Iron Chef Jose Garces Discusses Multi-Unit Operations, Franchising and Industry Challenges

James Beard award-winner and Iron Chef Jose Garces is a busy man growing his restaurant empire in Philadelphia. Born to Ecuadorian parents and raised in Chicago, Garces began his culinary training in the kitchen of his paternal grandmother. He’s now regarded as a culinary authority on Spanish and Latin-American food.

Last month, Garces relaunched his cafe and bistro, Garces Trading Company near 30th Street Station, adding a marketplace and wine shop, and bringing together a cafe and coffee shop, restaurant and bakery. The relaunch aims to create connections through food, discovery and community. Garces also operates Buena Onda, a taqueria that’s inspired by the spirit and good vibes of Mexico's Baja Peninsula. The menu has a heavy focus on seafood. Options are shrimp and fish tacos, alongside classic options such as pork al pastor tacos, nachos, guacamole, churros, rice and beans, meatless tofu chorizo tacos and more.

Garces is franchising Buena Onda across the United States with Ballard Brands, through their joint partnership of IdEATion Hospitality. Ballard Brands brings experience as franchise veterans that own brands PJ's Coffee and WOW American Eats.

An Iron Chef

Garces said becoming an Iron Chef (he won in the second season of The Next Iron Chef series) was unexpected, something that he didn't plan for, and it was very fortuitous. He got the opportunity because he'd opened his first restaurant Amada and was starting to get accolades. He won Best Chef in Mid Atlantic by James Beard Foundation in 2009.

“It was such a whirlwind experience that it's hard to really measure how it changed [me],” said Garces in an in-person interview at the ribbon cutting for Garces Trading Company. “I know it changed my life personally; I was raising a family and kids. It took me away from them a little bit to travel and do battles.”

The Iron Chef experience was rewarding for Garces in many ways. “I pushed myself as a chef; when you cook competitively, it's such a different mindset and a different skill set than just cooking for a restaurant,” he explained. “From a business standpoint, it helped with national exposure, national recognition alignment as to who I was, who my brand is, and that allowed me to grow our portfolio of restaurants and the brands with that.”

Iron Chef Jose Garces - Garces Group
Iron Chef Jose Garces at Buena Onda
  (Photo: Courtesy of Garces Group)

Thoughts on Managing Multiple Locations

Garces acknowledged that a restaurant industry entrepreneur gives a little something up when they decide to become a multi-unit operator. When he opened Amada, he thought that was the end goal for him. “Initially it was like I just want to have my own place I can call my own and that'll be good enough,” revealed Garces. “When I decided to open multiple units, I realized that I had to give up a little bit of control; the attention to detail that I have is not the same as someone else might have in my shoes. The biggest takeaway is find like-minded people and then do a lot of training, reward them for their work and dedication and find a team that can grow with you.”

Back in 2015, Garces opened Buena Onda with the goal of making it a scalable brand that could eventually become a franchisable brand. Garces has been cooking Mexican food since 2003. “When I looked at the fast casual space, I saw that there was an opening in between restaurant quality, authentic and traditional Mexican food and what was being served with the public. It was a glaring gap,” he shared. “So, here we stand seven years later since I opened what I thought was a scalable concept brand. We're excited about sharing this nationally with everyone because there's a level of detail that I'm proud of that I think goes a long way in this segment. So, whether it's making really long grazed cook items that feel like they've been cooking for hours or fresh handmade tortillas, or even just the conciseness of our menu – great fish and tacos, bowls and burritos – we're not bringing in a ton of ingredients. It's very concise so that we can have a lot of fresh ingredients that are turning over.”

Iron Chef Jose Garces - Garces Group
Garces relaunches his cafe and bistro, Garces Trading Company.
  (Photo by: Erin Flynn Jay)

Garces said his overall business will still create restaurants in the right market opportunities. “There's a lot of touchpoints to the model,” he said. “There's a high labor demand model. You also need the right amount of density to have it succeed, whether it's demographic or population density. We have brands that are in the full-service category that we will continue to grow for sure. Again, with the right opportunity and the right space.”

City Center Concerns for Operators

According to Garces, restaurant operators in urban centers are still concerned about professionals returning to work post-COVID and how it impacts local businesses, or how some employees are working at home and only returning to the office a percentage of the time.

“Our office is going to come back to 100 percent, 80 percent, 50 percent, 60 percent, who knows, right?” Garces pondered. “There's an uncertainty around that. And we're obviously hopeful that people come back to work in a robust way. That impacts a lot of segments – lunch, happy hour, events, if that workforce isn't here.”

The bigger issue, according to Garces, is safety in cities and city centers. Garces has restaurants throughout Philly and they all rely on a good amount of suburban consumers to come in and have a city dining experience at night. “And if they're not feeling safe, they're not going to come to the restaurant,” said Garces. “That's a big issue that we're tackling as best we can as a business community to try to ensure that. There's also media component of it as well – we need to collaborate with the media to make sure that we're telling the right story and that it's truthful.”

In Philadelphia, safety concerns are a major focus with numerous shootings being reported, and some customers are thinking twice about going out. Just this summer, a man was shot in a downtown drive-by where bullets struck a restaurant, in addition to another shooting at a local bar. And just last month, a man was shot near a Shake Shack, and a teen was shot at a West Philly chicken restaurant.

Garces doesn’t think that restaurant owners can rely solely on their city government and politics to get the safety issue corrected. “It really takes the business and small business community to come together in collaboration with the city officials to figure out how we can make everyone feel safe coming into town,” he said. “That's a vital part of our business – people wanting to come in. I've lived in cities my whole life – Chicago, New York, Philadelphia. I love the city feel, energy and life, but it's a concern and we need to address it.”

Iron Chef Jose Garces
Iron Chef Jose Garces
  (Photo: Courtesy of Garces Group)

Franchising Opportunities

Looking ahead and thinking about the future growth of his restaurant empire, Garces pointed out that Buena Onda franchise opportunities are available now and designed to deliver an experience to diners in the fast casual market. Interested parties are invited to meet Garces in person and experience his food and vision at monthly franchise seminars in Philadelphia.

To learn more about Buena Onda, visit

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