Kelley McClain - October 2009

How to keep business strong, in good times or bad? This tapas group leads by example, putting responsibility in the hands of its plugged-in staff.

If variety is the spice of life, then Barcelona is a perfectly seasoned group of tapas bars and restaurants. Connecticut's first Barcelona opened in 1996 in affluent Fairfield County's South Norwalk, an industrial downtown area that has evolved into a hip restaurant and shopping district. As the SoNo location has morphed from a 30 seat fledgling tapas bar into a full-service restaurant with expanded seating that includes private dining, Barcelona has become a Connecticut tapas empire.

When founding partners Sasa Mahr-Batuz and Andy Pforzheimer met, their culinary passions collided over their vision of a classic Spanish tapas bar with Mahr-Batuz out front and Pforzheimer at the range, turning out small plates of honest food cooked to perfection in an atmosphere that engages the customer. But while the name is meant to evoke the cosmopolitan sophistication of the Spanish culinary mecca, they kept the door open to other Mediterranean, European, and South American cuisines and wines.

This has been a busy year for Barcelona. Early this spring the group celebrated their most recent research trip to Spain with a series of press dinners to show off favorite menu standards alongside some recently discovered inspirations. Mahr-Batuz and Pforzheimer had completed The Barcelona Cookbook: A Celebration of Food, Wine, and Life, released in May, with a foreword by Food Arts contributor Gerry Dawes (see "Spain's Chemical Reaction," page 53). Barcelona number six opened its doors to already-clamoring crowds in downtown Stamford this summer--in the midst of a hard-hitting recession, no less. And they've begun scouting for future openings.

The five other Barcelonas are peppered throughout the region, each with its individual style, as decreed by creative force Mahr-Batuz. He describes the West Hartford site, in a former auto shop, as "1960s California Palm Springs desert," the New Haven outpost as "industrial modern." "London industrial chic" reigns in urbane Greenwich, while "1970s hip" sets a funky tone in the town of Fairfield. Every aspect of the dining experience—service, menu, wine list, layout, even design—is considered from the customer's point of view. Even the host stands have been designed by Mahr-Batuz to stand parallel to entering clientele rather than create a barrier between host and guest.

And each location has a strong core following of regulars who frequent their favorite locations up to four or five times a week. "We don't want to turn into a special occasion place; that's not who we are," Pforzheimer insists. "A tapas place is part of your evening. We're not here to tell you how to eat; that's not the job of a restaurant. You may go somewhere else for dinner, or dessert, or come here at the end of the night. We really want to integrate ourselves into peoples' lives."

Barcelona's wine program is directed by sommelier Gretchen Thomas: "Each restaurant is slightly different, but we basically offer just over 250 selections on the wine list, with about 2,000 bottles in inventory." Each location offers 40 wines by the glass (same selections, same prices), ranging from $6 for Terra Noble Sauvignon Blanc Vineyard Selection 2008 to Viñedos de Nieva Verdejo Blanco Nieva Rueda 2007 at $12, to $19 for Chartogne-Taillet Brut Champagne Cuvée Ste.-Anne. Fifty percent of them are $9 and under, with only three currently offered over $12. We have eight Sherries by the glass as well."

While each location plays up its distinctive character, the customer's wine experience remains comfortably familiar. "We have so many regulars who actually frequent more than one location that I like to offer basically the same list throughout the company—so if someone discovers a new favorite at the Greenwich location, then has dinner later at the Fairfield location, they will find that same wine, at the same price," Thomas explains. For the occasional rare vintages from Rioja or Ribera del Duero, she might choose only a few locations to carry them, based on demographics and ideal storage conditions. Likewise, about 70 percent of each location's menu is the same as the others, with the rest open to each chef's personal interpretation.

The average check per person runs about $50, with $30 going to food. "Twenty dollars per person could represent two or three glasses of wine," explains Thomas, "but we have very popular cocktails as well." These include classics such as Mojitos (with Bacardi Limón), $8.25 glass/$48 pitcher; Caipirinhas, $9; and Pisco Sours, $8.50. House specialties include the Blood Orange Margarita, $9/$52; LaMancha Lemonade (Svedka Citron vodka, cranberry juice, 7-Up, sour mix, fresh lemon juice), $8; and Sangria, $6/$23.50: white (Monte Toro Malvasia with Licor 43, peach schnapps, apricot brandy, white peach nectar) or red (Bodegas Borsao red, Gran Torres brandy, Licor 43, Amaretto, orange juice, sugar, soda).

"Our by-the-glass sales are very strong, representing about 65 percent of our total wine sales," Thomas boasts. "Wine represents 25 percent of our overall sales, food roughly 50 percent. The other 25 percent is split between liquor and beer."

"About 50 percent of the wines are from Spain, 25 percent from South America (Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay), and the other 25 percent are from a number of different countries—France, Italy, Germany, Portugal, and Australia--and California, Oregon, and New York in the United States." But Spanish wines remain the core of the list, presenting the largest Spanish wine program in the United States, with over $3 million in annual sales. In recog­nition, the Wine Academy of Spain recently asked Thomas to host one of its three day certification programs. "We were thrilled to participate," she recalls. "It was a very intense and exhaustive Spanish wine class, designed for wine professionals and educated wine enthusiasts. We had about 30 class members, mostly wine wholesalers, sommeliers, and wine retail store owners."

Also noteworthy is the fact that menu prices have effectively remained the same since 2002, ranging from $3.50 for house-cured olives or roasted garlic bulbs to $8.50 for chorizo with sweet-and-sour figs in a balsamic/Sherry glaze to $11.50 for crispy soft shell crab in romesco sauce with spring onions and arugula. Charcuteria arrive at $6.50 for one or $17.50 for a selection of three. Entrée-sized platos principales run from churrasco (skirt steak) with garlic spinach, sweet potato fries, and chimichurri ($23.50) to grilled dorade with saffron/tomato/fennel broth, fregola sarda, preserved lemon, and littleneck clams ($21.50).

"It's shocking to some people that our prices remain where they are," admits executive chef Adam Halberg. He credits Barcelona's food "hewing to traditionalism—an elevation of humble ingredients through technique and devotion to quality." He also cites the group's ability to purchase from importers instead of distributors because they buy in such large volume.

This applies to the wine inventory as well. Last year, when Pforzheimer didn't like the way the economy was going, he tasked Thomas with lowering the wine list costs by 25 percent. Thomas came through: after thoroughly researching previously unavailable wines from South America and parts of Europe, she not only worked directly with wineries to seek out lesser known best matches and good value for the menu, but was then able to get importers and distributors to carry them, given assurance the group would purchase the inventory. These vinous coups also gave her leverage to renegotiate some of her standing orders.

To ensure all servers have thorough understanding of the wines, all new employees attend an introduction-to-wines class. Thomas also conducts two hour tasting classes every Saturday afternoon, rotating each class through the Barcelona group. "I create my own class materials, keeping them concise--no more than two pages of handouts.

After roughly 30 minutes of lecture, we taste about 10 wines. I generally conduct the tastings blind," Thomas elaborates. "I find it helps them to focus on the qualities of the wine as opposed to deciding if they ‘like it or not.'" Additionally, Thomas appoints select staff to oversee wine service at each restaurant, and these wine stewards lead weekly staff mini tastings during premeal.

"Wine education is huge with our company and one of the biggest parts of my job," says Thomas. Indeed, once servers get their bearings, they're assigned to have dinner with Thomas and Halberg. "We eat and drink our way through the menu and wine list," affirms Halberg, "giving the server the same experience that we want to give people coming in off the street."

"We want their job to be something they really like," Pforzheimer concludes. "If we make the customers happy, then they tend to keep the staff happy."