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Consortium Carefully Crafts A Fine-Dining Experience

Consortium Holdings co-founder Arsalun Tafazoli is seen here at Noble Experiment, a specialty cocktail bar inside his company’s flagship restaurant Neighborhood in downtown’s East Village. Photo courtesy of Consortium Holdings

For the past decade, operators of Consortium Holdings have created an eclectic array of San Diego-centric restaurant and bar concepts, several of which could be stops on an evening tour of the city’s burgeoning “foodie” culture that it helped spawn.

But for their latest upcoming venture, a high-end Little Italy steakhouse called Born & Raised, co-founder Arsalun Tafazoli and his business partners would be quite pleased if customers decided to spend a few hours, or make a full evening of the venue’s aged steaks and other menu and social amenities.

That goes against longtime restaurant industry dogma, including within the fine-dining category, that tables must be turned over quickly and frequently to maximize space, resources and profits.

“The hospitality element of fine dining has slowly been sucked out over the years,” said Tafazoli, 35, co-founder of the downtown-headquartered company also known as CH Projects. “We wanted to go back to that time when people considered a visit to a fine-dining restaurant an experience unto itself, something to build a whole night around, where they don’t mind spending maybe three hours there just for that experience.”

Set to open during the second week of August, following a $6.5 million renovation of a nearly century-old building at 1909 India St., Born & Raised will employ 85 and seeks to evoke a bygone era in dining that still exists in pockets of major cities, including New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago.The Inspirations

Tafazoli said he and Consortium partner Jason McLeod, the executive chef at Born & Raised, were inspired in particular by old-style, high-end New York steak restaurants — such as Peter Luger Steak House and Keens Steakhouse — that are still attracting loyal business after well over 100 years.

McLeod said that while Consortium is well-versed in numerous culinary styles, a high-end steakhouse represents a move into uncharted territory, which the operators are nonetheless thrilled to be entering.

“The planning and production behind a meat-driven menu, where you’re delicately dry-aging thousands of dollars’ worth of product anywhere from 50 to 250 days, is tricky when having to forecast your restaurant’s opening date,” McLeod said.

Preparing the venue — at 10,500 square feet, the largest opened to date by Consortium Holdings — presented its own challenges. Tafazoli noted that operators, as with their past concepts, decided to focus on a location with its own unique history to the neighborhood.

The India Street building dates back nearly a century and had been owned by three generations of the same family since 1927. It started as a drugstore that later housed a popular soda fountain for many years, and most recently had been home to Nelson Photo Supplies, which had its own long tenure there.

Good Neighbor Policy

In addition to doing the property’s history justice, operators navigated other challenges, including adjusting capacity in response to San Diego airport rules regarding buildings under local flight paths. Steps were also taken to sound-proof the original first-floor space and its upstairs addition — including an open-air deck — to limit noise and other disturbances to surrounding businesses and Little Italy residents.

Designed by Basile Studios, Born & Raised will have a suspended steel-and-wood staircase under the canopy of a custom skylight, connecting the lower floor with the 2,700 square-foot outdoor second-story addition.

The experience of converting the upper floor, which was most recently a rooftop parking deck, was itself a big part of operators’ ongoing education in restaurant planning.

“There are things that were not needed for cars and trucks on that roof that you do need to have if you’re going to have people up there,” Tafazoli said.

Steakhouse Staying Power

National trends have shown fine-dining restaurants, including upscale steakhouses, to be generally more resilient than other categories in bouncing back from the Great Recession, partly because their target customers have been less impacted in their discretionary spending.

But steakhouses have also made adjustments, including adding more poultry, seafood and vegetable-based items to address demand for healthier and lighter meal options.

According to restaurant industry consulting firm Technomic Inc., U.S. chain fine-dining steakhouses — a group that includes Ruth’s Chris, Fleming’s and Morton’s — saw sales in 2016 rise 2.9 percent over the prior year. That rate was above the 1.4 percent rate for all full-service restaurants.

Those high-end steakhouses also have a compound annual sales growth rate of 4.8 percent over the last three years — higher than the full-service category as a whole, which continues to see slowing sales and location growth in the post-recession era.

Chef-Driven Restaurants

Technomic recently noted that full-service national chains are being challenged primarily by full-service independents and regional operators — the categories that have been growing in San Diego over the past decade.

Local industry observers have long credited Consortium with helping spur growth of the San Diego “foodie” scene, with an emphasis on independent, chef-driven restaurants with cool-casual vibes and featuring local recipes in a variety of cooking styles, often made with locally sourced ingredients.

Consortium’s local independent competitors with multiple locations now include Cohn Restaurant Group, The Patio Group, Rise & Shine Restaurant Group, and Urban Kitchen Group, among several others.

“We’re glad that we were among the first to think in that way, and it’s a mark of how things have changed that San Diego now has something called a foodie culture,” Tafazoli said.

Finding a Passion

During his years of study at the University of California, San Diego in the early 2000s, Tafazoli was originally considering career options in political science and economics. But he became enamored with the idea of operating restaurants after working part time at several eateries and bars during those college days.

With business partner Nathan Stanton, he started in 2007 with Neighborhood, a restaurant in East Village that remains its headquarters site and has since added its own specialty cocktail concept called Noble Experiment.

The privately held company, which currently employs 465 but does not disclose financial data, has extended its footprint over the years to other San Diego enclaves including Little Italy, Point Loma and North Park.

Tafazoli himself was born and raised in San Diego, and the newest venue’s name is a signal that Consortium Holdings intends for now to remain a San Diego-city-specific operator. The locations of all of its current 12 venues — under 10 concepts including Craft &Commerce, UnderBelly, Soda & Swine and Ironside Fish & Oyster — follow the company’s general rule of locating within an approximate 14-mile radius of downtown San Diego.

While the focus for now is on getting Born & Raised up and running, Consortium Holdings continues to scout potential venue sites in other up-and-coming dining hubs in the city’s central neighborhoods, such as Normal Heights and Kensington.

“I think that we can maintain a pretty good pace of growth, and still keep our focus on San Diego,” Tafazoli said.

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