Working at a restaurant is like being a member of a secret society. Colleagues become pseudo-family members, due in part to the often chaotic climate behind the scenes, the industry lingo, and unconventional hours. Despite these seemingly unusual parameters, a spell is cast. No one conjures up this sort of enchantment better than AvroKO Hospitality Group, where the collective atmosphere of each place, and the mood the team sets, successfully keep guests coming back.
“We want to give ownership to everyone who comes into our restaurants,” says Brad Farmerie, executive chef of AvroKO Hospitality Group, which includes New York restaurants Saxon + Parole, Ghost Donkey, and the Poni Room (all crafted by AvroKO). “People don’t understand how hands-on we are. When we design and concept a new space, we actually go there and train people on what we’ve asked them to do. We aren’t just handing out packets of our ideas and walking away. The partners bring a different perspective on how a business should run; they want a smarter way to work.”
In 2001, William Harris, Greg Bradshaw, Kristina O’Neal, and Adam Farmerie (Brad’s older brother) founded AvroKO in New York. What started as a small-scale interior and branding agency between four college buddies eventually turned into a global firm, amounting to four offices, 101 employees, and four business models: integrated design practice AvroKO, Brand Bureau, AvroKO Hospitality Group, and custom furniture company Goodshop. In fact, it was their first self-propelled restaurant Public (which recently closed) in New York’s Nolita neighborhood that put them on the map with a 2004 James Beard Award for both design and graphics.
Approaching each project with a keen eye on locality and foresight, Marion Emmanuelle, a partner at AvroKO Hospitality Group and co-managing director at the three-year-old Brand Bureau, handles the company’s conceptualization arm of the business. “I’m always trying to look into the future,” says Emmanuelle. “We have a robust process that we have developed over time that drives all of our concepts. It’s fun because we get to develop things that we can put in front of people—it’s a never-ending cycle of collaboration.” Last year, the globetrotting style-spotter completed more than 100 trips to places like Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Malé, and Paris—all in the name of research for future branding and concept design opportunities.
It’s Brand Bureau’s job to dive deep into their findings so they can create experiential moments through music, lighting design, uniform styles, social media, and the culture of service. Each guest is looking for a different experience when they sit down at a restaurant, and for Emmanuelle and her 40-person team, it’s all about figuring them out before they can decide if they want sparkling or still.
“We need complete flexibility because of how we all work together,” says Farmerie. “Some other companies wouldn’t need as much as we crave because they think there is only one way to think of a space, or there is only one way to create a menu. We don’t operate like that.”
Brand Bureau posits a different idea of how food and beverage can be merged into a single experience. Emmanuelle is the idea generator, traveling the world all in the name of experiencing different cultures through seemingly endless bar crawls and plates of inventive regional cuisine. She reports back to the founding partners and Farmerie, who then take her ideas and turn them into a reality—whether it’s for one of their own restaurants or a concept they are working on for a third party. “We’re a success only because of the insane amount of research Brand Bureau does,” says Farmerie. “We don’t look to involve trends in our spaces, but the idea is to understand the trend and come up with our own version of it based on what feels right.”
For the past eight years, Farmerie has been an instrumental part of the evolution of Saxon + Parole, including the transformation of the dungeon-chic private dining space into a new Manhattan hotspot, the Poni Room. Crediting O’Neal with the overall vision for space, he created a rosé- and Asian seafood-focused menu with a self-serve beverage operation that has close to 20 different varieties to choose from—most of which just so happen to be pink. “The food comes from the main kitchen [upstairs at Saxon + Parole] and is delivered through a small window,” he says. “We designed it that way, so you feel constantly cocooned-in and the service doesn’t change the magic of the space.”