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Urban Kitchen Group chief has eye on expansion

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Tracy Borkum is the owner of San Diego's Urban Kitchen Group, which encompasses CUCINA urbana, Kensington Grill and Urban Kitchen Catering.

Q: You just celebrated your 15th anniversary at Kensington Grill. How do you feel the industry has changed locally in the past 15 years?

A: Fifteen years ago people thought I was crazy to open an upscale dining establishment in a small community outside of La Jolla or downtown. Coming from San Francisco, and dining at so many fabulous 'neighborhood restaurant's' in and around that city, we were committed to making the Grill a similar success.

We opened with a bang and found that not only were we serving folks from Kensington and Talmadge, but that other San Diegans came to try our fare and loved the intimacy and neighborhood feel that the Grill has become known for. Since that time it is thrilling to see so many other pockets now buzzing with great food and incredible culinary talent.

I am proud to have been a part of this groundbreaking change in San Diego.

Q: Do you have intentions of expanding the CUCINA urbana brand?

A: For sure! We are currently looking at a few locations outside of San Diego and also hoping to find a great spot in North County. We believe the concept has legs and we're excited to introduce it elsewhere.

Q: Any plans for a new concept in San Diego?

A: I have two ideas that are constantly waking me up in the middle of the night right now. I grab a pen and pad and document my thoughts constantly. Visualizing a space, a menu, and certain energy (I even hear the noise of the restaurant) gets my juices flowing. I actually have my eye on a space that would be perfect for one of these concepts and am just waiting for that landlord to give me a ring -- wink, wink!

Q: How do you stay updated on industry trends?

A: I religiously spend every Sunday afternoon reading dozens of magazines, mostly industry and food mags, but also fashion, design, travel, business and social commentary publications. I tear out pages of ideas and interest and bring them to work every Monday morning. We've been cataloging these since 1995. Whether we are changing a menu, creating a catered event or working on a new concept, these binders are paramount to the process.

Q: Do you think that San Diego is gaining recognition as a foodie city?

A: Yes, finally! San Diego has always been the stepsister to Los Angeles and San Francisco. However, in the last five years so many great chefs have relocated here or come from here, either working in our restaurants or spreading the message across the rest of the country, that we are finally making stride in getting national attention. We still have a ways to go but the light at the end of tunnel is shining bright.

Q: Your company is big on green practices. What is your greatest achievement to date in this area?

A: This year we began composting. Students from the San Diego Center for Children are actually managing CUCINA's composting program. Our scraps are used in their garden, as well as delivered to Olivewood Gardens and Suzie's Farm. Considering we receive much of our produce from farms such as Suzie's, keeping that circle going is one more step toward sustainable farming. Last week I had the opportunity to visit Olivewood Gardens to see how our compost is being put to work -- it was moving. The message that the children are receiving regarding nutrition, sustainability and responsibility is most commendable at both institutions.

Q: You were one of the first to implement the $20 and under menu in San Diego. What impact do you think this has had on dining in San Diego?

A: Prior to our transformation (from Laurel to CUCINA urbana) we noticed a change in the way our guests were dining. They weren't eating out as often, just watching their wallets more. In our discussions of menu development for CUCINA we knew two things: One, we had to offer value. Two, we were not going to jeopardize quality for price.

The idea of providing a quality product at a reasonable price is being embraced everywhere now as more and more establishments are following suit. We recently made similar changes at Kensington Grill and have noticed a positive trend in sales and number of diners. (This doesn't mean to say that fine dining should become extinct -- I as much as the next guy or gal love to get dressed up and go out for an amazingly decadent meal at some of San Diego's finest.)

Q: What else about your menu has proven successful?

A: San Diego is extremely fortunate to have year-round access to outstanding produce, and we're beginning to see local chefs and restaurateurs take full advantage of this. At CUCINA, we have great relationships with a number of local farms such as Suzie's, Crow's Pass, and Mike and Son's. This has a profound impact on the freshness and quality of product delivered to our guests on a nightly basis. The "farm-to-table" concept is one that is truly spreading in our area and is certainly helping form a strong identity of what to expect when dining in San Diego. In fact, the organic rosemary grown with the help of our compost scraps at the Center for Children is used in our kitchen.

Q: If you had one piece of advice for someone starting out in this industry, what would it be?

A: Make sure you negotiate a solid lease and don't open the doors before you're ready.

Q: What do you think makes you a successful small business owner?

A: Thinking before speaking, admitting fault and remembering there are two sides to every story. Not expecting anyone else to put in the hours I do. It has taken me many years to get here but I think I'm finally figuring it out. I also watch my peers and am constantly assessing who has a great reputation and why. We can always learn from others even when they have no idea they are serving such a purpose.

Q: How do you think you could be a better manager?

A: Remembering to say thank you more often.

Q: If you had not ended up in the restaurant business what other career path do you think you would have taken?

A: Attorney by day, Old Globe stage by night.

Chat with Tracy at tracy@urbankitchengroup.com

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User Response
1 UserComments
Victoria Zillioux 10:43am September 7, 2010

As Kensington residents we have happily followed Tracy's successes over time. We love to be able to walk to the Grill and see our friends and neighbors. And we now enjoy Cucina Urbana and our only complaint is that it is so busy it's hard to get a reservation! Best of luck! We will continue to be happy customers.