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3 Operators Set To Grow in 2024

From strengthening foundations to adding restaurant concepts, three operators chat about what’s next in 2024.

RATIONALOperators
From left: Philip Maloney, senior director of culinary development and ops, Erickson Senior Living; Korina Sanchez, vice president and general counsel, Third Coast Hospitality Group; and Margarita Challenger, chef/owner, Guanajuato Mexican Restaurant & Tequila Bar and Tacos Guanajuato.

For several foodservice operators, 2023 was different. It wasn’t a hardcore pandemic year, but it wasn’t business as usual either.

Philip Maloney, senior director of culinary development and ops at Erickson Senior Living, says it was a reset year for the team. And for Chicago-area restaurateurs Korina Sanchez and Margarita Challenger, 2023 was about figuring out changing traffic patterns. Sanchez, serves as vice president and general counsel for Third Coast Hospitality Group, and Challenger is chef/owner of Guanajuato Mexican Restaurant & Tequila Bar and Tacos Guanajuato.

“COVID happened several years ago but it changed so much,” Sanchez says. “It changed customer eating and drinking patterns, and the hardest part of going through this year was trying to adapt to these changes and understand which ones are short-term and which are long-term.”

Heading into 2024, all three operators shared ideas on how they plan to move forward, including equipment investments, and what they’re excited about coming up.

 

Solidifying a Foundation
Erickson operates 21 communities across 11 states. Maloney oversees the development and growth of the culinary program, which includes 136 restaurant concepts, plus a modern dining experience for assisted living residents. In 2023, he and other senior culinary leaders focused on strengthening the program’s foundation.

“We visited every dining room and kitchen at all our properties. We spent time with the teams, and our guests and residents,” Maloney says. They evaluated operations, offered support and re-established guidelines. Efforts have paid off in overall guest satisfaction.

“Based on daily resident feedback, we anticipate our overall satisfaction scores to significantly increase,” Maloney says. “The intentionality of what we’re doing has had a tremendous impact.”

Erickson has plans to expand. It will open a location in Fairfax, Va., in 2024, and is set to construct new communities in Maryland and Florida. Every new build will feature RATIONAL iCombi Pro, Maloney says. The team started incorporating the combi ovens into their equipment lineup several years ago. Maloney appreciates the menu item consistency the equipment provides.

 

The Next Generation
Third Coast Hospitality Group, which operates six restaurant and bar concepts in Chicago and one in Huntington Beach, Calif., is transitioning to new leadership. Sanchez and her sister, Samantha Sanchez, are stepping up to lead the group, which their dad, Sam Sanchez, started.

“We’re really serious about expanding,” Sanchez says. The group aims to open a handful of concepts, in different Chicago neighborhoods, with the first slated for 2024. Each concept will need new kitchens.

“The biggest challenge is balancing opening new restaurants while not forgetting about the ones we already have. The solution is to continue investing in our staff so they can keep those going,” Sanchez says. “Putting up new concepts and growing our brand as a whole will hopefully have a good impact on all of our restaurants.”

One step the group has taken to invest in its employees is the hiring of a full-time staff trainer in 2022. The trainer ensures employees have the tools they need to provide the best customer service possible, which is what will keep the customers coming back, Sanchez says.

 

Staying on Trend
For more than a decade, Challenger and her partner, Jovanny Diaz, have brought a taste of Mexico to the north suburbs of Chicago through Guanajuato Mexican Restaurant. In 2019, the two chefs debuted sister concept Tacos Guanajuato. Now, looking to 2024, Challenger says a top priority is keeping the restaurants relevant.

“People love the new thing,” says Challenger, pointing to social media’s influence. One idea she has for 2024 is to invest in an ice machine that makes different styles of ice. Her operation currently serves certain drinks with oversized cubes but she’s hoping to offer spheres or even cubes with a letter or design stamped on them.

Looking forward, Challenger says she hopes for a better year and to figure out how to keep customers coming back. “Having good food and drinks is not enough; you must have a beautiful restaurant,” she says. “I’m excited about figuring out what’s the new thing I can put up, do or serve to keep customers occupied for a little bit.”

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