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Why Big-Name Chefs Are Opening Restaurants Inside Urban Outfitters

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"Experience retail" swaps dinner-and-a-show for dinner-and-some-shopping.

Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty

We live in a world where making dinner plans with a friend could mean meeting them at the local Urban Outfitters. Urban Outfitters has long been a mecca for millennials with disposable income to spend on pricey beanies, records, and floral rompers that should have probably stayed in the ‘90s. The brand famously specializes in commodifying hipster style and packaging it for the mainstream.

But soon, Urban Outfitters may also be the best way to access restaurants from some of best chefs in the country. Acclaimed chefs like Marc Vetri, Michael Symon, Ilan Hall, and — if the rumors are true — John Besh and Aaron Sanchez are all now working with the clothing company. Ilan Hall, the winner of Top Chef season two, opened a second outpost of his concept the Gorbals inside an Urban Outfitters in spring 2014. Urban's Space 24 Twenty, opening in Austin, will be home to two (possibly three) restaurants run by Vetri, Symon, and possibly Besh and Sanchez. The restaurants are all part of Urban's new "lifestyle concept" shops, which go beyond just shopping and try to embody the idea of "experience retail."

By offering restaurants, the stores give customers an experience they can’t purchase with a click of their mouse.

These new concepts, an amalgam of traditional items and convenience, are supposed to help traditional retailers compete with the rise of online shopping. By offering services like hair salons, bike repair shops, and restaurants, the stores are a one-stop-shop, giving customers an experience they can't purchase with a click of their mouse, explains Urban Outfitters's marketing manager Tracy McGinnis. The first Urban Outfitters store to focus on "experience retail" was Los Angeles' Space 15 Twenty, which opened in 2008. In addition to the clothing racks, the store has a nail art studio, a skateboard shop, and a dedicated performance stage. But most importantly, it marked Urban's first foray into the restaurant world, with the opening of an Umami Burger outpost inside the store. Nearly seven years later, Umami is still open. As retail strategist Candace Corlett once told Racked, "There's a lot of evidence that food and shopping go together like peanut butter and jelly."

Given that food pairs well with retail, and that Urban is focused on opening more "lifestyle centers," it makes sense Urban would continue to open restaurants. But instead of hiring chefs to open restaurants in-house — Urban can more than afford to do this — they are insistent upon bringing in well-known chefs. So why are chefs like Symon and Vetri, both of whom have large restaurant empires, signing on? Urban Outfitters isn't exactly the coolest store around, and it has a history of somewhat controversial behavior. Still, there is a safety in working with a company that has over 200 stores, and perhaps at the end of the day, the chefs are the ones walking away with the better end of the deal.

The exterior of the Gorbals, Brooklyn. Photo: Solares/Eater

Building an Urban "Experience"

Urban Outfitters emphasizes that its lifestyle stores are crafted with the local population in mind. Space 24 Twenty, the upcoming Austin store, is located across from a college campus, so McGinnis says the company will open more casual — but cheffy — restaurants inside. In Brooklyn, it made sense to install a "more elevated" restaurant with small plates, so nestled on the third floor of Urban Outfitters's Brooklyn lifestyle outpost Space Ninety 8 is a staircase that opens up into Hall's sprawling restaurant, the Gorbals. It's the East Coast sister to Hall's original Los Angeles restaurant of the same name (though he's since sold the latter). It's a large space — technically three — and it features a rooftop bar that frequently draws a crowd.

Hall, a Long Island native, left New York for Los Angeles' sunny shores, but returned when the opportunity arose with Urban Outfitters. Originally, the brand reached out about a consulting gig for a Brooklyn Urban cafe, but the project soon turned into Hall's own concept. "I just have always dreamt of coming back to New York," he says. "That's the dream, you know?" While it's part of a store, the Gorbals very much feels like a Brooklyn restaurant, with a long, stool-lined bar, stained glass windows, and tablecloth-free tables.

"You can kind of do whatever the fuck you want." — Hall, on Urban Outfitters’ hands-off approach

Marc Vetri, who is opening the second location of his Philadelphia-based Pizzeria Vetri concept at Space 24 Twenty, will apply Urban's "local" focus to his upcoming Austin menu. The chef plans to use produce from farmer's markets, serve local beers, and cook up an Austin-themed pie: "We haven't figured it out yet, but I imagine it will have some sort of smoked meat on it," he says. Vetri also will curate the rotating line-up of Austin-based food trucks in Space 24's courtyard.

Adding these local touches — something all the chefs appear happy to do — seems to be Urban's only requirement. The clothing company is pretty hands-off, and the chefs run the day-to-day at the restaurants. McGinnis notes that the stores and restaurants operate separately, and the latter "are their own brands," she says. "They have their own identities, and we are, simply, Urban Outfitters. We just all share the same space." Hall notes that he has complete creative freedom over the Gorbals: "You can kind of do whatever the fuck you want." Hall is not required to run menu changes by Urban — even when doing a total overhaul, like the one he did right at the beginning of fall. "We gave them our initial menu before we opened, but there's no, ‘You can't braise that, you can't add peas.'"

However, Urban is willing to pitch in when it comes to the actual look and feel of the restaurant. Hall worked "very closely" with Urban on the aesthetic of the Gorbals: "They gave suggestions, I gave suggestions, but I had final say in it, which was great." And Urban has offered up its own cash to ensure that the restaurant still fits the store's aesthetic. "We were going to keep [the rooftop] much more simple because honestly [we] couldn't afford to do it," Hall says. "They helped us the last few days, really chipped in [monetarily] and helped with the design."

Top: A rendering of the upcoming Space 24 Twenty in Austin, featuring food trucks and an outpost of Pizzeria Vetri; courtesy UO. Bottom: Dishes served at the Gorbals in Brooklyn; photos: Krista/Flickr

Why Urban?

When a chef is looking to expand, it's usually safer to work with companies they already know and trust. For Vetri, he had already started the process of expanding his Philadelphia-based pizza concept Pizzeria Vetri when Urban Outfitters approached him about opening a restaurant — expanding to Austin hadn't exactly been Vetri's plan. "We had been looking around in Washington and New York City," Vetri says. "I imagined we would have opened our first restaurant outside of the Philadelphia area a little bit closer [to Philadelphia], but leases and finding spaces just didn't work out that way."

The space itself is perhaps the biggest advantage Urban Outfitters has to offer chefs. Like Vetri, teaming up with the store was the easiest way for Hall to expand the Gorbals. Even though Hall caught a bit of flack for opening within a retail store, he calls opening in Urban Outfitters a "great business decision." "I think whenever you do something that is in a space that's uncommon, people don't know what it is going to be like... so people had mixed [reactions] about it," Hall reveals. "[But] it really afforded me the opportunity to open a restaurant in New York that I couldn't really afford to open." For both chefs, they didn't have to spend any time looking for a space and dealing with lease issues — that burden was taken on by Urban.

While the chefs and Urban are relatively mum about the financial relationship, Hall reveals that Urban paid for "basic things... and kicked in a lot for the build out," but that he did have to put some of his own money into the space. McGinnis notes that while she is not sure of the terms of the deal on the Austin space, she believes the chefs have signed leases with the clothing store. Still, Urban appears to be a gentle landlord, willing to even make financial contributions.

A partnership with Urban Outfitters also lets chefs test new concepts altogether.

In addition for making it easier for chefs to test their concepts in new markets, a partnership with Urban Outfitters also lets chefs test new concepts altogether. While Vetri plans on opening an outpost of Pizzeria Vetri, and a source close to the project says that Besh and Sanchez are planning to open another location of their Johnny Sanchez concept, Michael Symon is using the the partnership to launch a new arm to his restaurant empire. While it will be burger-centric, Symon says that Symon's Burger Joint is "quick service," unlike his Midwest-based burger chainlet B Spot. At Symon's Burger Joint, he will serve a "small but creative" menu that features four burgers — including one that with hot links, as an homage to Austin — as well as fries, shakes, and likely, beer.

Urban being a kind landlord is a massive perk, but the real advantage of combining food and retail (for both the chefs and store) is that it likely brings in new clientele. Symon sees no disadvantages in fusing the two: "One feeds the other, so to speak." Vetri seems to agree. "I think it will be neat... it will be awesome synergy," he says. "People will eat, then they will go to the [store] or vice versa. I think it will drive the traffic for both stores." Vetri adds that pizza appeals to "every age range," so Pizzeria Vetri might bring a new set of customers to Urban.

McGinnis notes that Urban doesn't mind if customers come just for the restaurants and not for the store. "It's all about that kind of lifestyle experience," she says. "So, if someone comes in and just wants to get a burger, or just wants to get a meal, that's great too, because we're able to offer that experience to them." Hall, whose restaurant has been open for more than a year now, says that he believes that his customer base is a combination of both repeat diners and those who just wander in after a shopping trip. It probably doesn't hurt that millennials — Urban's largest client base — are eager to dine out: A recent study showed that millennials spend more money on dining out than non-millennials.

Urban Outfitters and its parent company URBN do not plan to stop opening restaurants anytime soon. In addition to working with chefs, URBN has its own restaurant concepts run in-house. These eateries can be found at the company's flagship "lifestyle center" in New York City's Herald Square, which features a coffee shop and a café. The company also runs two farm-to-table restaurants at locations of Terrain, an Anthropologie offshoot. McGinnis notes there are also plans to open "lifestyle concepts" around the company's Anthropologie brand, which will also likely feature a food element. Plus, URBN already has a massive new project in the works in the Philadelphia suburb of Devon that will feature two restaurants and a specialty foods market in addition to a hotel, a spa, a boutique fitness studio, and a clothing store.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vetri has signed on to collaborate with Urban once again, this time on his home turf: The chef confirms the Devon Yard project will be home to another Pizzeria Vetri location, as well as a second outpost of his Philly restaurant Amis. The chefs' enthusiasm is palpable: When asked if he, too, would work on another project with Urban, Ilan Hall swiftly responded with a "Yes." "If the deal was great, I would totally do it."

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