Why Frasca Food and Wine's founding chef and co-owner traded fine dining for fast casual.
Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson hangs up his chef coat to focus on Pizzeria Locale. Photo by Aaron Colussi
Late one Friday in July 2015, Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson took off his apron and chef’s coat and dropped them into the hamper in Frasca Food and Wine’s employee locker room. For the previous 12 hours, he had fastidiously coached his line cooks and plated and inspected almost every dish that came out of his Boulder kitchen, known as one of the finest in the country. But now, all of the guests had departed, and it was time for Mackinnon-Patterson, Frasca’s executive chef and co-owner, to go home. On his way out, he stopped by the back office he shared with fellow co-owner and master sommelier Bobby Stuckey and the restaurant’s other managers, grabbed his laptop, and stuffed a towering stack of papers into his briefcase.
Over the weekend, Mackinnon-Patterson shuffled through the printouts: a mix of profit and loss sheets, expenses, payroll, and bills. He studied Frasca’s numbers, as well as those for Scarpetta Wine and several Pizzeria Locale outposts, all of which he owned with Stuckey. The then 40-year-old ran calculations in his head, scribbled half-thoughts on paper, and finally, exhausted, opened his computer and tapped out a short email. It was addressed to Stuckey and read, in part, “Starting Monday, our lives change.”
Mackinnon-Patterson discovered his love for the food industry while enrolled at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Multiple times a week, he would Rollerblade to work at Bruegger’s Bagels for the 4:30 a.m. shift. Mackinnon-Patterson was fascinated by the operation and even aimed to improve the system: Instead of following the standard of having three hot bagels of each variety in the case at any given moment, he devised a way to make every bagel hot and fresh all of the time. “It’s one of my characteristics,” Mackinnon-Patterson says. “I go deep with the unfamiliar—that’s where I find challenge.” His drive, however, frustrated the shop owner, and he was let go.
A Toronto native who’d moved to St. Louis with his family when he was 16, Mackinnon-Patterson returned to the Show-Me State when he transferred from CSU to Missouri’s Washington University and took a weekend kitchen job at the Old Warson Country Club. The chef, Aidan Murphy, recognized Mackinnon-Patterson’s potential and put him on the cold line. He would return home each night, hands green from peeling hundreds of asparagus spears or fingers stained red from laboriously pitting cherries, relishing the rush of performing under pressure. Restaurant cooking’s pursuit of perfection appealed to his incessant need to master something new.
One day, Murphy pulled Mackinnon-Patterson aside and told him that if he was serious about being a chef, he needed to study in Europe. Murphy wrote a letter to École Grégoire-Ferrandi, a prestigious, highly selective culinary school in Paris, telling administrators that Mackinnon-Patterson was undertrained but mentally overprepared. “I told Chef I wanted to be the best,” Mackinnon-Patterson says. “I was honored that he stuck out his neck for me.”
In the summer of 1999, 24-year-old Mackinnon-Patterson arrived in Paris to begin his coursework. It was intense and serious—exactly what he craved. He spent nights in his apartment practicing his knife skills, carving carrots into perfect “tournées” (seven-sided football-like shapes). When the school closed for a holiday, Mackinnon-Patterson knocked on the door of Boucheries Nivernaises, the city’s best butcher, and asked for work. He skinned wild hares, trussed birds, and spent long hours in a refrigerated closet plucking feathers from pigeons. Mackinnon-Patterson’s work ethic and focus impressed the butcher, who helped him land an apprenticeship under Benoît Guichard at Jamin, then a two-star Michelin restaurant. He went on to train under Guy Guilloux at the one-star La Taupinière in Brittany, France.
When Mackinnon-Patterson returned to the United States in 2001, he sought a position at the French Laundry in Yountville, California, because it was, first and foremost, French. Under celebrated chef-owner Thomas Keller, he honed his skills plating cheeses and working the cold and fish stations while also learning about the business of running restaurants.
A year later, Keller held a rare all-company meeting and explained the business’ razor-thin margins. He made it clear that in fine dining, every detail—every ladle, every bar mop, every ingredient, every drop of cleaning solution—mattered. It was in this stimulating environment that Mackinnon-Patterson met his future business partner, then Laundry wine director Bobby Stuckey.
In 2003, Mackinnon-Patterson left the French Laundry; Stuckey had also departed to pursue restaurant consulting. The two were determined to start a restaurant together, and after searching for locations on the West Coast, they headed to Colorado. Stuckey’s wife, Danette, suggested Boulder, a city that offered a high quality of life and seemed like it would be supportive of a white-tablecloth restaurant. “I still remember when we came here to look at spaces,” Stuckey says. “The farmers’ market was going off, and we thought this community could be amazing for us.”
Frasca Food and Wine, with its focus on northeastern Italy’s Friuli region, opened on the corner of Pearl and 18th streets in August 2004. The local and national acclaim was immediate. Within a year, Mackinnon-Patterson had been named a best new chef by Food & Wine magazine. Kate Krader, then the magazine's restaurant editor, recalls, “It was like a dream team, him and Bobby Stuckey—a pair of French Laundry alums obsessing over a nonobvious place in Italy. [Lachlan’s] food was transcendent.” In 2008, Mackinnon-Patterson won the James Beard Award for best chef in the Southwest. In 2013, Frasca won a James Beard Award for outstanding wine program.
Pizzeria Locale's fast-casual eats benefit from a founder's touch. Courtesy of Pizzeria Locale.
By the time Mackinnon-Patterson pushed send on his email to Stuckey, he had made the decision to step back from Frasca, the restaurant that symbolized everything he had achieved. “The reason Frasca is successful…is because there’s a founder’s spirit there. A founder clocks in each morning and takes care of everyone,” Mackinnon-Patterson, a self-proclaimed control freak, says. “That was missing from PL 2.0.”
PL 2.0 referred to the fast-casual version of Pizzeria Locale, the full-service restaurant Mackinnon-Patterson and Stuckey opened next door to Frasca in 2011. Its Naples-style pizzas, topped with high-quality, often imported ingredients, quickly inspired intense loyalty. It was a pizza place, yes, but it was upscale, boasting Frasca-level hospitality and a deep, impressive wine list.
Enter Steve Ells, founder and CEO of Chipotle Mexican Grill and a friend of Mackinnon-Patterson and Stuckey. The three began tossing around the idea of a fast-casual Locale in 2011. “What would it look like if we did our pizza, but at a fast-food price in a fast space?” Mackinnon-Patterson asks. “Can we influence a wider range of people?” They decided to find out, and the first quick-service Pizzeria Locale opened on Broadway in Denver in January 2013, signaling a formal partnership with Chipotle. (A Highland location followed in 2014, and today there are also three eateries in Kansas City, Missouri, and two in Cincinnati.)
By 2015, PL 2.0, Frasca, the original pizzeria, and Scarpetta were all expanding, but Mackinnon-Patterson and Stuckey were doing too much. “I told Bob that we were everything and nothing at the same time,” Mackinnon-Patterson says. “You can’t reach your full potential if you do a dab here and a dab there.”
This wasn't the first time Mackinnon-Patterson had brought change to the company. In 2007, two years after he had won Food & Wine’s best new chef award, he and Stuckey were running a restaurant that, to the outside observer, had all the hallmarks of success. Inside, however, Frasca was less financially sound. Despite praise from the James Beard Foundation, the New York Times, Gourmet, Esquire, and others, Frasca’s servers were making more money than Mackinnon-Patterson and Stuckey. Ever the problem-solver, Mackinnon-Patterson drew on his French Laundry experience and began dissecting every component of the restaurant. He and Stuckey raised wine prices and cut back on selection, and they began educating every line cook, runner, back waiter, and server about the value of detail, from saving artichoke stems for stock to the precise dilution of cleaning fluid. They even hired Tony McClung, the general manager of a Napa vineyard, to run Scarpetta. All of those decisions added to the bottom line, making the business more profitable. “If you’re willy-nilly financially, other things become willy-nilly,” Stuckey says. “Lachlan found black and white in the gray of the restaurant industry.”
And so Mackinnon-Patterson turned his attention to PL 2.0. He was vexed by his feeling that the business lacked soul. “We opened it kinda freestyle,” Mackinnon-Patterson says. “But it needed a founder’s touch. One of us needed to be there.” The solution: He would step away from Frasca, entrusting the concept to Stuckey and chefs Duncan Holmes and Ian Wortham. (Mackinnon-Patterson is still involved in menu changes and special events.) He told Stuckey, “You take Frasca, PL Boulder, and Tavernetta [the duo’s Union Station restaurant, slated to open in May], and I’ll take PL 2.0.”
With 90 percent of Mackinnon-Patterson’s time now devoted to the pizza chain, he is drilling down on the details. Take the red wine vinaigrette. The recipe—Italian olive oil, red wine vinegar, wild Sicilian oregano, and sea salt—was the same for all seven locations, but the flavor changed depending on which line cook made it. He retooled the process so the vinaigrette is blended directly into squeeze bottles standing on a scale. That way, every ingredient is weighed and every batch is exactly the same. “In a sense, what Lachlan does at Pizzeria Locale isn’t much different than what he did at Frasca,” Chipotle’s Ells says. “He pays attention to quality and cooking techniques in exactly the same way.”
After decades in the fine-dining realm, Mackinnon-Patterson also knows a thing or two about hospitality—something often missing from fast-casual restaurants. At PL 2.0, he studies the workflow and how it affects customer-employee interactions; each location is laid out differently, so there are plenty of opportunities for innovation around connecting with diners. “At Frasca, you have a guest for two to three hours. You can go in as strangers and leave as friends,” Mackinnon-Patterson says. “How do you bring that to fast food?” With gentle coaching, he pushes PL 2.0 employees on the pizza line to engage with customers they recognize. A simple introduction and “nice to see you again” goes a long way toward making a diner feel appreciated.
He also responds to every post on Twitter, Facebook, and Yelp. Then he runs each comment through his brain: Are there improvements to be made? Yes. Should we serve ranch dressing? No. When diners complained that the tomato sauce was too wet, Mackinnon-Patterson accepted the criticism. After much fiddling, the pizzas are now topped with a blend of tomatoes that have been cooked down to concentrate their flavor. The ingredients are exactly the same, but the ratio of tomatoes to salt, garlic, oil, oregano, and peperoncino chiles is different. The flavor is bright and comforting—and recognizable as pizza sauce.
During last year's autumn truffle season, Mackinnon-Patterson was back in Frasca’s dining room, standing shoulder to shoulder with his fellow chefs. He is satisfied that the restaurant remains at peak performance without him. (Others agree: On December 5 of this past year, Bill Addison, Eater’s national restaurant editor, named Frasca one of the 38 best restaurants in America.)
The move has not been without heartache, though. “Since we dreamed up Frasca,” Stuckey says, “[Lachlan and I] have done everything together.” But the division makes sense. Stuckey’s easy grace and hospitality are a hallmark of the Frasca experience, and Mackinnon-Patterson, though a celebrated culinary force, has the business and operational acumen to recognize day-to-day issues as well as the long view. “What I really care about is making a bigger impact, and doing that with PL 2.0 is motivating,” Mackinnon-Patterson says.
Through his new role, Mackinnon-Patterson’s views of both Frasca and Pizzeria Locale have changed. In both spaces, he observes the atmosphere, surveys the crew, and basks in the energy. But no matter where he is, Mackinnon-Patterson stands between two worlds. He is a bystander and a central force, and it’s from that vantage that he hunts for his next challenge.