Restaurant News & Reviews

Does the world yearn for chicken and biscuits? Yardbird’s owner bets on it

John Kunkel at the third South Florida location of its newest concept, Spring Chicken, Spring Chicken is a fast-casual restaurant at 1439 Alton Road, the same Miami Beach location as the original location of Lime Fresh, which Kunkel also founded. The new location opens Friday.
John Kunkel at the third South Florida location of its newest concept, Spring Chicken, Spring Chicken is a fast-casual restaurant at 1439 Alton Road, the same Miami Beach location as the original location of Lime Fresh, which Kunkel also founded. The new location opens Friday.

Will John Kunkel’s granny’s fried chicken be a hit in Singapore and Dubai? That’s the bet the founder of 50 Eggs, the Miami-based restaurant group, is making as it wings overseas with its signature Yardbird Southern Table & Bar abroad, expands its new fast-casual concept Spring Chicken and hatches a Latin-food concept for Las Vegas.

Just as the brand’s Miami Beach and Las Vegas restaurants have been winners with tourists and locals alike, Kunkel hopes the eclectic southern-style Yardbird menu — featuring Lewellyn’s fried chicken, inspired by his grandmother’s recipe — will make a smooth landing in both international cities when they open in 2017, along with a location in Beverly Hills. He said 50 Eggs is close to securing a London location for a 2018 Yardbird opening and also is scouting sites in Washington, D.C., and New York.

“While there are amazing steakhouses and sushi and you-name-it that have expanded as national and international concepts, we don’t have another national competitor for what we do,” Kunkel said, speaking about Yardbird. “There are a lot of great mom-and-pop restaurants scattered, but we are the only ones ready to scale and that have figured out scale.” Kunkel recently returned from Singapore, where he handed out samples at an epicurean festival. “We’re growing the right way, reinvesting in the concept and varying the design and menu everywhere we go,” he said. “It’s an exciting time for Yardbird.”

Spring Chicken is also on the springboard. The fast-casual concept featuring quick-service casual dining focused on innovative menu items and fresh ingredients opened early this year in Coral Gables, and two months ago, it opened in Fort Lauderdale. This week, Spring Chicken will open in the original Miami Beach location of Lime Fresh Mexican Grill, the chain that Kunkel started in 2004, expanded to 16 locations and then sold in 2012.

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Tuesday afternoon, dozens of employees were going through training for Friday’s opening. The space, at 1439 Alton Road, is smaller than the Coral Gables and Fort Lauderdale locations. The menu is more limited, too: It features chicken-tender meals, from $9.95 to family-size buckets, and a selection of sandwiches and salads starting at about $6. Also on Friday, LuLu’s Nitrogen Ice Cream is opening next door in the small three-building complex.

More than a year in the works, a Spring Chicken in Concourse D of Miami International Airport is slated to open in October. “You’ll be able to get your chicken and biscuits and a bourbon drink before your flight — that’s kind of fun,” Kunkel said. “It will help you sleep.” Over the next year, locations in Boca Raton, Pembroke Pines, Plantation and Aventura will likely open, he said, but no timetables have been set. National and international expansion is in the plan, and Kunkel said he is considering limited franchising.

In development is a new Latin concept, called Chica, in Las Vegas, with Miami executive chef Lorena Garcia, Kunkel said. The location will be announced in coming weeks and is planned to open next year. Kunkel described it as a “fun brand experience around Latin American flavors and cultures and cocktails” inspired by living in Miami.

Why so much expansion now? “With Yardbird, we see major influencer cities as a great way to build a long-term business strategy and help expose the brand, and we found the right sites and right deals,” Kunkel said. With Spring Chicken, that was a year in the making and 50 Eggs is largely using the expansion model developed for Lime, he added. “Fast-casual is the way people like to eat these days, at an affordable price point.”

That said, it’s a challenging time for the industry, said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst with NPD Group, which has been tracking the industry since 1976. Since March, traffic in the U.S. restaurant industry overall has stalled as business at full-service restaurants has dropped slightly and the once-hot fast-casual sector has slowed considerably. The fast-casual category in the second quarter of this year was up just 2 percent, compared to 7 percent growth a year ago, Riggs said, excluding results at Chipotle, which has been suffering financial fallout following an e. coli outbreak in 2015.

The fast-casual category is facing the same realities as its full-service brethren, she said. Cost increases have been passed onto consumers, and the price-value relationship may be getting out of whack, particularly with millennials who have been driving growth for fast-casual. “The only way to drive traffic in this market is by building brand loyalty and building frequency,” Riggs said. “We’re still going, but we are not going as often.”

50 Eggs has about 450 employees now. With Yardbird’s three new restaurants planned for next year, the company will add another 500 employees, Kunkel said. In Miami, Spring Chicken’s growth will add about 150 employees for the South Florida economy, he added. 50 Eggs new headquarters, in a converted MiMo hotel on Biscayne Boulevard, will soon house a test kitchen and mixology lab that would be be open to the community for events.

Don’t expect Khong River House to reopen any time soon.

But don’t expect Khong River House to reopen anytime too soon. The popular Miami Beach restaurant closed in 2015 and at the time Kunkel said it would reopen in Miami.

“It was one of my favorite restaurants and we still get calls in the office about it, but I’m not interested in doing anything full-service in Miami right now. I believe we are going to have a big shakeout period for restaurants — we have diluted the market in Miami,” Kunkel said. “The exception is fast casual: People are staying closer to home.”

While he wants to wait at least a year to decide on the future of Khong River House in Miami, Kunkel said there is a hunger for innovative full-service restaurants in Fort Lauderdale, and he thinks the Las Olas area is a good home for another Swine, 50 Eggs’ pork-inspired brand located in Coral Gables: “Fort Lauderdale loves their barbecue.”

Nancy Dahlberg: 305-376-3595, @ndahlberg