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David Cohn

Restaurateur serves up success through passion, culinary arts, business savvy

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In the mid 1980s, David Cohn, a child of the flower power, anti-corporate generation, set out to create a family of restaurants, each with its own distinct personality. That singular goal has produced local eateries as diverse as Corvette Diner, Gaslamp Strip Club, The Prado and Blue Point.

“We like to mix it up,” said Cohn, president and founder of Cohn Restaurant Group (CRG).

The company has more than 1,000 employees servicing 16 outlets, including two on Maui and one on wheels. Considering the high restaurant failure rate, CRG has been tremendously successful, often seeing opportunities in locations and concepts that others miss. Cohn attributes the company’s success to a hybrid approach that may not follow corporate models or be taught in MBA classes, but that’s right for his family of restaurants.

“It’s about passion, hospitality and culinary arts, but also about business,” said Cohn. “We create a unique support system for our general managers and executive chefs to be successful.”

That support system includes Cohn’s wife Lesley, designer and CRG’s in-restaurant face. Their daughter Jessica is CRG’s marketing and social media specialist, and their son Jeremy is involved in restaurant operations. Executive chef Deborah Scott also plays an integral and high-profile role.

While CRG does utilize demographics, site analysis and psychographs, often it’s a sixth sense that a concept or location is worth the risk. Cohn cites 333 Pacific, CRG’s first North County venture, which opened two years ago in Oceanside’s Wyndham Resort.

“Most people don’t think of Oceanside as a good restaurant market,” said Cohn. “I disagreed and felt it was an area that could support an upscale restaurant.”

Cohn’s sixth sense extends to identifying strong, entrepreneurial, passionate general managers and executive chefs who might open their own restaurants if not for that high restaurant failure rate.

Last summer, CRG partnered with Scott to capitalize on the gourmet food truck trend taking hold in gastro hubs around the country. Chop Soo-ey, an eatery on wheels showcasing Scott’s Asian fusion cuisine, is an extension of CRG’s restaurant brands. Facebook fans and Twitter followers can find Chop Soo-ey at charity events, farmer’s markets, street fairs, industrial parks and downtown hotspots for after-hours dining. A second truck, Patty Melt, will feature burgers, fries and unusual sandwich combinations.

“The trend is a twist on favorites, taking pedestrian menu items and putting a gourmet spin on them,” Cohn said.

Of late, CRG has partnered with entrepreneurs on concepts that are edgier than past enterprises. Its venture with restaurateur Philippe Beltran is giving the space formerly known as Thee Bungalow in Ocean Beach a new design, concept and menu. With a mid-December opening planned, Bo-Beau will serve inexpensive Euro-French bistro fare in a comfortable, bohemian atmosphere.

“We’re looking at one-of-a-kind spaces and unique opportunities,” Cohn said.

That includes finding a North County location for Kemo Sabe, Scott’s Pacific Rim restaurant that closed after 15 years when its Hillcrest lease expired in October.

James is a Carlsbad-based freelance writer.

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