10 Questions with Chris Jones of Restaurant KC Crave
1. Tell us about KC Crave.
When I started pulling my ideas together for KC Crave 5 years ago I knew from experience and research that there was a large number of young professionals who liked to eat out regularly, often with friends, and who wanted a place they could feel comfortable making their own. Within this group they wanted a cutting edge, polished restaurant that was different and constantly evolving to always be interesting and affordable. That's my vision for KC Crave.
We're what I call a posh-casual restaurant. We bring together elegant surroundings with chef-driven food - high quality food for a quality price. We feature "sharing plates" which are dishes especially created for splitting among a group. That way everyone can order a cocktail and a plate and then sample from a number of different items. You can always turn a sharing plate into a single entree but we start with the sharing concept.
Value and quality with friendly service is what the whole concept is built on.
2. What makes KC Crave special?
We try to be unique and different in everything we do. Whether that's in our menu, our cocktails, our entertainment, our decor … everything. And we're always evolving and trying new things so what's special will always change.
3. What sort of food do you serve?
I wanted to be different and unique and try different cooking styles that were cutting edge. We do a lot of sous vide … we sous vide meats for 24 hours and finish them on the grill before serving. We do a lot of sirloin and filet mignon. We slice the meats and put on a unique topping for sharing. For example we have the Newburg topping which is local Mayport shrimp with local bay scallops in a rich Newburg sauce that we pour over the sliced, roasted sirloin. For the pork tenderloin we do our version of char siu, which is an Asian barbecue method. We marinate the meat in char siu and then sous vide for 12 hours. Then we cut the meat into medallions, grill and top with a sticky guava BBQ sauce. It's in 4 portions for sharing. There are 3-4 other toppings we do for the slow roasted sirloin. We also do filet medallions wrapped in bacon and grilled, then topped with gouda fondue or gorgonzola, prosciutto and beurre blanc sauce.
… can you tell us more about sous vide?
Sous vide is French for "under vacuum." It's a cooking technique that places the meat (or vegetables) in an airtight, vacuum sealed package and then places the package in a water bath at a very specific temperature. For example, to prepare a medium rare steak we add herbs or seasoning to our meat, vacuum seal it and then submerge in 135 degree water for 24 hours. The beauty of sous vide is that the meat is heated evenly and never rises above 135 degrees, guaranteeing perfectly cooked meat every time - whether it is submerged for 24 hours or 48 hours. And with the seasoning locked in the package the meat becomes infused with flavor as well as incredibly tender. Once the meat is cooked we finish it in a number of ways - sauté, grill, or roasting for example. We're always looking for new ways to do things too, like using a smoke infuser that burns wood chips and fills the sous vide bag with different smoke flavors before sealing it, so the smoky flavoring is locked in with the meat. We are also testing grilling on Himalayan salt blocks which creates a very unique flavor.
4. Can you recommend a few dishes for someone new to KC Crave?
Our number one sellers are the gouda filets - 4 medallions that are seasoned and grilled, then topped with gouda fondue. We also have the same filets done with gorgonzola cheese, proscuitto and buerre blanc sauce over the top. Those two items are definitely our top sellers. We also have a sous vide chicken breast that is covered in seasoned panko bread crumbs and grilled to finish it off. We slice that and top it with a beurre blanc sauce with artichokes, sun dried tomatoes and feta cheese. That sells a lot. If you like ribs we have slow smoked baby back ribs with sticky guava BBQ sauce.
The thing that people really go crazy over is our smoked salmon (pictured left). We slow smoke the salmon in house for six hours. It's totally cooked. It's then served cold with flatbread chips. We put home made beer mustard over the top along with gouda fondue. If you are a smoked salmon lover it is probably the best smoked salmon you'll ever have. I don't like salmon, at all. We came up with this and now I can eat it all day long.
Trying to keep to our unique theme, we make our own roasted red pepper hummus (pictured left). And instead of giving out bread and butter at the table you get fresh flatbread chips with our hummus.
5. Who does the cooking at KC Crave?
Henry Bowen is my chef. He takes my culinary vision and creates it. I trained him 20+ years ago when I opened the Ponte Vedra Outback Steakhouse. I was the kitchen manager and he was the grill cook. So we have a long history. He went on to become the Regional Culinary Director for Outback for over 15 years. I feel very fortunate to have him on our team.
6. Where do you get your recipes?
Most of this stuff is years in the making. When we started I knew what I wanted but hadn't tested it. We opened in August (2012) but we started doing tasting in March. Every Saturday we'd do a tasting. I'd make up a menu and say "this is what I want - these are the ingredients I want" - and our chef and sous chefs would put together a presentation of what I wanted and we'd taste them. Every Saturday. The menu we're on now is menu number 101. We tested a lot of food. And we have a lot of great things that we've tested but haven't rolled out yet. We went with the ones we knew we could master and execute to get the doors open.
7. Can you tell us about your herb garden?
It started with an idea for two big boxes of cilantro and basil for our use. As we got close with our neighbor we noticed that he had lots of land that was full of weeds and wasn't really being used. I asked if we could use the land and he was very gracious and allowed us to build our garden. We put in a big fence and irrigation. Our original idea for two boxes is now ten boxes. It's a whole area with lights and picnic tables. One day, especially when the weather is a little cooler, we hope to incorporate meals in the garden area. It's very nice out there at night with the lights. It's a real unique setting. We currently grow sweet basil, purple basil, cilantro, parsley, mint … all the fresh herbs we use. I have some fennel, some fig plants, some squash. We're trying to do as much as we can but we also try to keep it simple, so our biggest focus is on the basil, cilantro and mint.
8. Let's talk about your drinks. Can you tell us about your infused drinks?
My vision for the restaurant as a whole has been to always emphasize organic, home made, local items over pre-packaged options. One example of this is our infused vodkas. There are a lot of flavored vodkas you can buy at the store. But we make some of our own, using our own herbs as well as other ingredients like blueberries, cucumbers and lemongrass. In addition to tasting better it gives us a lot of control over the unique flavors we can come up with and the drinks we can create.
Carissa Quigg and Ben Kingsberry are the bar managers. Carissa, with the help of Ben, has been creating our cocktails. They're always looking for things that are different and unique - things that people haven't seen before. We worked on our cocktails for 3 months before opening. They're made without simple syrups or processed mixes - just agave nectar and organic types of mixes. Ben and Carissa are constantly experimenting and coming up with new cocktails like Peach, Love & Happiness and our signature martini, The Henway Cocktail (pictured left. What's a Henway?…about 3 pounds…badda bing!). We've had a lot of fun naming our cocktails!!
We've started to bring in some small batch distilleries that are starting to take off in popularity the way craft beers have grown. We're doing some small batch alcohols, some moonshines. Creating really cool cocktails with those items. We're looking to do some infusions with our small-batched white whiskeys as well.
… what about your Tap Room?
We have four tap tables. These are special tables with two taps of beer each. You pour your own beer and pay by the ounce. It's fun and unique. And we really focus on local beers, so you're getting something distinctive and special. We take reservations for the four tap tables, but those are the only reservations we do take.
… your wine system?
We have a very cutting edge wine preservation system that uses a combination of nitrogen and argon. That holds the integrity of the wine for a long period of time, which allows us to offer reserve wines by the glass. We have a rotation of four reserve wines in the system that we sell by the ounce. You can try out a really nice high-end wine without having to buy the whole bottle. Most places won't open a reserve bottle of wine for a single glass. We can do that with our system.
9. Why don't you take reservations other than for your Tap Tables?
We don't take reservations because we've found that it often upsets more people than makes them happy. We only have 15 tables downstairs and we can't hold them when people are late … and that can end up causing problems. So we decided not to do reservations. But we're set up to give people a lot of options. The patio is full service as are all the bar tables. Friday and Saturday night are busiest. Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday are a little slower so if you want to try us out and don't want any wait those are good nights to come in. Any night of the week we don't normally have a wait for early dining either. We offer curb side to-go food service if you want to pick something up. As the weather cools off the patio will also be a great option. It's set up with couches and raised coffee tables to let you easily eat off them. It's another way we're trying to stay different and unique. It's a very inviting, relaxed environment.
10. Can you tell us about the music aspect of KC Crave?
It's huge. I always wanted a place with live music. The restaurant isn't large and it's posh-casual so you won't walk in and hear Guns 'n Roses. We do a lot of different themes. We do a lot of jazz with a standup bass and guitar player and horn player. We'll do one man bands playing old songs you'd forgotten -- so classic songs. We go in between jazz, blues and soft classic rock. We have live music every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night starting at 9:30pm until 12:30am.
… is there a cover charge for the music?
No cover for the music. The music is also in a very unique setting. We have an HD camera on the musicians. The upstairs comfortably holds 50 people, but if it's packed and people are enjoying the music we have the HD camera on the performers and the picture is transferred to the 80" flat screen we have downstairs at the bar so they can see what's going on. It's also being shown on the patio's 60 inch TV. We have a high end sound system that runs through the entire restaurant so people don't have to be sitting right in front of the music to enjoy the live performances.
11. Can you tell us about your background?
I've been in the restaurant business for 28 years. I opened the first Outback Steakhouse for the OSI Group 23 years ago. I later opened the Outback Steakhouse in Ponte Vedra. I also worked at Bonefish Grill for many years, running the Jacksonville Beach location for the last 7 years. About 5 years ago I really started thinking about doing my own thing. I wanted a concept that was cutting edge and leading the restaurant industry - to do our own thing rather than copy and follow. I was lucky to work with a lot of really great people at OSI and I've brought a lot of them with me to help deliver on the vision. Everyone in management or holding a leadership role as a chef or sous chef has come from OSI.
… what did you learn from OSI that you brought to KC Crave?
What did I learn from Outback and Bonefish? Everything! I worked all over. When I was in Hawaii I was right next to the original Roy's restaurant and became good friends with Roy Yamaguchi. He taught me a lot of stuff. OSI taught me the importance of consistency - making sure you're passionate about the food and your people's success - that you're in there every day checking on the ingredients - you're not just opening the doors. You're engaged in constant and serious food checks. You make sure you're checking on the quality of everything that comes in. Making sure you employ the right people. The business is all about the people. I can have a great place with great ambiance but if I don't have great people we won't be very successful. Taking care of the people you have, making sure you promote the right employees, and celebrating their successes. There's also the skill of putting together a menu, understanding costs, profits, and losses. Just about everything there is to learn in the industry I learned from OSI. They're leaders in the industry and I'm very proud I was part of such a successful restaurant company. And I'm proud to have managers with OSI experience.
12. Where did you get the name KC Crave?
I always knew I wanted my restaurant to be Crave. I wanted to get back to a lot of old school stuff. I wanted to bring back the things that used to be popular that you don't see anymore. I wanted to bring back the hollandaise sauces, the bernaise sauces. I didn't want to be called a grill or a bistro or a gastro pub. I wanted to be a restaurant. Restaurant Crave was always the name I had from 5 years ago. For the KC part I'm the C and the K is my partner. If you go into the restaurant it's like a very nice 1930's dark wood, cream leather lounge. It has the feeling of a nice Vegas lounge but I don't want people thinking we're a lounge because we're definitely a restaurant. The brand is Restaurant KC Crave.
13. Why did you locate in the Beaches, and not downtown, or San Marco?
I had a very specific idea of what I wanted. I couldn't have gone into a plaza with four walls and built this out. It wasn't made for that. I wanted a unique building that had history. Also, I ran the Bonefish Grill in Jacksonville Beach for 7 years and knew a lot of people at the Beach. I wasn't expecting to open so soon, but when the Giovanni's location came available I knew it would be perfect for us. Giovanni's had so much history … it was a great restaurant that a lot of people had been coming to since they were a kid. And I wanted our first, our flagship restaurant, to have a unique setting like what the Giovanni's building could offer. I am looking at other areas like San Marco, Mandarin, and St. Augustine for future growth. But we don't want to grow too fast. We want to keep our eye on the brand and grow at a pace we can handle.
14. Will your future growth be around the Jacksonville area or elsewhere?
We want to grow from Jacksonville. I saw how it worked at Outback - they did a great job of taking care of their people and their customers. When I think of Outback Steakhouse I think of Tampa, FL. I want KC Crave to be connected in the same way to Jacksonville. When people think of KC Crave I want them to think of Jacksonville. I hope people love our concept enough to allow us to grow, but I don't want to get ahead of myself. First I need to make sure we're successful where we are. I have a really good team of people who can make an expansion work if and when the time is right.
15. Do you think you'll franchise KC Crave?
We won't franchise initially. At this point we want to make sure we have enough of our own restaurants and an operating history of doing things right so that we can be there to help franchisees along, if we decide to go that route.
16. What's been your biggest surprise since opening?
My biggest surprise was the response we received from the customers. Overwhelmingly people love the restaurant. I knew we were unique, but Jacksonville can be fickle. It's all about timing. Sometimes you're too early.
I never thought we'd have the kind of enthusiastic response we've seen. I knew we'd do a good job but didn't expect the immediate excitement from the public. I tell everyone there's so much wood in my restaurant so I can knock on it every day. I can't believe how fortunate we've been with customer response. I feel like a rock star when I walk into the restaurant. It's weird. People are just so excited about the restaurant. I feel blessed and lucky that we opened with the right timing with this concept - that we didn't do it too early or too late. That would be the biggest surprise. I knew we'd do a good job, but I didn't know we'd get the kind of excited feedback we've received.
17. Is there anything else you want to add?
We're constantly evolving and are always open to customer feedback. We're always about trying new things. Something we're going to add to our Facebook page is the question "What are you Craving?". You can post what kind of food you're craving and whoever gets the most "Likes" in a month, we'll run their suggestion as a special the following month. So customers will be interactive with the decisions on menu items.
We're also a local restaurant so we focus on what's local. We emphasize local beers for example. And I use the smallest purveyor in Jacksonville for our food. They're only in Jacksonville and that's who supplies us with our dry goods. We use a local company that creates the olive juice for our dirty martinis. There's a new company that just came on board who will be creating all our glassware from recycled wine bottles. We use the local guys for our fish and produce. We always try to source everything locally before going outside the Jacksonville market. I believe it's important to be a local business that uses local vendors.
We also do a lot of local charity events and fundraisers. Something we're trying out is that every quarter we'll do a big event at the restaurant to raise money for a charity. We'll have different themes. Our kickoff will be Dec. 4th and it will be called "50 Shades of Crave." The theme comes from the book. We'll have a red carpet and big Hollywood lights out front. People will buy tickets and come to the restaurant and enjoy hors d'oeuvres, cocktails and fun. All my employees will dress in theme. I can see us doing something like that every quarter for charity. We'll raise money for children's charities and military charities, veteran's charities -- and community fundraisers.