Backed by a partnership with Aroi Hospitality Group, the restaurant group whose team includes two of the founders of Caviar, the Bay Area-based Thai restaurant chain is leveraging its success throughout the pandemic for even more growth in 2021 and beyond.
San Francisco, CA (RestaurantNews.com) Rooster & Rice, the 10-location Thai restaurant chain whose simple chicken-and-rice menu made it a darling among Bay Area foodies, has been carefully engineered for large-scale success and is ready to begin its next level of growth. Combining a streamlined, chef-driven, yet simple-to-execute menu with a flexible footprint that thrives in a variety of neighborhoods and build-outs – including a ghost kitchen – the emerging brand is quickly becoming one of the most exciting new concepts in an industry shaken to its core by the pandemic.
One of the few foodservice brands to not only survive but thrive throughout the COVID-19 crisis, Rooster & Rice’s simple menu, which is focused primarily on its fan-favorite Thai chicken-and-rice dish, made the concept a low-cost and easy-to-run proposition, allowing the brand to stay in the green even as consumers largely avoided dining out in 2020.
Rooster & Rice Was Built to Grow
Rooster & Rice’s first location, a pop-up established in a 500-square-foot hot dog shop in San Francisco, may not have immediately suggested large-scale growth, but Bryan Lew, the brand’s co-founder, says expansion was the plan from day one.
“We knew we had a great concept that no one else had really nailed yet,” Lew said. “We saw incredible sales right away, and we knew it was just the beginning.”
When the hot dog shop’s owner decided to sell the business, Lew and Tommy Charoen, Rooster & Rice’s head chef, jumped at the opportunity to turn their pop-up into a permanent establishment and start growing their empire.
Within a year, Rooster & Rice had opened its second location, but to continue growing, Lew and Charoen knew they’d need some financial help, so they started talking to investors.
“It was like a real-life ‘Shark Tank’,” Lew said. “We spent six months talking to interested investors almost every day. We knew we had a strong brand and the best chicken-and-rice dish in the Bay Area, so we were dead-set on finding the perfect strategic partners to take us to the next level.”
Why were investors so eager to partner with this particular fledgling restaurant brand? According to Lew, it all came down to the concept’s simplicity in menu offerings and execution, which was only further proven a winning combination without facing supply chain issues as the pandemic continued on.
“Even before COVID-19, we had the perfect package,” he said. “Ask anyone in the industry and they will tell you, the goal is to get as close as you can to a single, perfect item that you can turn out quickly and consistently. Tommy had been perfecting his chicken-and-rice dish by testing it with family, friends and folks in the industry for years, so we had that nailed. On top of the dish, we had the branding packaged and ready to go before we even opened the pop-up. So there was a real clarity of vision for investors, and it was easy to see how we could scale the concept.”
Rooster & Rice Finds The Perfect Investment Partner in Aroi Hospitality Group
After half a year of interviewing and vetting potential partners, Lew and Charoen accepted an offer from Aroi Hospitality Group (AHG), a restaurant investment group whose team includes Jason Wang and Shawn Tsao, two of the founders of Caviar, the third-party food delivery app, which subsequently was acquired by Square in 2014 and later bought by DoorDash in 2019.
Before signing on with Rooster & Rice, Min Park, AHG’s CFO and lead investor, saw firsthand just how lucrative Lew and Charoen’s concept was.
“I used to work across the street from their second location,” Park said. “When we were looking into the brand, I spent a week counting every single customer who entered the store. The numbers were impressive, and they confirmed what we had suspected about the brand: that people loved the food and the model could easily accommodate huge numbers of customers. We wanted to be the best brand, and we wanted to help take this small concept to a national audience. We wanted Rooster and Rice to be the name people associate with Khao Mun Ghai in the U.S.
With AHG’s help, Rooster & Rice has expanded to 10 locations, each with a different store model and footprint, proving not only that the success of the brand’s original locations was no fluke but also that the model was eminently flexible and able to thrive in different neighborhoods and a variety of spaces. These features proved critical in 2020, when flexibility became a prerequisite for survival in the foodservice industry. Focusing on growing the brand also helped fill a void for Lew during COVID-19, during which he has been unable to run his previously opened full-service concept, Indo Restaurant.
“COVID completely changed the restaurant landscape, but because of the simplicity of our menu and flexibility of our restaurant build-outs, we were able to roll with it,” Lew said. “We’ve got locations in residential neighborhoods and commercial districts – even our downtown locations, which typically rely on office workers, continued to find sales throughout the pandemic.”
In 2020, Rooster & Rice also introduced its first ghost-kitchen model, allowing the brand to tap into the increasingly lucrative delivery-only segment through a partnership with DoorDash.
The Future of Rooster & Rice
The brand’s success throughout the COVID-19 crisis may be proof of the efficacy of its model, but Park says Rooster & Rice has only scratched the surface of its growth prospects. With a COVID-tested model, flexible footprint, low-investment and uniquely appealing consumer offering, Rooster & Rice is well-positioned for continued expansion in markets across the U.S.
“We see an incredible opportunity in front of us,” he said. “There is a lot of demand for high-quality Asian food, and especially in the QSR segment, no one has really claimed a stake. There are some poke and Thai concepts, but they all offer the same product and experience, and as a result, there’s very little brand loyalty. Rooster & Rice is something wholly different. This is a brand that offers fine-dining quality Thai food through an operational model that allows them to serve it at QSR speed, price and convenience. The sky is really the limit for how far we can take this.”
About Rooster & Rice
Founded by career restaurateurs Bryan Lew and Tommy Charoen, Rooster & Rice has been serving fresh, organic Thai dishes to Bay Area diners since its first location opened as a pop-up in a San Francisco hot dog shop in 2015. An instant hit, the brand rapidly expanded into multiple permanent locations. In 2019, Rooster & Rice partnered with Aroi Hospitality Group, a restaurant group whose team includes two of the founders of food-delivery app Caviar, to help the brand develop in new markets. For more information, please visit www.roosterandrice.com.
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