Like many restaurateurs, Jed Sanford got into the hospitality business on a whim. The Southern California native made his first foray into restaurant management with a family member almost a decade ago and then branched out on his own several years later. He never planned to open multiple units, and he certainly never expected to be at the helm of a budding on-premise empire. Yet, a few years after his first solo project, Sanford is doing just that. His company, Blackhouse Hospitality Management, operates five concepts and six venues in greater Los Angeles, and more growth is coming this year. With revenues topping $15 million, Sanford aims to continue testing the limits of conventional restaurant expectations.
“We’re aggressive from a design and food standpoint,” Sanford says. “We serve the type of customers who want to experiment a little bit and who care about what goes into their food and drinks.”
Sanford launched Blackhouse in 2012 with the debut of Abigaile in Hermosa Beach, California, partnering with chef Tin Vuong to create an eclectic menu. Vuong now oversees culinary direction for all Blackhouse venues, serving as COO and corporate chef. His menus have global inspiration and highlight local ingredients. The company’s experimental ethos allows Vuong to be extremely creative, and this innovative approach also translates to the drinks menu, as the beverage component makes up more than half of Blackhouse’s total revenues. Vuong has taken some sommelier coursework, and the company’s director of operations, Scott Young, is a sommelier who’s pursuing Master of Wine certification.
“The drinks component is super important,” Sanford says. “People expect a great atmosphere, great food and drinks, and great service. We like to push boundaries, but we never lose sight of the customer being happy and comfortable.
Going Global, Staying Local
Housed in an old abandoned church, Abigaile restaurant takes an experimental approach to its cuisine and has a broad menu. Due to its large size, the space serves as Blackhouse’s home base and as a test kitchen for new food and drinks. “Part of my inspiration was to do something with no rules,” Sanford explains. “Abigaile was ahead of its time for food preparation techniques and shared plate service in Hermosa Beach.”
The menu evokes a global brasserie, with a wide variety of cultures represented. Vuong offers everything from escargot poppers and sashimi to fried chicken and Asian noodles (shared plates are $5 to $22; entrées are $13 to $30). Signature dishes include the P.I.G. “pop tarts,” made with smoked pork confit, bacon and Gruyère wrapped in a pastry crust, and the venue’s take on poutine, featuring braised lamb belly, fried egg and caramelized onions over French fries.
Abigaile houses an on-site brewery and pours a handful of its own beers on draft. Winter selections include a lager, an IPA, a spiced brown ale, a black IPA and a Belgian Strong ale, though the list rotates frequently ($6 to $10 a draft pour). The restaurant also offers several craft brews, emphasizing those made in California, and has an eclectic wine list ($8 to $15 a glass; $31 to $500 a 750-ml. bottle) that’s curated by Young. Along with sections for “Crisp & Lively Whites” and “Stain Your Teeth Reds,” the menu features such sommelier recommended wines as the 2011 Robert Mondavi I-Block Fumé Blanc and the 2013 Arnot-Roberts Syrah.
“Abigaile serves global cuisine with no borders, and we take the same approach with the wine list,” Young says. “It’s fun and accessible. We put a lot of time and effort into our drinks program and we try to match the creativity of the drinks to the space and the food. The bar program is huge here. The restaurant has a drinking atmosphere.”
The cocktail component is growing at Abigaile. The restaurant highlights house-made infusions and fresh-squeezed juices in drinks like the Simons 18, blending cucumber-infused Russian Standard vodka, Fever-Tree ginger beer, honey-ginger syrup and lime, and the 1301, an updated Manhattan made with the company’s hand-selected single barrel Knob Creek Bourbon, Bigallet China-China Amer liqueur, Taylor 10-year-old Tawny Port, and Angostura Orange and Aromatic bitters (cocktails are $11 to $14).
The beverage segment makes up more than half of Blackhouse’s total revenues, and each of the company’s five concepts has its own drinks focus. “In the South Bay, we have a big drinking community,” Young says. “It’s a different environment than Downtown Los Angeles and Culver City. It’s a beach feel, and people are more laid back. A few restaurants are doing a great job with drinks, but we’re the bar leaders in this area because of our cutting-edge programs.”
Creative cocktails anchor the beverage menu at Dia de Campo, a modern Mexican surf lodge in Hermosa Beach. Tequila is prominently featured on the spirits menu and in mixed drinks. Along with Margaritas, Dia de Campo boasts specialties like La Leona, blending Jose Cuervo Tradicional Silver Tequila, Xicaru Silver mezcal, Mathilde Peach liqueur and lemon juice (cocktails are $11 to $13). The venue lists myriad Tequilas and mezcals ($8 to $32 a 2-ounce pour), as well as Tequila flights ($19 to $44 for three ¾-ounce pours). These drinks offerings complement food items like the Huarache—a blend of fried beans, crispy shrimp, mole, avocado salsa and lime crema—as well as shrimp and chorizo enchiladas and red braised lamb tacos (shared and large plates are $10 to $39).
At Wildcraft, a modern Italian tavern in Culver City, wine is a highlight. The restaurant serves predominantly California labels that have Italian influences, offering 21 glass pours ($8 to $14) and 22 bottles ($42 to $276 a 750-ml. bottle). Wildcraft pours more than 15 craft beers on draft ($8 to $9) and features signature cocktails like the Cruella, a mix of Damrak gin, Paddy Devil’s Apple whiskey, Angostura bitters, lemon juice and rosemary simple syrup (cocktails are $11 to $13). The food menu at Wildcraft showcases Vuong’s take on Northern Italian fare, ranging from wood-fired sourdough pizzas and grilled octopus to Chianti risotto with duck (entrées are $12 to $21).
In addition to highlighting Bourbon, Steak & Whisky in Hermosa Beach is also a wine haven. The steak house concept features modern, Asian-inspired takes on Southern California cuisine. The menu includes a variety of upscale dry-aged cuts, from rib eye and porterhouse to Japanese Wagyu and Kansas City strip ($36 to $130). The restaurant lists more than 200 wines, with an emphasis on labels from Napa Valley, Bordeaux and Italy ($11 to $30 a glass; $40 to $760 a 750-ml. bottle). The whisk(e)y selection emphasizes American offerings ($9 to $150 a 1½-ounce pour), and cocktails include the Bill the Butcher, blending Earl Grey tea–infused Maker’s Mark Bourbon, Gancia Americano aperitif and John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum liqueur, and the Spa Day, comprising Grey Goose La Poire vodka, Yellow Chartreuse, Giffard Pink Grapefruit liqueur and lemon juice (specialty drinks are $12 to $34).
Drinks play a significant role at all of Blackhouse’s venues. “Dia de Campo has a huge bar, and it’s a focus when you walk into the space,” Young says. “The beverage program is based on Tequila and wines from Mexico and South America. At Wildcraft, we do California and Italian wines, and the restaurant recently added a full liquor license. It has an upscale feel because the wines are displayed in the restaurant. And Steak & Whisky is the crown jewel of our wine programs. It’s super high-end and does a lot of volume. The bar is the highlight of the room.” He adds that every venue’s bar manager has the freedom to change the drinks menu, and they’re encouraged to have fun with the offerings.
Going forward, Blackhouse plans to expand its Little Sister concept. The company already operates two units of the Europe-meets-Southeast Asia restaurant—one in Manhattan Beach and one in Downtown Los Angeles—and Sanford says more units will likely be added in Southern California. The Manhattan Beach outpost reflects its seaside locale with a relaxed atmosphere, while the Downtown space is urban and polished. Sanford says the concept will likely continue to be tweaked in that manner for new locations.
“The design is part of the story,” Sanford explains. “We try to think about what we’re doing and where we’re doing it, and we integrate that into the aesthetic. The Downtown urban location was something we really wanted.”
Little Sister serves fish, meat and poultry prepared with an Asian slant, as well as noodles and rice. Standouts include the Saigon lemongrass beef over vermicelli with chili-lime dressing, a Vietnamese crepe filled with pork belly and prawns, and a mixed seafood hot pot (dishes are $12 to $38). The eatery offers a variety of craft beers ($7 to $9 a draft pour or bottle), wines ($10 to $13 a glass; $38 to $198 a 750-ml. bottle) and sake ($26 to $45 for 10 ounces). Cocktails ($11) include the Expat, made with Byrrh aperitif, Modern Times Fortunate Islands IPA and pineapple.
“The drinks list at Little Sister is eclectic and constantly changing,” Young says, noting that wines like the 2014 Habit Sauvignon Blanc from Santa Barbara County and 2012 Vigneti Massa Derthona Timorasso from Italy’s Piedmont region do well. “The bar is integrated into the chef counter. It’s a sushi bar that serves drinks out of the same area, so it’s a very interactive space.”
Little Sister will continue to be a focus for Blackhouse, but new concepts are also in the works. The company has announced two openings for the first half of this year: An elevated but friendly new American concept in Redondo Beach, scheduled to launch in March, and a large oceanfront venue in Pacific City that will serve coastal cuisine, slated for June.
“The restaurant in Redondo Beach is personal for me because that’s where I grew up,” Sanford explains. “Redondo Beach is the last South Bay beach market where we don’t have a restaurant, and there’s a need for a more elevated food experience in that area. We’re in talks with a lot of different groups about future projects. We expect to open three venues next year and more going forward. My original intent was to do something fun in my own way and it’s just kept growing. For the first time in 2014 we started to think strategically about a five-year plan.”
Sanford adds that he will focus on Southern California for the foreseeable future. “We have three growth strategies,” he says. “Our first was the South Bay area, and we’re close to being done there. We also have our Little Sister expansion strategy and then a new market strategy. We’ve cast our net from South Orange County to Studio City. There’s still a ton of room in Los Angeles.”