Ask "Restaurateurs of the Year" Andy Pforzheimer and Sasa Mahr-Batuz why they were so honored and they both reply they don't know. "They ran out of qualified candidates?" Pforzheimer jokes. The Connecticut Restaurant Association honored Pforzheimer and Mahr-Batuz with the award at the "Salute to Excellence" dinner attended by more than 300 food industry professionals last month at Mohegan Sun.
The success of the Barcelona Tapas and Wine Bars belies Pforzheimer's quip. Over the last 14 years, Barcelona Restaurant Group has grown to six locations in Fairfield, South Norwalk, Stamford, New Haven and West Hartford. And the company is expanding. In January, the group will open a Barcelona in Atlanta, Ga. The business also recently debuted a new concept, BarTaco Taqueria and Tequila Bar in Port Chester, N.Y., and will open another in Stamford in the spring.
Even if Mahr-Batuz isn't sure why he got the "Restaurateur of the Year" award, he says it felt good to get it. "I guess when you are so involved with your work, you don't realize what you've done. [The award] kind of makes you step back and see all you've done," he said, "I didn't expect the response from the people that night at the dinner. The acknowledgement. It was so reinforcing and positive. I walked away with a very good feeling."
Teamwork is at the heart of their success. In the beginning, in their first 20-seat restaurant, Pforzheimer ran the kitchen, while Mahr-Batuz ran the front of the house. Today, Pforzheimer oversees operations, while Mahr-Batuz describes himself as overseeing "creativity and image."
"Andy runs the company and I'm more of a creator," he says. But, he added, "We do cross pollinate in every sense."
The growth of the company has been organic. Each new restaurant has developed out of the discovery of a great location. When deciding on a location, Pforzheimer looks at its business viability -- will it draw a sophisticated urban crowd that goes out frequently and wants to have fun eating tapas and drinking wine? Mahr-Batuz looks at the building. Does it have a good vibe? "I look at the feng shui, the feeling," he said. He thinks about the design. Will this space make a great Barcelona?
They take their time -- a year and a half to two years -- to design, build and open a new restaurant.
The partners say they've learned a lot of lessons over the years. They've learned from their mistakes, and they've learned from their colleagues. "We keep top-notch professionals around us," said Pforzheimer. That includes a director of operations with experience working for a restaurant group. Running a successful restaurant is no different than running any business, Pforzheimer said. "You find good people, train them, keep the lines of communication open." And the partners haven't rested on their laurels. Mahr-Batuz says that the Barcelona restaurants continue to improve, with better staffs, chefs, menus and wine list.
They also learn from their customers. "You learn from their expressions," said Mahr-Batuz, "When they eat a bite of a tapa, you can see on their faces when they enjoy it."
At its most basic, Barcelona Restaurant Group is a "customer-centric" company. "We spend all our time thinking about how to create a good customer experience," Pforzheimer said, "Our restaurants are geared to letting you have a good time. We really want it to be fun."
Does that mean that Pforzheimer is having fun? "It's a business," he said, "It has headaches. And making sure that others have the best possible time doesn't always mean [I'm] having the best time."
The desire to expand without cannibalizing the existing Barcelonas informed the decision to open the new BarTaco restaurants. They will be a little less expensive than Barcelona, with what Pforzheimer describes as a "cool, taco shack, beach feeling." The restaurants will serve authentic Mexican food --"good stews," Pforzheimer said, "Not quick food."
Depending on how well the new Barcelona in Atlanta does (it will open in the Inman Park area, an urban neighborhood east of downtown Atlanta), the group could open more Barcelonas in Atlanta.
It's unlikely that more Barcelonas will open in Connecticut, but Mahr-Batuz said it's likely more will open in cities along the Eastern Seaboard, probably next in Boston, and possibly in Washington, D.C.
"It's really exciting, where we're going," said Mahr-Batuz.
"We're in a growth mode."