Insights / Interviews / This Dallas Restaurant Group is Taking an Innovative Approach to Menu Creativity
This Dallas Restaurant Group is Taking an Innovative Approach to Menu Creativity

Hidden behind an unmarked door, followed by a thick, black curtain, you’ll find Dallas’s Apothecary, an intimate, dimly lit 40-seat bar, adorned with peacock wallpaper and plush velvet banquettes. The spot opened last summer and has been filling up its reservation slots ever since, drawing in patrons with its highly creative and complex cocktails. 

On the drink menu, ingredients range from charred octopus to numbing prickly ash to white chocolate cricket to duck-confit-washed bourbon. Plus, there are cocktails like the Cacio e Pepe, designed as a homage to the classic dish. The concept is run by Walkabout Hospitality Group, the same group behind Rye, a food-focused concept with an equally innovative menu. (Think menu items like the “S’more Foie”, made with mole chocolate ganache, kimchi marshmallow, and a foie gras mousse.) 

Creativity is at the heart of the brand, says CEO and creative director Tanner Agar. And it’s what keeps both him and his team inspired and ready for service everyday. We chatted with Agar about how this has fueled the success of his sister restaurants, plus the importance of working together as a team to come up with new and original ideas.

Walk me through what first drew you to the restaurant industry.

Once my little brother was born, my mother didn't work as my personal chef anymore. And that's how I started cooking. But I wanted to be a chef my entire life. I've worked in this industry since I was 16 years old. 

I ended up moving to Texas to attend TCU in Fort Worth, where I continued to work as a chef. Over my time, I’ve worked in six different countries and in three different languages, always restaurant-focused. I started a consulting company at one point, which I used as a vehicle to do some really wonderful traveling and help reengineer brands. Eventually I got tired of working on other people's projects in their restaurants. And so I decided to move back to the United States and open up my own. In 2018, we opened up the original Rye.

Last year, your team debuted its newest project, Apothecary, in Dallas. Tell me a little about the vision and goals you had for the concept.

When we started Rye, we felt that we had total control to do whatever we wanted in the food space. But we had really classical cocktail training. And that worked for us. However, as our understanding of flavor and our goals to push ourselves developed, the problem became that we were coming up with cocktails that were not suited to a restaurant environment. They’d take too long to prep or make, or the flavor profiles were not well-aligned with the dinner experience.

We wished we had the freedom in our bar program that we did with our food, and we knew that wasn't going to happen with Rye. So we started talking about opening up a place that's the opposite of Rye, completely dedicated to the cocktail.

It’s clear you’ve succeeded with opening a cocktail spot that thrives on creativity. Do you see creativity as the crux of this project?

I've only ever worked on projects that I believed in and where I could learn something. So for me, I absolutely wouldn’t be doing this if I didn't have the freedom to create, and the thrill of coming up with and developing ideas, and then ultimately getting to serve it to guests. That process is what motivates me to deal with all of the other things, like the electrical going out or the plugged drain or dealing with payroll due in an hour.

What's so cool is my colleagues feel this way, too, which allows us to make these very cool things together. There's nothing wrong with working in restaurants where you’re a grad student or part-time, but we’ve never had someone who works more than a couple shifts who wasn't a “this is my career” kind of person. When you're surrounded by those people, and we're all fighting to get these great ideas out of us and into the world, it just creates such a wonderful environment to be a part of.

I’d love to hear more about how you engineer your menu. Where do you pull your inspirations from?

Our team is always ingesting as much information as possible. When one of us goes out of town, we’re always texting back pictures of menus – there’s this massive group text of like 15 of us. We're always sharing Instagram stories and books to read. 

But what really drives the menu is we sit down with our team, and we have pitch meetings. So people literally show up and say, “Here's what's interesting.” “Here's something I want to work on.” “I just got back from a Korean grocery store and check this out.” We split the ideas up, and they go into R&D. Then we get back together and say, “OK, out of that first draft, what do we think?” From there, the ones that we love, that also contribute to a well-balanced menu, end up getting published.

The way you describe it makes it sound similar to an editorial pitch meeting for a magazine. How did this idea first come about and was it something that evolved over time?

It started because of my frustration as a young chef. Things are changing in the industry now, but when I started, you did what you were told. No one was interested in your opinion. And if you thought you had a good idea, it was better to keep it to yourself. Like any creative person, I thought I had interesting ideas, and so I saw it as a lack of growth. How can I learn to be creative and come up with great things if no one's ever teaching me?

We have to be working together because we are better together than we would be apart. We’ve taken that ethos. If you work in our kitchen, you’re part of the pitch meeting. It doesn't matter what position you hold. The only way to get uninvited is if you're not participating and you're not helping the conversation become better. Then we excuse you.

Have you had to excuse people?

One time, and since then, it’s never been a problem. Obviously, I'm expecting more from myself and my chef de cuisine in this meeting than I'm expecting from the line cook who's never pitched their dish before. We have a sliding scale of expectations. 

But yeah, one person showed up to a pitch meeting for a French menu and suggested we baked baguettes and that was the only thing that they suggested, and we said “no”. That doesn’t mean you can’t come to the next pitch meeting. But it makes sure that we affirm the ideology with our team – we all come prepared, we are creating these dishes. That is, to me, the most exciting part of working in our organization. And if you can't show up, get out of the way because other people are here who are prepared, and we want them to have the opportunity.

How do you strike a balance between innovative and unusual, while still creating drinks that have widespread appeal?

I think what’s really important is to keep in mind that people have a range of tastes, and that’s why you see our menu being as large as it is. We can’t put seven really weird drinks out there and expect everyone to like them. We have three sections so that as you go, you know you’re getting into more adventurous flavors. It’s also weighted from top to bottom with more refreshing drinks to more spirt-forward, stirred-style drinks. It’s important while we’re doing this to have a range.

Have you had any drinks that flopped with customers in the past?

We’ve had a couple. We ran a ponzu cocktail, and I don’t think a single person liked it except for me. We have one on the menu right now, it’s a very niche product – a mole, blue cheese, mezcal, and cricket cocktail. When people want to order it, we say, “Let’s just chat really quickly about what that cocktail is.” Which is something that we have to do. Do we have to educate and communicate? 100-percent.

In Dallas, cocktail bars are becoming increasingly clubbified, and that’s something we said absolutely wouldn't work here. We can’t serve you this menu if we don’t have the time to stand at your table, listen to what you like, and guide you through the menu to make sure you find something you’re going to love. We want the thrill of trying something new to be exciting and fun, not penalizing.

The atmosphere of Apothecary is also creative-forward. Can you share the importance for you of being just as mindful of the ambience as you are of the menu?

That’s especially important here in Dallas. The power of Instagram to market your restaurant for you is immense. And so it's really important that you create spaces that are beautiful. But I think there are some places that do that at the expense of really delivering on the experience, which is ultimately what you come back for. 

We wanted it to feel like a space that was lived in, that had character, that wasn't bright, shiny, and new. When you come through the black curtain – Apothecary is soundproof and lightproof with the exception of the curtain – we want to literally transport you away from where you're at, give you a new home, things to look at, allow you to feel like you have this space away from your real life. [We want you] to enjoy really being here and the process of being with a human being and sharing in a conversation of the food – that’s what restaurants are for. 

Tell me about your hiring process – I imagine it’s tailored to attract a certain type of person.

Absolutely. Our interviews are very challenging. We have a chat and then you enter into a verbal exam. “Do you know what this is, what that is?”, and then after you do the knowledge part, the next questions are, “What are you reading?”, “Who’s inspiring you?”, “What are the trends”, and then, “What are you an expert in that you can bring here and make us better in?”

I wish I could tell you I'm amazing at getting applicants, but I’m not. Really the best way [for us has been] people literally walk through the front door. “I’ve heard about you, I've eaten here, I want to work here.” Our product is our recruitment strategy. 

To keep people long term, we’ve decided the best way to do that is to grow. I don’t really enjoy hiring and the intro training. I would love to personally not be doing that as we get bigger, so our thought is to build, and then if we’re doing more in sales, I can pay my staff more, and my bar manager can become the general manager, and so on. My staff can grow in their career while staying part of the team.

As part of your growth, you also opened up a new Rye location last summer. Were you nervous about opening two new spots during the pandemic?

When we opened up [our first Rye location] in McKinney, it was a really painful experience because no one was coming. People would sit down, we’d give them the menu, explain the concept, and people would walk out, constantly. However, over time, we’ve found our people, and while the pandemic was obviously really difficult, I’ll never forget the way our team came together and the way our guests showed up for us. So we were very confident that Rye [in Dallas] would have a good adoption rate. With Apothecary, I joked that maybe everyone signed off on it so that I would shut up about it. When you say you’re going to open a cocktail bar, and seafood is going to be in more than one cocktail, you raise some eyebrows. So yes, I was terribly nervous. But we’ve been overwhelmed. Some people have written us off as being a novelty bar, but when you can’t get a reservation, that’s a good sign.

It’s interesting. Me and other restaurateurs have had this conversation – are the Roaring Twenties back? People were locked in their house for a year, the global political system is…interesting. And we’re seeing this wave of people who are saying they’re going to go out and enjoy their life – I’m going to have a second glass of wine, I’m going to order guacamole with my burrito, I’m going to live my life. Restaurants are such a massive component of appreciating your life and people. We’ve certainly benefited from that. The hardest thing has been managing the number of guests – having bartenders, servers, chefs, and people of the quality we need to produce the amount we need to produce.  

You’ve noted the importance of sharing financial and performance data with your teams. Tell me about that.

It’s important for a number of reasons. If I'm working at a company, I enjoy the job security of knowing this company is doing OK. There’s that kind of peace of mind perspective, and then the biggest thing is that if we let you know what’s going on, the right people will be motivated to track those metrics. All of our managers have apps on their phones that track sales. They’ll say, “Hey, we’re putting up better numbers than last week.” “We’re going to hit 10K In the next 30 minutes.” These are conversations that are happening in the restaurant, and it’s fun. We were just shy of having our biggest day ever the other night, and I said, “Okay, we need to sell another round or we're not going to make it.” And all of the servers went out and sold cocktails. We’re bought into this game, and it’s infectious, and it feels like we're all winning together. 

Any suggestions on how other operators can instill more creativity in their own restaurants as a tool in this current environment?

The biggest way is to ask your staff – ask your team what they think. And I extend that to everything. They’re the ones who have way more data than me because they interface with the guests constantly. The average worker is a person who wants to have agency and input and be a part of a successful team. Empower these people to make choices. I’ve been blown away by some of the people we’ve brought in. And also, if you’re saying, “How can I be more creative?”, just pick up a book. Get on Instagram. You can see mind-blowing work. Honestly, you can try to come up with your own ideas, but if you can’t, at least try other people's ideas and learn from them.

Grace Dickinson is a reporter at Back of House. Send tips or inquiries to grace@backofhouse.io.

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