Contemporary Creativity: Garces Group

After nearly a decade in the restaurant industry, chef Jose Garces continues to be a driving force for food and drinks ingenuity.

Chef Jose Garces helms a Spanish and Latin American food empire.
Chef Jose Garces helms a Spanish and Latin American food empire. (Photo by Jason Varney)

Chef Jose Garces is a true American success story. A Chicago native and the son of Ecuadorian parents, Garces began his journey to on-premise stardom modestly by opening the Andalusian tapas restaurant Amada in Philadelphia in 2005. From the outset, his goal was never to run an empire or operate venues across the country. He simply wanted to share his love of Spanish and Latin food. But a decade later, Garces has far surpassed his original plans. The Philadelphia-based “Iron Chef America” star now operates 14 restaurants in five states under the Garces Group banner and has plans to open additional concepts next year.

Garces’ restaurants are destinations not only for their creative cuisine and cocktails, but also for their attention to detail, passionate employees, and top-notch service and hospitality. The company aims to give guests an emotional connection to its venues. “Everything we do is about the guest experience,” says Scott Steenrod, Garces Group’s vice president of restaurant operations. “We’re a company that has a lot of passion for what we do. Jose is our chef and chief creative officer and that breeds itself into the experiences we create. Our undying passion and focus on the guest allow us to stand out, and we have a huge commitment to high-quality ingredients, which is a driving force behind our food and drinks.”

Guests respond positively to the company’s efforts. Garces Group’s annual revenues top $50 million and drinks sales comprise between 30 percent and 40 percent of that total—more than $15 million a year. Cocktails and Spanish and Latin American wines lead beverage sales. “Our restaurants’ drinks programs are incredibly diverse, dynamic and creative,” Steenrod says. “We emphasize flavor and authenticity and we have a lot of fun. We put as much effort into the creativity and execution of our beverage program as we do into our food.”

Garces' flagship restaurant, Amada, has served traditional tapas alongside more modern options for nearly 10 years.
Garces' flagship restaurant, Amada, has served traditional tapas alongside more modern options for nearly 10 years. (Photo by Noah Sheldon)

Spanish Flair

Garces Group’s flagship restaurant, Amada, is nearly a decade old and still thriving. Steenrod says the venue continues to be as relevant today as when it debuted. Located in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood, Amada serves Spanish tapas with Mediterranean flavors, offering myriad small plates. The restaurant has traditional selections like ham croquettes, Spanish octopus and garlic shrimp, as well as more modern tapas, including wagyu beef brochettes, Parmesan-coated artichokes, and chicken breast that’s served with fried egg and truffles ($6 to $22). These dishes join larger specialties designed for the table, such as lobster paella and a roasted suckling pig ($42 to $450).

The drinks component has been crucial to Amada since the beginning. “Chef Jose’s passion for culinary excellence extends to the beverage programs throughout our restaurants,” says beverage manager Brett Meier-Tomkins. “Alcohol represents a significant portion of our product offerings. We take great pride in having well-crafted drinks and exceptional beer and wine. We employ a passionate beverage management team to ensure we’re staying abreast of trends and providing the best products available.”

Sangria is a popular choice at Amada, and the restaurant has three varieties that put a modern spin on the centuries-old drink—Blanco, Tinto and Temporada ($8 to $9 a glass; $32 to $36 a pitcher). Each sangria is made with white, red or rosé wine, Royal Combier Orange liqueur, Christian Brothers brandy, seasonal fruits and fresh herbs. The restaurant also offers several Sherries ($10 to $19 a glass) and specialty drinks ($12.50), including the Broken Hugs, made with El Jimador Reposado Tequila, grapefruit juice and agave syrup, and the I’m So Excited, a blend of Bacardi Superior rum, cantaloupe juice and lime juice.

Wine is also significant at Amada, as well as at Garces Group restaurants Tinto, Volvér and Garces Trading Co. Amada’s list boasts more than 40 Spanish labels, from Valdemar Albariño to Dominio de Pingus Tinto Fino ($9 to $16 a glass; $43 to $1,200 a 750-ml. bottle). “Our ability to source and place exceptional wines for service by the glass and bottle is a big part of our revenue generation,” Meier-Tomkins says, and he adds that craft beer is also on the rise. “The beer selections at our restaurants reflects an understanding of our educated consumer base,” he notes. “We construct our beer lists with great care for conceptually correct imported beers and we put a heavy emphasis on American craft beers.” Amada’s beer menu boasts Spanish labels like Cervesa del Montseny and Estrella Damm, alongside local boutique brands from such brewers as Sly Fox Brewing Co. and Yards Brewing Co. (beers are $7 to $8 on draft; $7 to $33 a bottle).

While he operates several restaurants today, Garces’ original plan never included so many units. Steenrod says the chef had only intended to open a handful of Spanish and Latin concepts. Along with Amada, his initial strategy called for the Basque wine bar Tinto, the Mexico City-themed Distrito, and the Peruvian and Asian fusion concept Chifa. Tinto and Distrito are popular and have multiple locations, though Chifa closed last year.

“Guests have responded so beautifully to what we do that we continue to have exciting opportunities,” Steenrod says. “It’s been an experience beyond everyone’s wildest expectations. Every day is a new adventure depending on what restaurant we’re working with. We have incredible talent within this organization and we continue to challenge ourselves creatively and operationally. It’s one of our driving forces—a focus on creativity and innovation.”

Volvér opened earlier this year and offers both a formal tasting menu and lighter fare.
Volvér opened earlier this year and offers both a formal tasting menu and lighter fare. (Photo by Garces Group)

Growth Moves

Garces built his restaurant operations in Philadelphia and currently manages eight restaurants there—Amada, Distrito, Garces Trading Co., JG Domestic, Rosa Blanca, Tinto, Village Whiskey and Volvér—and Distrito Taco Truck. He has also expanded into surrounding markets and across the country. Garces Group manages units of Distrito in Moorestown, New Jersey, and Scottsdale, Arizona, as well as a Tinto location in Palm Springs, California. These venues join El Jefe in Palm Springs, Mercat in Chicago and Rural Society in Washington, D.C.

“Our restaurants fit together as a community—we share best practices and have camaraderie,” Steenrod says. “But we approach each restaurant entrepreneurially as a business all its own. Each one has a different personality to reflect the authenticity of the concept. We’ve gone from having all of our restaurants within 2 miles of each other in Philadelphia to operating venues that are 3,000 miles apart. Our moves have been strategic, and we go into a new market with the intent to do more restaurants in that market.”

Garces Group expanded into Washington, D.C., this summer with the debut of the Argentine steak house Rural Society, and Steenrod says Garces is now seeking more opportunities in the nation’s capital. The company is also looking to add units in Philadelphia and to enter New York City next year with an Amada location in Manhattan. “We don’t ever want to grow to a point that we can’t continue to do the things that have defined us since the first guest at Amada,” Steenrod explains. “We live by a culture of inspired hospitality and we strongly believe that every employee is an ambassador. We hire people who have hospitality in their hearts.”

Each restaurant has its own beverage manager, and Steenrod says many of these managers are former chefs, so they bring a level of knowledge that’s uncommon behind the bar. The company’s goal is to provide drinks that complement the venue’s food to create a full experience. At Distrito in Philadelphia, cocktails follow the Mexican theme, with Tequila and mezcal taking center stage. The restaurant’s El Jefe Margarita features the custom Jose Garces Herradura Double Barrel Reposado Tequila, Cointreau liqueur and fresh lime, and the Dark Patriot blends Monte Alban mezcal, Campari aperitif, Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth and orange juice (specialty drinks are $9 to $15). Distrito also offers a variety of Mexican beers and Latin American wines.

Meanwhile, Spanish wines are the highlight at Tinto in Philadelphia. The restaurant boasts 15 wines by the glass and roughly 70 in bottles ($10 to $15 a glass; $40 to $500 a 750-ml. bottle), including rare selections like the 2007 Dominio Do Bibei Lapena Godello, the 2000 Bodegas Vega Sicilia Único Cosecha and the 2006 Mas Doix Costers de Vinyes Velles Garnatxa. Tinto also lists several Sherries and Spanish ciders and beers.

“Wine plays a diverse role depending on the restaurant concept,” Steenrod says. “At Tinto, which is named after Spanish red wine, it’s central to what we do. We have a broad and diverse program that adds authenticity to the experience. And at Volvér, which is the ultimate in high-end fine dining, we have a 1,000-plus bottle wine library.” The concept opened earlier this year in Philadelphia with a globally inspired, molecular gastronomy-influenced tasting menu, available in either eight or 16 courses ($75 to $250 a person). Volvér also offers a more relaxed bar area with traditional seating and light fare and drinks.

Distrito features a Mexico city theme, with Tequila and mezcal taking center stage in cocktails, alongside Mexican beers and Latin American wines.
Distrito features a Mexico city theme, with Tequila and mezcal taking center stage in cocktails, alongside Mexican beers and Latin American wines. (Photo by Steve Legato)

New Territories

Spanish and Latin American fare may be his passion, but Garces explores other cuisines in his restaurants as well. Village Whiskey highlights hamburgers, offering several varieties and boasting a special burger of the month. The venue also features a raw bar and main courses like the BBQ Pork Sammy and the Village Whiskey Lobster Mac (entrées are $10 to $26).

The encyclopedic beverage menu shines at Village Whiskey, especially for its namesake spirit. The venue stocks more than 100 whiskies, including myriad Bourbons, ryes and Scotches. Cocktails ($9 to $14) are categorized under either “Prohibition” or “Repeal” and include classics like the Commodore, Negroni and Old Fashioned, alongside such contemporary drinks as El Pueblito, made with Tanteo Jalapeño Tequila, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, grapefruit and cilantro tincture. Flights of American, Irish and Scotch whiskies are also available ($28 to $34 for three 1-ounce pours).

“Mixology is being elevated to a new and highly creative level,” Steenrod says. “People crave quality ingredients and flavor.” He adds that Garces operates the 40-acre Luna Farm in Ottsville, Pennsylvania, which provides the company’s East Coast restaurants with high-quality organic produce for use in food and drinks.

Going forward, Steenrod says Garces Group will continue to focus on creating an experience for its guests so that they leave the restaurants feeling a strong emotional connection to the food, environment and hospitality. And he notes that the beverage component will remain critical. “People have a lot of confidence in our restaurants and they appreciate the quality and diversity of what we do,” Steenrod explains. “We feel that food and beverage go together for a reason, and when you can get their complementary relationship correct, it leads to an incredible experience. Beverage will play an equally important role to food in what we do. Our goal is perfect harmony.”