Celebrity chef taps Houston food whiz to revive restaurants — and it seems to be working
Even in Houston's constantly shifting restaurant world, Bradley Ogden's saga has been a bizarre one.
In 2013, the two-time James Beard Award winner shuttered his concepts in Las Vegas and decided his future lay in the Bayou City. He opened two Houston restaurants at the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014 — fast-casual Funky Chicken and more upscale Bradley's Fine Diner — under the direction of his son Bryan, who moved to Houston to oversee the operations and prepare for a third restaurant called Pour Society that would open that fall in Gateway Memorial City next to sushi restaurant Kuu.
"I think everybody likes a challenge, and this was about the biggest one I could think to take," Lowry tells CultureMap.
Fine Diner, despite its ridiculous "big f-ing deal" acronym, seemed to have some potential. The menu included some of Ogden's classic comfort food like his oak-grilled burger and pot roast along with high-quality akaushi steaks and slightly more adventurous fare like domestic caviar and frogs legs.
Despite Ogden's celebrity pedigree, the restaurant was a major disappointment, the exotic ingredients disappeared and diners stayed away in droves.
Over the last six months, the restaurant has only averaged $8,500 per month in mixed beverage sales, according to data published by the State Comptroller's Office. In contrast, Coltivare, which is located about a mile from BFD and opened a few months before it, averaged over $100,000 in sales each month.
Rather than abandon his Houston efforts, Ogden has doubled down. In April, he hired Greg Lowry away from his role as chef de cuisine at Triniti to serve as corporate chef for his Texas efforts. Lowry has developed a new menu for BFD and enlisted Matthew Lovelace, formerly of Paul's Kitchen, to serve as chef de cuisine at Pour Society when it opens in July.
"I think everybody likes a challenge, and this was about the biggest one I could think to take," Lowry tells CultureMap. "It was about me stepping out on my own and making a name for myself."
Lowry offers a direct critique of Ogden's initial approach to Houston, which included a quote to Eater Las Vegas about Houston being "starving for great places to eat," as part of his motivation to open restaurants here.
"I think they really shot themselves in the foot with the way they talked about coming to Houston and saying Houston needed a good restaurant," Lowry says. "Houston has awesome restaurants everywhere. I think not having someone who was local to Houston who knows the market and the people really hurt them."
Lowry has introduced a host of new dishes designed to fit the "fine diner" aesthetic while appealing to local tastes.
Ogden signature items like the Yankee pot roast, burger and butterscotch pudding remain, but Lowry has introduced a host of new dishes designed to fit the "fine diner" aesthetic while appealing to local tastes. They include: an updated oyster BLT that uses Gulf oysters and prosciutto; salmon with green garlic pesto and spring vegetables; pork belly with gnocchi; and a show-stopping "low country" burger that's topped with pimento cheese and guanciale and served on a brioche bun.
The offerings are compelling and prices are reasonable. Lowry says the initial response has been positive but he concedes the restaurant has more to work to do to earn a second chance.
"It’s hard for me to come in after all this stuff has happened and try to recover it, but I think we can get it. I’m pretty positive we can," he says. "We just need to be nice to people. That’s the thing. People are coming here and spending their hard-earned money. That needs to be the experience. It needs to evoke childhood memories."
Lowry adds that one thing people shouldn't worry about is whether the company is committed to the Houston market. With the new hirings and a push to finalize Pour Society, he thinks Ogden's ventures are back on track.
"There’s not been any talk about anything negative at all through (Ogden's management team)," Lowry says. "They’re very positive about it. The outlook is really good. From being in my position, dealing with owners like this, they’re committed to it and fully behind us, 100 percent."