Eatery Serves Opposites

Fast, Upscale

Chris Dussin believes he sees the future of restaurant dining and says it’s nothing like his Old Spaghetti Factory empire.

It’s snazzier, edgier and, above all, faster.

On March 31 [2008], he opened the Blue Sage Cafe in an upscale West Linn strip mall, launching what he hopes is a groundbreaking model in the rapidly growing “fast-casual” dining category. He’ll open another in Lake Oswego in July and plans on as many as 50 throughout the Northwest by 2020.

Unlike the sprawling, budget-conscious Spaghetti Factory restaurants created by his father, Dussin’s Blue Sage Cafes will be intimate places with an upscale western flair, where haute cuisine meets fast food.
“There may be other people doing this, but I haven’t seen it,” Dussin said last week over lunch at his new restaurant. “This will set us up for the future.”

Key to Dussin’s concept is the central kiosk, the restaurant’s ground control. Diners line up, place their orders and get a folder with two copies of their tab and head into the restaurant to find tables on their own. Orders are forwarded to the bar and kitchen before customers even sit down.

A waiter swings by the table, grabs the yellow copy of the tab and returns with food and drink.

The experience should be 15 to 20 minutes faster than a traditional sit-down place, said Dussin. The format also requires a third less staff than traditional restaurants, he said. The West Linn cafe has 50 employees and can seat 150.

“It’s a good concept,” Tony Tulley, owner of a nearby Fit for Life franchise, said last week as he ordered lunch. “Everything’s ready for you.”

As majority owner of The Dussin Group, Dussin heads a restaurant empire that generates $100 million a year in sales. But it’s the 37 Spaghetti Factory restaurants he calls his “golden goose.” The chain employs 3,400 of the company’s 3,800 workers, with locations nationwide, including Portland, Hillsboro, Clackamas and Vancouver.

Sales at Old Spaghetti restaurants have been flat in recent years, mirroring a national restaurant trend. Dussin has been branching out since his father, Gus Dussin, died in 2004.
Chris Dussin said he’s been following his father’s advice:
“You can’t stand still or things will pass you by. That’s what he always said.” Then there’s the fact that it’s also become harder to find new spots for Spaghetti Factory restaurants, which traditionally had sprouted up in large warehouselike buildings in gritty downtown neighborhoods with cheap rents. As cities have invested in their cores — creating trendy destinations — such spots have become harder to find.
“It used to be that you’d take your pick downtown,” he said. “Those days are gone.”

So he’s shifted his focus to growing smaller restaurants. In 2005 he opened Dussini Mediterranean Bistro in San Diego, then in early 2007 he bought the majority share of Fenouil, an elegant French restaurant in Portland’s Pearl District. Late last month he opened Lucier, a high-design European restaurant on Portland’s South Waterfront with 1,600 labels on its wine list.

But Dussin believes the real moneymaker will be Blue Sage, whose menu was developed by Pascal Chureau, executive chef and co-owner of Fenouil and Lucier.

Dussin went to Chureau with two primary menu objectives: sophistication and speed.

Chureau came up with the likes of seared ahi tuna with citrus mango chutney ($15.95); grilled wild salmon with lobster sauce ($14.95); and spicy chicken macaroni and cheese ($12.95).

“It’s different but it’s fun,” Chureau said. “It’s the kind of food I do at home.”

Blue sage also has a limited bar with wine, beer and five signature margaritas, including strawberry, jalapeno and pomegranate.

Fast-casual, a hybrid of fast food and casual dining, is the quickest-growing restaurant category in the nation, said Richard Martin, executive editor of the Nation’s Restaurant News, a New York-based trade magazine. He said fast-casual is right for these economic times, noting that nine of the 10 fastest-growing restaurants by customer count fall into this category.

Martin said most fast-casual restaurants, such as publicly traded Chipolte Mexican Grill, don’t have table service. The fact that Blue Sage does may hurt it among diners who don’t want to feel compelled to leave a tip, he said.

Still, Martin said, Blue Sage may find a sweet spot with the more affluent diner already accustomed to having and paying for full service.

“Maybe he’s hit on something,” he said of Dussin. “Maybe there’s a demand from a certain category of customer. There’s also the lifestyle issue. Some people don’t want to wait for the check.”

Dussin thinks the quick service at Blue Sage will be a major selling point. He and his wive Tyanne — vice president of design for The Dussin Group — have two daughters, and Dussin has two from a previous marriage. He said the couple, always pressed for time, has a good idea of how rushed people are these days.

But the food can’t be too fast: An early glitch popped up after Dussin opened the prototype West Linn location: The kitchen was so quick that the meals were ready before diners were — meaning that main courses either came when people were still working on drinks or appetizers, or entrees sat cooling in the kitchen.

Justin Huff, a sous chef at Blue Sage, said food preparers have had to slow down.

“At first, the moment we got an order we fired things up,l” he said, tidying his area beside a grill. “Now we get just everything ready but wait until we get the yellow ticket. It’s a little strange.”

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