It all started in April 1994 when Michele’s Coffee Bar sat in Snider Plaza in University Park in Dallas, Texas. The namesake of owner Randy Dewitt’s wife served coffee made from beans they roasted themselves alongside farm-to-table eats for a year until Starbucks plopped their first Dallas location directly across the street. When the business began to struggle, Randy made a bold move bolstered by his passion for seafood and ditched Michele’s Coffee Bar to open Shell’s Oyster Bar in the same space.
Randy opened two more Shell’s locations before renaming and rebranding to create the now well-known Rockfish Seafood Grill restaurant chain. He expanded to five locations by 2001 before selling it to Brinker International. Nearly five years later when Brinker decided to focus on their larger brands, Randy bought the business back.
In 2005, I-35 was undergoing one of its countless expansions, keeping people away from the Lewisville Rockfish location. Randy noticed something interesting—the nearby Hooters was still thriving despite all the construction. After researching the Hooters menu and concept, he decided to create something similar in order to salvage the Rockfish real estate. That concept is now Twin Peaks, which has more than 50 locations across the state of Texas. Though he didn’t know it at the time, this move would kickstart Front Burner Restaurants and a series of wild successes.
Enter Jack Gibbons.
Jack had spent 25 years working for Pappadeaux, starting as a waiter at their first Dallas location while he was in college, and working his way up the ladder to manage all operations for the restaurant chain. Randy admired the Pappa family’s success in high-quality food and operations, so he asked Jack to join him and create Front Burner Restaurants. It took almost four years to convince him to make the move, but when Jack learned that Randy was creating new restaurant concepts, he was all in.
Jack had always wanted to have some ownership in a business, and Randy offered that incentive. The two really connected and trusted each other from the start and each excelled in different areas—Randy has a passion for real estate and branding while Jack has passion for operations and people.
“You know the feeling of finding a person that you really connect with?” Jack asks. “You have the same views and enjoy the same things, and you really trust each other. That’s me and Randy. It was a great match.”
Front Burner has completely changed the restaurant game in Plano. Among many others, the company has opened some of the most popular concepts in the area like a world-class food hall, a three-level restaurant and bar called Haywire, Mexican Sugar AKA the margarita king of Plano, and The Keeper, which serves seafood flown in fresh from the coast every day. Randy and Jack, who both live in Plano, say their inspiration for new concepts stems from a selfish motive: they want cool places to eat and hang out in their own city. They knew these restaurants would work simply because they wanted to be customers, and they knew their neighbors, family, friends and colleagues would want to be customers too.
“We believe in spoiling the guests because we eat in our own restaurants,” Jack says.
When I met with them at Haywire, the two were sitting at a high top table in the bar finishing up a business meeting with another gentleman. I waited on a nearby couch and Jack kindly turned around and asked a waitress to bring me whatever I wanted. During our interview, the pair were funny and charming. They play off of each other’s energy and they both have excitement gleaming in their eyes when they talk about their restaurants. Their smiles are infectious.
One of the first projects that Randy and Jack worked on together was Whiskey Cake. When they authored the restaurant’s Brand DNA (a document that clearly lays out the spirit and mission of the brand), they based it on the notion that Planoites shouldn’t have to travel to Uptown Dallas to get decent drinks and food in a cool gastropub atmosphere. In fact, the very first line of the Brand DNA document created for the restaurant reads: “A slice of Henderson in the suburbs.”
“The brand DNA is so important,” Randy says. “it’s like the constitution: It can be amended, but it takes an act of congress.”
Front Burner intentionally hired talented and experienced staff at Whiskey Cake that didn’t fit the straight-laced mold—waiters and bartenders with tattoos and piercings, funky hair colors and unique styles. They wanted a chill vibe and a hip atmosphere, completely different from standard suburban restaurants. They nailed it.
“We’re not for everybody,” Randy says. “We are for Planoites who moved to Plano because they had kids and needed better schools, but still want those cool places to hang out that aren’t an hour drive away.”
The Brand DNA of another Front Burner concept, Sixty Vines, is all about sustainability; the restaurant serves 60 different types of wine on tap, eliminating all the wasteful parts of serving wine: the bottles, corks, labels, metal, and even the cardboard boxes used to ship the bottles. Instead, Sixty Vines uses stainless steel kegs that last 20 years and can be refilled at will. An added bonus? The wine is fresher and served at exactly the right temperature because the taps are temperature controlled. Sixty Vines is about so much more than gourmet food and a huge wine selection; it represents Front Burner’s commitment to creating healthy environments.
Of the more than 100 restaurants in the Front Burner portfolio, the Legacy Food Hall has been the most daunting for the owners. Back in 2014, notable Plano developer Fehmi Karahan asked to have a meeting with Front Burner; he was closing a deal with JC Penny for the land on which Legacy West now sits, and he was mapping out the space. As Karahan spread his paper plans across a table at Mexican Sugar, he pointed to one block labeled the “Fun Place” and said it was reserved for Front Burner. He wanted them to do something completely different and over the top, to create an experience where people would feel comfortable and could let their hair down. They accepted the challenge.
Randy and Jack began brainstorming, dreaming up various concepts centered around food and entertainment, including bowling alleys that could turn into concert venues and five fast-casual restaurants with a shared beer garden out back. But nothing seemed right. When the duo was spending time in Amsterdam with some friends at Heineken, they came across a food hall called Foodhallen that had recently opened in an old train depot. Walking around Foodhallen, they considered what a food hall run by restaurateurs could be like. When they pitched the idea to Karahan, he was sold.
Over the next two years, Randy and Jack visited almost every food hall in the United States and even took their research to England and other parts of Europe. They knew they needed to create something different and best in class with their own Front Burner spin. They envisioned a food hall with cool employees and customers and a unique culture serving top-notch foods. They also wanted the space to serve as a community gathering ground with free concerts and entertainment equipped with an in-house brewery. Since Legacy Food Hall opened for business in December 2017, they have been so excited by the energy it has brought to Plano.
Legacy Food Hall has 23 food stalls, each selected for the quality of their product, the chef’s story, their ability to execute their vision, and more. Front Burner works closely with the chefs to help the businesses grow individually and to define the internal culture of the brand.
The food hall concept is a catalyst for future innovation as the individual food stalls provide the opportunity to test an idea with minimal capital. Front Burner is so excited about this they have created The Food Hall Company, headquartered in Plano, which aims to grow the food hall business throughout the country over the next few years. In fact, they will open a food hall on Nashville’s Broadway Street in 2020.
“We have some really exciting projects coming up and the cities that we are talking about are so cool,” Jack says. “It’s just fascinating that it all started in Plano.”
Captivating concepts and light bulb moments are Front Burner specialties; they carefully consider every aspect of each restaurant’s atmosphere, from music to free space to seating because they know their guests care about those things. The company also puts a big premium on its food, hiring gourmet chefs, building open kitchens and using local ingredients in all of their concepts; when you walk to the dining room on the second floor of Haywire, you actually pass through a corridor with the kitchen on one side and the bakery on the other.
Front Burner attributes part of their success to their daily investment in guest feedback; they monitor social media and online conversations constantly. The company relies on word of mouth instead of traditional advertising, so making sure guests are pleased is a top priority.
“Another reason we have succeeded is because we hire people smarter than ourselves,” Randy says. “That started when I brought Jack in. Successful entrepreneurs know that they don’t know everything. Any time that you can hire someone smarter than you, your organization gets smarter.”
Arguably their most important advantage is that the Front Burner roots are in Plano. They understand the customers here and receive immediate feedback from their families, friends and neighbors who eat at their restaurants.
“Who wants to get a call from your mom telling you a dish wasn’t right?” Randy says. “We took the buffalo chicken taco off the menu at Velvet Taco and I didn’t hear the end of it from my mom until we put it back on.”
Front Burner opens restaurants in the suburbs and then expands into big cities. For example, the original Sixty Vines sits off of Dallas North Tollway in Plano, and another location recently opened in the highly-coveted Crescent Court in Uptown Dallas. The food hall concept that began in Legacy West is now traveling north to Nashville and will likely expand to Dallas in the near future. While big cities are glamorous and tempting for any restaurateur, starting in the suburbs has allowed Front Burner concepts like Whiskey Cake to open with a bang and be the first of their kind on the scene.
While Plano will always be home base, Randy and Jack are almost giddy at the idea of spreading their concepts throughout the United States, noting that expanding to new cities gives them the opportunity to create countless new jobs. They’ve got their eyes set on places like Florida, Colorado, Georgia and the entire southeast. The pair is constantly evaluating their “backburner” ideas—exciting new concepts that are just waiting for the right time, location and people to present themselves.
Randy and Jack take serious pride in all of their restaurant concepts. They aim for perfection in everything they do, focusing on even the most minute details, but place a large importance on a positive working environment.
“If the journey to perfection is a beat down, then you are not going to attract any quality people to take that journey with you,” Randy says. “Perfection is not achievable, except for my wife.”
Since Front Burner is a brand creation shop, the restaurants eventually start to pile up. Rather than attempt to manage everything themselves, they give the individuals who are running the restaurants daily the opportunity to develop them. They say this approach is actually beneficial to the growth of their brands, citing that since that they let go of Velvet Taco, it has continued to garner remarkable success.
“It’s very satisfying to see the brand grow from something so small to something so big,” Randy says. “We become more successful by letting go. If you find the right horse, you can drop the reins.”
Even though it may be the right thing to do, letting go of something they are so invested in isn’t always easy. Randy and Jack liken the feeling to one that they are experiencing in their personal lives—both have children that are college-aged and moving away from home for good. The Front Burner owners have raised both children and brands with the goal of creating something self-sufficient and successful, and though there are tears shed when they leave the nest, the feeling of pride is the sentiment that outlasts them all.