Monday, April 16th is the official opening of Fresa's Chicken Al Carbon, the upscale chicken joint from Austin resto-preneur Larry McGuire of Perla's and Lamberts fame. Fresa's focuses on farm-raised, from-scratch fast food available via walk-up or drive-thru. McGuire tells Eater Austin, in the first of a two-interview series about his new restaurants, that Fresa's is a Sunday-after-church kind of place, where families can pick up a meal to have at home with some cold beers (which they also sell, by the six pack, along with bottles of wine).
This morning, McGuire and his team were preparing to practice their fowl fooding on friends and family in anticipation of their grand opening on Monday, which also happens to be the day McGuire will take over ownership of West Austin's classic fine-dining spot Jeffrey's. Check back next week for the second part of our interview with McGuire, wherein we'll talk all things upscale West Austin dining.
But for now it's time to talk fancy poultry. Says McGuire: "People know this food at a certain price point. Are they willing to pay extra for the experience?"
How did the Fresa's concept develop?
We’ve done a new partnership in this deal. I’ve been doing most of my business with my partner Tom Moorman, we’ve done all the food together at Lamberts and Perla’s and Elizabeth Street. We hired a woman named Margaret Vera who had a little coffee shop called Azul on the East Side. She was doing brand management and development for Stubb’s and we were hooked up through mutual friends. She helped with Elizabeth Street. While we were working on that, she and another friend were like, we have an idea for a chicken al carbon concept, doing it all natural. Doing it in Central Austin. So we kind of partnered and rounded out the concept. We got this building because I was buying all the espresso equipment from Emily who had Emerald City Press, she’s a friend. I was like, this could be perfect. It’s really difficult to find existing drive-thrus because these places stay around. There’s no turnover. So that’s Fresa’s.
The chicken here is the main attraction, with it being natural, farm-raised, that kind of thing?
The chicken was the main thing. It was like, what kind of chicken are we going to sell? We were trying to find the best possible chicken we could find without having to make the meal $40. Because we wanted to sell a super all-natural, even taking it organic, chicken. But if you go to Whole Foods and buy that, at $4 per pound, a 3.5-pound chicken is $14. El Pollo Rico and El Pollo Regio, their whole meal is $14. They’re using Tyson or just regular chicken. So luckily my buddy Mat Clouser, he’s opening Swift’s Attic, he’s like, my cousin is starting to raise chickens. So we have a meeting and she’s married into this crazy ranching family. Her husband is a cattle rancher. The have a huge cattle operation in Floresville, Texas with a hay farm next door where they grow all their own hay for the feedlot. So she started raising chickens on the hay farm about three years ago. She’s selling to some San Antonio restaurants, the Monterrey and some of the better restaurants down there at the Pearl Farmers Market. When she found out how many chickens we were going to need a week, she was kind of like, oooh, I don’t know. But in the last year we’ve talked her into it and gotten her excited about it. They ended up building another barn on their facility and a USDA processing plant.
So it’s literally, you hear these people doing this kind of stuff, but this is the real deal. She’s raising the chickens from day one. With the chickens every day. Her family is helping. They’ve devoted a bunch of ranch hands to help. She’s figured out how to do it, just learning how to raise chickens. And now she’s going to supply us with 700 chickens a week. One hundred a day. So they take about six weeks to get to weight, two months? So she’s got ‘em lined out to be ready. And then she’s got to process them and get them up here. When we found her, the concept really came together. There were a bunch of people raising good chickens in town, but no one that could do it at scalable at the volume we needed.
There were Amish chickens, so much “natural” language. Natural’s gotten to be so popular. All this language, you don’t know what you’re getting. The farmers have such lobbying power that they want the terms to be very vague. Pretty much everyone can call their stuff natural but you don’t even know what that means. With this, we went and saw it, we know her. It’s a relationship. I’m still concerned about the price of the chicken, because our whole chicken is 24 bucks.
We’re curious to see, since it’s a drive thru, you’re going to go through a drive-thru and pick up dinner and it’s going to be $30 or $40. I’m really concerned and curious to see how people react to that. It is fast food, but what we’re trying to replace is people going into Whole Foods. So that’s the curiosity for us. We’re going through the same thing at Elizabeth Street. People know this food at a certain price point. Are they willing to pay extra for the experience? The convenience? The design? All that stuff. And then making the food as good or better, even though we’re using better ingredients it still has to be as good or better than Tam Deli and Pho Saigon and that kind of stuff.
Elizabeth Street Cafe has been doing great business, though. It's always packed.
It’s doing great. It’s been busier than we thought. Than it was going to be. That's what’s missing in Austin, we’ve got lots of high end and tons of divey, Austin food. But there’s no like, where can I eat for $20? Where can I still go somewhere cool and it’s fun and dinner for two’s like, $40 or $50. Not $80, $90, Lamberts, Perla’s, Vespaio prices. And then you’re up into Uchi. We’ve got plenty of that.
What we’re trying to fill now is good ingredient-driven food, convenient, it’s still an experience and a clever design and all that. But $40. People at Elizabeth Street think I’m trying to attack these restaurants. I can still eat at Tam Deli and Hai Ky, but there’s plenty of that already. It wouldn’t be interesting if I was trying to do that. I’m trying to fill this mid-gap. That’s what this is about. When you’re in a hurry and you want something convenient but you still want hand-made, from-scratch food.
And you're selling beer and wine at Fresa's, too?
It’s about being able to get all the things you want without having to go to multiple locations. You get a chicken meal, but who says a chicken meal has to be this one thing? It’s about a picnic. It’s about taking it to a dinner party. Our wine buyer at the other restaurants did the list here. Six packs. Guayamas, those big 32 oz. beers. And all the alcohol is retail priced. I think it’s a dollar more than going next door to 7-11. And then homemade ice creams too. We’re really curious to see how this does. We’re opening businesses that we would go to. It’s just really about being able to pick up everything in one trip, conveniently.