Expanding her Chicago restaurants to Los Angeles while going national on the product side.
Produced by Zagat with
By Stephanie Izard as told to Amber Gibson
Zagat Stories presents Restaurants 20/21, a collection of interviews with leading voices in hospitality, food, media, tech, politics, design, and more. Each story takes the turning of the calendar as an inflection point to consider what happened in 2020, or what’s likely to happen in 2021, in the world of restaurants and hospitality. See all stories here.
James Beard Award-winning chef Stephanie Izard of Top Chef fame prepares to open her second location of Girl & the Goat in Los Angeles next year—her first restaurant outside of Chicago. In the meantime, she’s expanding her brand with new additions like Sugargoat and This Little Goat
I’m optimistic about 2021. Over the last few months there’s been a lot of silver linings—things that we’ve pivoted to do because of the pandemic that will help our business moving forward. Like Sugargoat and our line of sauces. What we’ve built upon this year will lead to good things even after life goes back to normal.
We launched This Little Goat last year, but during the pandemic we had a great chance to grow this business because people are cooking at home so much. It’s a good time to push for more cooking at home using the sauces and spices. They’re a great way to elevate a simple recipe and are accessible even for novice cooks. That business should see a lot of growth next year. We’re in about a thousand stores already, mostly in the Midwest. Right now we’re working on national distribution, and I’m bringing on some new salespeople.
I’m opening another space down the street in the West Loop for cooking classes and demos in December. We’ll have a little retail shop with a small co-packer that will do some of the packaging for our sauces. It’s such a small space that as long as the city’s not fully shut down, we can do really small gatherings of six to eight people for private cooking classes.
Sugargoat was a fun whim we just launched in November. I think this is a brand that could see growth in the future. Our goal is to get national shipping—we just need to get the packaging figured out, so we can raise awareness and spread it nationally. We’ll see if it makes sense to have it grow into more than one location.
We’re opening a second location of Girl & the Goat in Los Angeles. The restaurant has been built for a little while, but we’re waiting for the right timing to open. We want to wait until folks can enjoy the design that we put into it. Looking at springtime for that, fingers crossed. It’s in the Arts District in LA, and it’s been in the works for a year. If you walked by it right now, you’d think the restaurant was already open. It’s fully designed and ready to go. But instead of opening in the middle of the pandemic, we decided to wait.
It’s not like we’re picking up Girl & the Goat in Chicago and just putting it in LA. It wouldn’t be fitting to do that. The design is very dark and rustic in Chicago, while the design in LA is more sunshine-y rustic, if I can coin a new term. It looks like a brighter, sunshinier version of Girl & the Goat with lighter woods and more natural light.
We’ll take some signature dishes like the sautéed green beans with fish sauce vinaigrette and cashews, and bring them there. But we’re not just transplanting the entire menu. We’ll develop new dishes just for LA. The pig’s face in Chicago, for example, is something we have on the menu because our farmer has a lot of pig heads, and that’s why we started doing it in the first place. But we won’t have that in LA because it doesn’t have the same story. It’s still the same fun style of service but a different take on it that fits into the Los Angeles scene.
Over the years, I’ve been out there a lot for Top Chef stuff and filming other random things and events with friends, so I’ve gotten to know the city a little bit. I have a good handful of chef friends and connections that have helped introduce me to farmers and meet new people. Our chef de cuisine moved out there one and a half years ago from Chicago, and he’s been diving into getting to know the purveyors and farmers a little more. Between the two of us, we can make sure we’re not just landing from Chicago. We want to be part of the local community there.
I don’t ever have menus planned ahead of time. It’s ever-changing. I always think it’s weird when somebody has a menu planned out years before they actually open their restaurant. It’s always on my mind these days, but the menu will probably come together a month before we open, because that’s when I know which farmers we’ll get our meats from, and what produce we’re going to get.
Everything that happened in 2020 with the pandemic gave me a reason to stop and look at everything we’re doing, and see how we can adjust and be better. We just had to re-furlough a bunch of people in the restaurant because we can’t do indoor dining right now. I know my business partners are amazing, and we’ll survive this and come out stronger. Maybe we’ll streamline our menus a little bit. Maybe we don’t need 40 items on the menu at Girl & the Goat. At Little Goat, our strongest point is breakfast and lunch, and maybe we add in this national delivery piece. We can see what makes the most sense post-pandemic. I think we’ll come out a little bit smarter and a little bit stronger once we’re back in full throttle.
My wish for 2021 is that we are able to function a little bit more like we used to and have comfort among our staff. I hope that we’re able to help all of our staff members get through the next few months, and that in 2021 we can reopen with all the people that we’ve loved to work with over these years. And I hope that when we get to Los Angeles, we can build an amazing team and family like we have here.
When we open in LA, I’ll be out there for an extended period of time, whatever feels necessary in the beginning. Then it’ll be a weekly fun-filled redeye trip for me to go out there and make sure everything is going well. Once you’re opening your fifth restaurant, you’ve learned a lot of things about setting up systems and how we can make things consistently. When I opened Duck Duck Goat, I was seven months pregnant, so I had to set it up for success really quickly because I was about to pop out a baby. I can’t be one of the line cooks like at Little Goat when that opened, or the morning prep person like at Girl & the Goat when that opened.
I don’t think there’s such a thing as work-life balance in the chef industry though. But I’ll always tell you that my son Ernie is more important to me than any of this. All my restaurants and hundreds of staff members come a very close second. That’s why I need to find amazing people to work on my teams. If I’m not there for service, or I miss a day of tasting, I know they’re taking it as seriously as I would. Years ago, I wouldn’t miss a single second of anything when we first opened Girl & the Goat. But you get to a point where you trust that your restaurant can run just fine even when you’re not present each moment. It’s more important that my son never thinks I’m not present.
I’ve brought Ernie out to LA a few times already. I joke that he looks like a little surfer dude, so I think he’ll enjoy coming out for a few trips and doing some touring around there. He thinks it’s fun to roll out cookies and do things with dough. Maybe I should have seen that as a sign that we would open up a sweets shop. I don’t push the cooking on him though. I’ve seen what chef life is like, and he should go elsewhere. I’m just kidding. I let him jump in when it seems fun for him.
When he was a little bit younger, he’d come to tastings all the time and he would eat duck tongues and scallops. Now he’s in the toddler phase where he eats a little bit simpler. Kids are very up and down in that area it seems like. I put some grass-fed milk in his cereal the other morning though, and he definitely noticed. He just kept saying, “What is that smell?” So I guess he’s got a good nose.
I think the best thing for him, aside from the food, is just coming around the restaurants, meeting so many different people, and seeing the hospitality. He said hi to a random person the other day when we were taking a walk, and he told me, “Mommy, you always have to smile and say hi to everyone you go by.” I think everyone should work in a restaurant at some point to learn hospitality, and he gets that right off the bat.
Part of the motivation for opening a restaurant in Los Angeles is spreading awareness of the brand itself, so when we go to that market with This Little Goat, it’s recognizable. Not that I’m going to open 50 Girl & the Goats just so I can sell my sauces. But we hired a new marketing firm, and we’re in steady growth mode in hopes of being in a lot more national spaces by the end of next year. I definitely see this as Ernie’s college fund growing and growing. Just kidding.
I don’t want to work in restaurants when I’m 65 years old though. I work on the line and I go pretty hard. I give myself another 10 years of shelf life considering how I work in the restaurants currently. The sauce and spice line is a food brand that can continue to grow way past condiments into a national, recognizable brand. That’s my retirement plan.
I don’t know what the future holds. I try not to think about it too much. I just take opportunities as they come, and I’m on this weird roller coaster ride. The only thing I see in the future is at some point stepping away. But how many fun things can I do before then?