(UPDATED 8/18/2015, 6:30 p.m. to incorporate information from our interview with Delicious Concepts CEO Ken Bridge.)
In a press release yesterday, Ken Sheppard of Delicious Concepts Restaurant Group announced that The El Cantina Superior is now closed. We spoke by phone with Delicious Concepts CEO Ken Bridge about the closing and his new direction, which is much bolder than just opening a new restaurant.
It’s rare to have an opportunity to talk with Bridge and that’s partially because that’s how he wants it to be. “I’m a behind-the-scenes kind of cat. I like to spend time with my friends and my family and really not get caught up in the drama.”
Asked about why he decided to close The El Cantina Superior, Bridge joked, “We were just making too much money over there and I felt guilty, so I decided we needed to kind of minimize our revenue stream.”
Getting serious, he said, “You probably know more than I do about why we were not successful on that corner. I could spend weeks and weeks talking about it, but, you know, I gave it a shot. Did I open it too early and not really prepare myself in too many areas for that big of an operation? Absolutely. I’d had that concept on my mind for years and finally brought it to the light of day. I thought I was just opening up a Mexican restaurant in Houston, Texas. I had no idea that I was going to be labeled as this Tex-Mex super-under-the-thumb, super-under-the-microscope. I tried to do an elevated menu and stick to what I’d done in The Heights. I thought people wanted kind of a stepped-up deal. I think when it comes to Tex-Mex, they want run-of-the-mill. Super-cheap margaritas that get them really wasted and just kind of average Tex-Mex food.”
The El Cantina Superior’s concept had problems from the start and the restaurant went through a series of ups and downs. Delicious Concepts brought in F.E.E.D. TX Group, which owns BRC and Liberty Kitchen, to create a new food menu. The partnership seemed to be a success, with the new, whimsical fare earning a one star review from Alison Cook at the Houston Chronicle and a positive write-up from the Houston Press.
Delicious Concepts ended the relationship with F.E.E.D. TX in May. Bridge says that while he’d reached out to Lance Fegen and company to “continue his vision,” ultimately, the partnership just didn’t work out.
After so many fits and starts, it’s possible there was just no room left in consumer hearts to give the place yet another chance. Consumer reviews remained mixed even after the menu had been overhauled.
Plans are to remodel and repurpose the space to become a yet-to-be-named “brewpub and American kitchen.” Delicious Concepts is also the company behind Pink’s Pizza, Lola, Shepherd Park Draught House and Witchcraft Tavern & Provision Co. (which also just finished with a bit of retooling, as a new menu created by former Dosi chef Jordan Asher just got rolled out).
The new concept for the space sounds incredibly ambitious. The press release promises an in-house butcher shop, a pizzeria and an in-house brewing program, along with a brand new menu. His vision actually goes well beyond a restaurant with seven or so in-house brews. Bridge is actively searching for property that can sustain a full-fledged production brewery. He says the restaurant is, “a little stepping stone—a little catalyst, if you will.”
Bridge says that craft beer is something he’s very passionate about and he says, “We want to do something really cool. We don’t want to open up another pint house or something that carries 1,000 Texas beers or national brands. We don’t want to just say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a cool menu. The food’s really good and we’ve got 40 or 50 taps. That would be cool alone but I think anybody can do that.”
He has brought in a heavy hitter in the world of beer to be brewmaster. Erik Ogershok with Real Ale has taken that role. He also has prior experience working at Victory Brewing and Live Oak Brewing Company. Ogershok will leave his position with Real Ale at the end of the month. The tap program will focus on beers brewed by Ogershok and his team, but there will also be an ever-changing selection from other breweries as well.
Bridge anticipates that Ogershok will collaborate with other brewers and brands. “Eric knows everybody and everybody knows Eric. We’re very much about collaborating with other brewers and doing some really cool stuff.” Bridge says that the process in going from brewpub to going to a full production facility will be slow. “We’ll approach it in stages and baby steps. We want to under-promise and over-deliver.”
In time, Bridge envisions supplying craft beer to other Delicious Concepts’ restaurants (and that’s one reason why he believes production at the new brewpub will be quickly maxed out). “If you look at what others are doing, they quickly outgrow production. Look at how 8th Wonder is growing. If you’re doing something right and put a good team together, you’re going to outgrow production.”
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Houston has a curious lack of brewpubs, especially when considering what’s available in other cities. Karl Strauss Brewing Company, for example, has been a longtime fixture in San Diego and other cities in Southern California. They brew their own beer and serve it in their restaurant as well as bottle it for retail sale.
Bridge agrees that it’s an odd omission in Houston’s culinary scene. “We have developed this incredible culinary scene. We’re very cosmopolitan but a lot of things slip between the cracks with us. It’s astonishing to me that there are almost no brewpubs here, except for Moon Tower on a minimal level. Even in San Antonio or Austin—look at The ABGB, an Austin beer garden and brewing company. They’re fantastic.” He believes that the reason Houston doesn’t have more is due to the high cost involved in opening a brewpub, such as having a custom brewing setup fabricated to fit a particular space.
The name for the new brewpub concept is to be decided by the end of the month.
There’s no word yet on when it is expected to open. Bridge can’t give a specific timeframe on when the space will be ready for its grand opening. However, he did have this to say: “I love the holidays. I especially love drinking great craft beer and duing the holidays. Who knows? Maybe we’ll be having some fun or special events over the next couple of months but I’ve got to get the construction out of the way.”
Hopefully, we’ll have a brand-new brewpub around that time and when it does, perhaps it will have smoother sailing than The El Cantina Superior.