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Cohn’s Main Course Seems to Be Expansion

San Diego’s growing reputation as a foodie paradise is also helping to feed the expansion appetites of locally based Cohn Restaurant Group.

The company had a busy fall and winter, with new restaurant openings in La Mesa, Oceanside, Imperial Beach and Balboa Park, bringing its venue count to 20. The activity will continue well into the spring and early summer.

In coming weeks, Cohn plans to open OB Warehouse in Ocean Beach, with an urban industrial theme, in a two-floor space that previously housed the Portugalia restaurant on Newport Avenue. Also by late spring, the company plans to debut Bo-Beau Kitchen + Rooftap in Long Beach, its first Southern California eatery outside of San Diego County.

Since starting the San Diego company in 1981, founders David and Lesley Cohn have aimed to diversify the formats and menus of its venues — most serving mid- to-upscale fare in casual settings — as well as their geography.

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“We try to look for places that are underserved,” said David Cohn, the company’s president. “People want to have access to a certain level of dining, but they don’t want to have to drive a long way for it.”

Even among restaurants carrying the same banner, like its three Bo-Beau locations, he said there is an attempt to differentiate the designs and layouts. The Long Beach location, for instance, will have a second-floor bar and beer garden setting, to go with the downtown surroundings in that city.

Cohn said the menu is still being finalized for OB Warehouse, which will open in a 6,000-square-foot space that has undergone significant renovation, after being vacant for more than two years. It will be the company’s second location in Ocean Beach, where he said Bo-Beau Kitchen + Bar has been well received on West Point Loma Boulevard.

By mid-year, Cohn said construction should be well underway on its next restaurant, Coral, which it plans to open in early 2015 at Harbor Island. The upscale Mexican-themed seafood eatery will be built next-door to Cohn’s existing Island Prime restaurant, and is part of a larger development being done by San Diego-based Sunroad Enterprises, which recently received port district approval for a new Harbor Island hotel.

Catering to foodies on the go, Cohn Restaurant Group also currently operates two food trucks based at Harbor Island, called Chop Soo-ey and Ms. Patty Melt.

Its most recent sit-down restaurant opening was Casa 1915 Mexican Grill, a small fast-casual venue at Balboa Park serving items like tacos and burritos, which debuted in January. Cohn said the restaurant is operated by its company division that oversees kiosks and other limited-service eateries found at museums and common areas throughout Balboa Park.

Most of the company’s restaurants are full-service operations, and in the past two years it has been expanding beyond the city of San Diego, where it has popular eateries like Corvette Diner, Indigo Grill and The Prado at Balboa Park.

Cohn said North County and South County have been priorities for expansion, with recent openings in La Mesa, Oceanside and Imperial Beach. It’s also diversified the types of places where it opens, including a space at a Lexus auto dealership in Escondido, and the ground floor of the new Pier South luxury hotel in Imperial Beach.

For several years, Cohn Restaurant Group has operated Pineapple Grill, a full-service restaurant at the Kapalua Resort in Hawaii, its only current venture outside of California.

Cohn’s expansion comes as the restaurant industry continues to rebound with the improving economy, with upscale establishments generally showing more robust post-recession strength than mid-scale national chains in the full-service segment.

Restaurant industry consulting firm Technomic Inc. recently reported that the nation’s 500 largest restaurant chains saw sales rise 3.5 percent over the prior year in 2013, reaching $264 billion. The growth rate was down from the 4.9 percent seen in 2012.

The full-service category experienced a 2.4 percent nationwide sales increase in 2013, a slight decline from the 2.9 percent growth seen in 2012.

“Competition for share of stomach is getting more and more challenging,” said Technomic President Ron Paul, in a statement. “But brands that have found a way to differentiate themselves are gaining market share.”

Cohn said his privately held company’s employment count will be approximately 1,400 by midyear, when the new eateries are up and running. The company is carefully gauging food, labor and other expenses at it makes plans for its next venues.

“It’s still a very competitive business, and costs are rising, but we’re pretty well prepared,” Cohn said.

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