It’s a family affair for Cohn Restaurant Group, in more ways than one. The group of 24 restaurants is owned by David and Lesley Cohn, who run the San Diego–based business with the help of son Jeremy Cohn, daughter Jessica Cohn Feinman and son-in-law Mike Feinman.
Their family focus extends to the restaurant brands as well. “We look at our restaurants as siblings,” David Cohn explains. “In most families, mine included, there are similarities among family members and also very distinct differences. We try to have similarities in terms of unique design, great service and menus that reflect what we think that community is looking for. We try to have real differences as well, to set them all apart so we’re not creating a chain.”
Since its founding in 1981, Cohn Restaurant Group has populated the dining scene in San Diego County, operating restaurants not only in the city’s hotspots of Little Italy and the Gaslamp district, but pushing south to Imperial, north to Oceanside and east to places like La Mesa and Escondido. In addition, the group has moved further up the coast to Long Beach, and also operates one restaurant in Hawaii. “They’re one of the biggest and best in the San Diego market and beyond,” says Neil Sorensen, regional vice president of the San Diego branch at Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits. “They have different concepts—they’re not like a chain. If one concept isn’t performing at the level they would like it to, they’re not afraid to make changes, which I think is great.”
Evolving The Market
Cohn Restaurant Group has been a fixture in the San Diego dining scene since the early 1980s. At that point, Cohn notes, San Diego was a chain town, but the city has evolved since then. “San Diego is now a culinary destination,” he says. “We have wonderful chefs and wonderful restaurateurs. We have a bit of a south-of-Los Angeles complex, but I travel quite a bit, as do my restaurant friends, and we’re as creative and innovative as anyone. What’s happening here is exciting.”
The group’s growth has been gradual, but that’s by design. There were years that it didn’t open any restaurants and years that it opened two or three. It grew organically, and now operates 24 restaurants. Financial stability drove the slow and steady expansion. “Our plan was to only grow as quickly as we could finance from within so that we didn’t become over-leveraged,” Cohn says. “We had seen too many people grow too quickly and end up losing what they started with.”
The financial factors are paramount, but the group also considers whether it has the internal talent to expand at any given time. “People want to be with a company that’s expanding, not one that’s stagnant or contracting,” Cohn says. Concepts cover a broad spectrum, from fine dining at places like Island Prime, 333 Pacific, Blue Point Coastal Cuisine and Coasterra, to beer-centric venues such as Draft Republic and Coin Haus Beer & Games, to more casual fare at Zigzag Pizza Pie and Corvette Diner. There is some overlap. For example, there are multiple BO-beau venues—BO-beau kitchen + garden in La Mesa, BO-beau kitchen + bar in San Diego and BO-beau kitchen + roof tap in Long Beach—but each has a unique twist. “Each one of our BO-beaus has some common menu items, but other than that they are different,” Cohn says. “The menus are driven by the executive chef in that location.” BO-beau kitchen + caché, which recently opened in the Hillcrest neighborhood, is a dual concept with a backroom speakeasy. Next door is Tacos Libertad, a taco shop where 100 percent of profits are donated to a monthly charity selected by an advisory committee.
The Bar Approach
Maurice DiMarino embraces the unique attributes of each restaurant. The Cohn Restaurant Group wine and beverage manager says each restaurant or bar takes its own approach to its beverage selection. “All my restaurants are very different, so when I put a program together I don’t do a core list,” DiMarino says. “Wine and spirits are sold at the restaurant level so the manager has some ownership over it. They’re the ones who are going to push it out to the staff and talk to the guests about it. It’s important for them to select the brands they want to use. However, I do have a core program, because we have partnerships with certain suppliers. Managers have autonomy with those portfolios. I’m here to assist with that and I absolutely do help, but I’m not here to tell them they have to have this particular cocktail or this particular brand.”
Earlier this year, DiMarino partnered with California State University San Marcos in north San Diego County for an emailed survey of guests’ preferences in beer, wine and spirits. The results weren’t surprising, showing a propensity for categories like vodka, Chardonnay and Cabernet. But the survey skewed older, with very little participation from millennial-aged patrons. DiMarino acknowledges the different demands from that age group. “I think it’s on us to introduce our guests to new things,” he says. “The younger generation is looking for something new all the time.”
As for trends, red blends have been on fire recently, and wines from Mexico have also found a foothold. “Because we’re so close to the border we do a good amount of Baja wines,” DiMarino notes. “They’re up and coming for this area for sure.” He puts his own stamp on wine menus as well. “I really want people to drink more Riesling,” he says. “Every one of my restaurants has Riesling on the menu in some form. I just don’t think people understand it yet, and once they taste dry Riesling they’re going to be all over it.”
Tiki is the big trend in spirits for San Diego. Cohn Restaurant Group doesn’t have a tiki-centric venue, but nevertheless has incorporated its influence. “It’s not really about the rum—it’s about the fruity, fresh, tropical cocktails,” DiMarino says. He adds that interest in mezcal is on the rise among locals in San Diego. It’s not a big seller right now, but it’s drawing increasing attention. “Nobody likes mezcal when they’re trying it for the first time,” DiMarino explains. At one venue, Indigo Grill, bartenders are infusing mezcal with fruits and chilis as a way to introduce the unique spirit to guests.
Excitement about craft and local beer is very high in San Diego. That’s underscored by some of Cohn Restaurant Group’s most recent openings, including Draft Republic and Coin Haus, which has a second location opening in Ocean Beach next year. Although the local brewing scene is thriving in San Diego, DiMarino contends that local beer isn’t always the best fit at his restaurants. “We like to feature great beer, not just local beer,” he says. “Most of my restaurants do feature local beer, but I’m not stuck to that. In fact, local sometimes doesn’t make business sense because local brands tend to be more expensive in their home market than they are outside of their locality. I pay less for a small craft brew from San Francisco than people in San Francisco do.” The proliferation of brewpubs and craft tasting rooms make the local craft beer scene very competitive. “The craft brewers have tasting rooms everywhere, and they also compete with us—they can serve a $5 pint and we’re serving a $7 pint. That’s the issue I have with local beer,” he adds.
Cohn says his company is always looking for new opportunities and will continue on the expansion path for the foreseeable future. New concepts are always in the works. “The magic of multi-concept restaurants—and we may be doing it backwards, but it has worked for us—is that we find the right location and then try to match a restaurant that we think will work in that particular neighborhood,” he says. “We certainly look at demographics and the competitive set and try to see if anything is missing from the neighborhood that we think would work well.”
Looking ahead, Cohn has no specific goal to reach in terms of number of locations. “I’ve never done it that way,” he says. “It’s always been based on opportunities, and what’s happening in the marketplace. I do think it’s a bit trickier these days because occupancy costs have risen a bit, so we’re a bit more cautious.”
Orange County is a likely next step, Cohn says. With one restaurant in nearby Long Beach and given Orange County’s proximity to San Diego, the wealthy area is an obvious choice. “We like the idea of staying close enough so we’re within a few hours’ drive of all of our restaurants, except of course Hawaii,” he says. “We just need something that excites us. We’re a family company and we don’t have any outside debt, so we’re not driven by investors. We make decisions based on whether the location and the opportunity feels right.”
Growth may be stymied by market factors. Cohn admits that expansion has slowed due to the rising costs of doing business. An escalating minimum wage is a factor but, more importantly, real estate costs are skyrocketing. He laments the “very competitive environment and high costs of doing business” in California. “You don’t always hit a home run so you’ve got to make sure your costs are in line, especially your occupancy costs, so that you can afford to be successful if you hit a double,” Cohn says. “I’ve turned down a lot of deals only because we would’ve had to hit a home run.