monthly basis, sometimes more, sometimes less, and we really let them make the decisions and run with it.
Is everything always done right? I mean, no one’s perfect and everyone makes mistakes. But it’s given us a lot of flexibility and ability to adapt to local needs where the restaurants are.
What goes into hiring GMs and executive chefs that you’re confident can fill those leadership roles?
The chefs are trained by Gastón. Most of them come out of his kitchen after having worked there a long time, and a few are brought in and trained. And they also learn from each other. So it’s been an organic process. But with the GMs, we look for people with a pre-standing background or a high level of proficiency in hospitality that really understand how a restaurant works and how you have to be able to change and adapt and move.
Can you share any of the main challenges Acurio has faced within translating and sustaining the brand in the North American market?
One of the main challenges is that Peruvian food, despite being a food trend for a while, is still often a novelty to many people. We enjoy a lot of success among Latino folks because they’re familiar with Peruvian food and Gastón. But the other demographics of the United States have trouble understanding what Peruvian food is. They think it’s rice and plantains, and they put it into this basket of other Latin countries, but this just isn’t the case.
It has such versatility, and so many people are very pleasantly surprised when they see the menu. They see we have the Japanese influence that brings the raw seafood, the Chinese influence with the Wok cooking and the sweet and sour flavors. We’re so successful because everyone can find something on the menu.
There’s also a bunch of verbiage that we use, and we’ve been trying to get creative with how to Americanize it. We’ve made educational videos. What is “Ajíes”? “What is Peruvian food?” We try through social media to educate people, but also on the menu we have a glossary. During service, it’s a great talking point so people can take something away from the experience and learn a couple of new things.
Can you share how you navigated the pandemic and some of the major pivots or strategies the group took in order to sustain success?
One of the major things was that we had a weekly call on a local level with our ownership to go through finances and really figure out how long can we go, how long can we pay. It was really scary in those first three months. We had all the GMs and executive chefs on there, and they would update each other on what was working in their market. And we really exchanged ideas and came up with different strategies.
We had shutdowns for two and a half to three months. We rehired very aggressively and very early on. We were always bringing more people on than maybe what we needed. We shutdown in March, and then it was June when we started rehiring, and in January we had a little bit of a shutdown but we didn’t lay anyone off.
Luckily every restaurant we have is still standing today, and we made it out of there stronger – and at least in the United States, we’re making more revenue than ever.
Managing a multi-unit concept is naturally a lot to juggle. What do you think are the main keys for success in today’s challenging climate?
It’s important to understand which concepts are strong enough to expand and which ones might need more time to develop.
You have to be very agile when it comes to the local market and really be able to maneuver within it. When talking about the labor market — who can you hire? How much do you need to pay? What culinary schools do you need to go to? Who do you need to engage with? How do you compete with benefits?
Go out to other restaurants and have a pulse on what everyone else is doing. Are you charging the right price? Offering the right thing? And if you’re trying to expand, really understanding the real estate market. Who’s negotiating my lease? Am I overpaying? Each and every category can be expanded and dissected.
Do you have any other advice for operators who are looking to expand their own enterprise?
Really be cautious with your location and your real estate deal. I think a lot of people don’t understand the nuances of those deals. Can you negotiate it down? Can you get the TIs, [tenant improvements], that you want. I’d be very careful how you structure the percentage rent rate, and also really cautiously look at all of the labor laws and red tape that cities put up. Really do your homework in the business environment in the part of the city you want to go to.
And then keep your finger on the pulse. Somehow I don’t think we’re over this Coronavirus, and in conjunction with a potential recession coming up, it’s very important to understand your costs and get lean before you overload yourself. I think it’s going to take us another year and a half to two years before a greener pasture comes.
Grace Dickinson is a reporter at Back of House. Send tips or inquiries to email@example.com.
[Photo of Tanta Chicago courtesy Acurio International]
About The Author
Grace Dickinson is a staff reporter at Back of House. Prior to joining Back of House, Grace worked as a features and service reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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