Q&A with Grégoire Jacquet, Chef and Founder of Grégoire, Berkeley, California
French-trained Chef Grégoire Jacquet was dissatisfied working at five-star, Michelin-rated restaurants around the world.
Craving independence, he left fine dining to venture off on his own. In 2002, Jacquet transformed the tradition of carry-out food by opening the first high-end takeout restaurant — called Grégoire — just around the corner from the renowned Chez Panisse in the heart of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto.
His innovative menu features all house-made ingredients and changes with the season, sourcing fresh ingredients from select community vendors and local farms to create each menu items crave-worthy flavors. As the takeout restaurant celebrates 20 years as a neighborhood institution and home of the renowned potato puff, Jacquet has recently launched into franchise opportunities.
The revered chef shares the vision for his latest concept and plans for the future.
Tell our readers what got you interested in becoming a chef. Could you walk us through your career track?
It really started at a young age when I moved to a small village of 80 people in France. My parents were not very wealthy; they were working-class people and moved there to have a garden and a great place to raise animals like rabbits and chickens and to be close to farms. We had every vegetable and fruit you could think of, from artichokes and Brussels sprouts to strawberries and pears. We never grocery shopped; we were really living off the land and out of our garden. I would watch my mom cook all our meals, and I was always interested and giving her a hand.
I didn’t even know restaurants existed until I was 10 years old. We never went out to eat, and I’d never been to one. But then I went to a dinner organized by the city. It was my first time at a restaurant, and I was so impressed. The food was so good, and I had no idea serving people on that scale in public could be done.
I decided then that I wanted to be a chef. I hadn’t been doing great at school, and they told me I should try a vocation and get two diplomas — something that’s very common in France. I enrolled in cooking school and would split my time doing culinary studies and working at restaurants around my town.
After graduating, I traveled to the U.S. and met French master chef Jacky Robert, who had a restaurant in San Francisco called Amelio’s. He told me that if I wanted to work for him, he would help sponsor me to be a worker in the U.S. and do all the paperwork — I just had to pay. It was a great deal, so I got a J1 visa and moved to the U.S. with one bag at just 19 years old.
At Amelio’s, I learned a lot about managing people. Jacky was really a great boss who took care of his employees, and when the time came for me to move on, he helped me get a job at the Ritz Carlton as a banquet chef. It was a very complex learning curve, but I learned a lot about operations and numbers. I was with the brand for seven years, opening kitchens and clubs all over the world.
But after some time, my wife and I wanted to start a family, so we decided to return to the Bay Area and open Grégoire. When I started cooking, I never thought I would own my own restaurant because I would see how hard it was for my bosses. But I quickly realized I was done working for somebody else. The only logical thing for our family was to open a place that I would enjoy working and people would enjoy coming to, and that was close to home.
What makes Grégoire different from other takeout restaurants in the Berkeley, CA area?
When I opened Grégoire 20 years ago, it was something nobody was doing. No chef wanted to put their food in the box. Chefs, in general, are very stubborn and think their food is only good 10 seconds after they make it and put it on the plate. But at the Ritz, I learned how to adapt fine dining to be served in big quantities, and thought it was possible to do the same thing, but takeout style and without compromising the quality of the food.
Over the years, I’ve seen more concepts try it out and an insurgence of delivery companies, but it’s something we’ve always done. We created our box to be the best container; we designed it around the food. It’s been successful at making Grégoire stand out as a takeout restaurant in the area.
Are you experiencing any supply chain issues?
Of course. Like everyone else, I have experienced issues. The good thing is that I deal with vendors with years of experience that I trust. I have known some of them for 30 years, so I have faith in them when they run out of a product and recommend a substitute that’s just as good as what I normally order. There can be issues with the supply, but we’ve been more impacted by rising prices than a lack of available foods.
Tell us about the local vendors you source for ingredients.
Many years ago, when I was working for Amelio’s, we started buying products from a farmer. Years later, when I came back and was opening Grégoire, I was trying to source the best products and went to a farmers’ market in Berkeley, and the same man was there. I asked him to do business with me, and he’s been our provider for things like onions, cabbage, broccoli, squash, asparagus and tomatoes. They come three times a week and are our go-to for locally-sourced produce.
Tell us about your innovative culinary hub kitchen model.
When I first looked into franchising, I wanted to keep the same model that Grégoire has, with a seasonally changing menu and fresh ingredients. It’s worked so well for us for the last 20 years, so why change it? But it wasn’t easy to look at the franchise model and think about training franchisees on new recipes we create every quarter and ensuring they do it the same way everywhere. Even the potato puffs have a pretty intricate recipe and must be perfect every time.
In brainstorming about ways to do it, we decided on building a central kitchen where we prepare and cook the ingredients ahead of time to be ordered and delivered to locations daily. By doing so, we have control of all the preparations. It is much easier to train someone to build and put a sandwich together than to teach them to make sauces and do
You recently announced expansion plans with your franchise launch. How have you streamlined technology & operations for franchisees?
I’m a numbers guy. I need data in order to make educated decisions on the food, the prices, the products, etc., so we decided to automate a lot of the processes we do. We already have software that will do inventory, product ordering, invoicing and everything on one app. It will make the process a seamless and easy one for the franchisee as well as for us, the franchisor.
The culinary hub will order the raw material from our vendors, and it will come and be priced at market price. All the recipes are already in the system, so we know exactly how much one ounce of something costs. At night, the franchisee will order products, and we will invoice them through the app, which will go straight to their accounting software. With all the data collected, anyone in the system can easily see how much product is used and how much we need. We have the power to make sure that they always have the product and always stay supplied.
What piece of advice would you give budding franchise owners?
My piece of advice to franchisees is not to be scared. We have removed the headache of running a restaurant from the equation by moving the back of the house to the culinary hub. We are always here to help, and we are close by locally for any questions. It’s a team effort, and we will be there every step of the way.
Do you feel there is one attribute that successful franchise owners share?
I want our franchisees to be friendly and customer oriented. I need them to love people and love servicing their community. I cannot teach someone to be nice, but I can teach them to put a sandwich together and run a business. They have to take care of the employees and create an environment where they care for one another. I am looking for a franchisee with whom I can go have a drink and hang out with on the weekend.
What are the most common mistakes you see franchise brands make?
It’s not all about money, and your growth should not always be based on cash flow more than quality. Not caring about customers and employees is a mistake. As a franchisor, you should focus more on that than the bottom line.
Learn more at gfranchise.com
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