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A Top Chef's $15 Million Gamble

Brian Malarkey's restaurant ventures are backed by massive investment. But can his social-dining experiment thrive?

Chef Brian Malarkey

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Brian Malarkey, who finished in the top 4 of Top Chef: Miami is on a roll: Since July 2010 he's opened three restaurants in San Diego: Searsucker, Burlap, and Gingham—the chef loves fabric-themed names—and he's not planning on stopping anytime soon: His goal is to open 15 more eateries nationwide over the next five years, with an initial $15 million investment.

The food at each space will be different, but Malarkey and business partner James Brennan hope to replicate their "social dining" concept at each one: Large, trendy restaurants that are equal parts scene and cuisine. "They're places where you can make a whole night out of it," says Malarkey. "Come for dinner and drinks, listen to music, and then hang out in the lounge area with your friends. Like a nightclub, but not too loud, and with great food.”

It seems to be working so far. Searsucker, a 7,000 square foot space in San Diego's Gaslamp district that serves classic American food is projected to his $11 million in sales for 2011, while Burlap (which serves what Malarkey calls "Asian Cowboy" cuisine) did $795,000 in sales in its opening month—almost double what Searsucker made in its first month, according to Nations Restaurant News. Gingham, a BBQ-themed restaurant in La Mesa, opened January 9 and seafood-centric Herringbone is slated for spring 2012 in La Jolla.

Malarkey believes it's the perfect time for frenetic expansion. "Leases are way down right now, building costs are down right now, and great staff is available because everyone's looking to upgrade their jobs," he says. "And I'm not that chef who says 'I need this oven, I need that grill.' I'll buy used for six months. And if we earn money, then we'll buy new."

He definitely wants more than a San Diego empire however, so he's taking his show on the road. "Brian Malarkey is huge in southern California but outside he's just some guy who didn't even win Top Chef," he says, proudly adopting the third-person.

He's planning three-month stints in each new city—Scottsdale, Portland, Atlanta, Houston, and Boston are on his wish list—during which he and his team can make sure each new restaurant gets up-and-running correctly.

"We're renting a house at every new location and the whole team will live there, honing and training the staff that will work at the restaurant," says Malarkey, who is entertaining the idea of a reality show based on the stints. "If you build a foundation and inspire the staff, they'll really understand what the personality of the restaurant should be." 

A big undertaking for sure, but Malarkey wouldn't have it any other way. "When I was on Top Chef, I just wanted my own 100-seat restaurant in the Gaslamp where I would be cooking every dish and touching every plate myself," he admits. "But James [Brennan, business partner] is more of the visionary—he's got the property management people, he's raising the $15 million, he's going to spin this into a nationwide concept. And I have the drive. The goal is to take it public, get big investments, roll out more, and get rich at the end of it. It'll be fun!"

IMAGE: Courtesy Company
Last updated: Jan 24, 2012

CLARISSA CRUZ is the Fashion Features Editor of O, The Oprah Magazine. She is the former Style Editor of People magazine and has written for Entertainment Weekly, InStyle, Food & Wine, and Budget Travel.
@clarissanyc1




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