It’s night three of Firecreek Restaurant & Bar’s March opening event for friends and family, and Carlo deMarco is stationed outside the kitchen, poised to pounce on any entrée that doesn’t meet his exacting standards.
For the next few hours, deMarco will be tracking everything in the Downingtown restaurant. Perhaps most important to this seasoned chef is customer reaction. Whether it’s friends or family, feedback is a hot commodity.
A few days later, 24 hours before Firecreek’s official opening, deMarco is enjoying an unseasonably warm afternoon on the patio of his other restaurant, 333 Belrose Bar & Grill in Wayne. Despite word that Firecreek’s liquor license is on hold, he’s calm as can be. On any another day, he might’ve been “wigged,” but deMarco is fresh off of a two-day break, it’s gorgeous outside, and early feedback about his new venture has been good.
Still, a crucial decision has to be made. Do they open without the liquor license? Apparently, deMarco’s mind is made up. “When you don’t open on time—especially after a lot of hype—there’s a loss of credibility,” he says. “It’s embarrassing.”
As it turns out, Firecreek did open without a liquor license—a great deal for customers, but not for deMarco and partner Rob Donaldson. “We were giving away top-shelf booze,” says deMarco. “We had a strong showing in the dining room, but instead of staying open until 11, we closed at 9:30. That’s an hour and a half of lost bar business.”
Still, the night was hardly a disaster. By 5:15 p.m., the enormous dining room was half full, and the kitchen served more than 300 customers. They’d all come out to sample the much-hyped new restaurant’s carnivore-friendly, fire-grilled American fare and edgy aesthetics.
A subsequent turnout on Firecreek’s second weekend in business fell short of expectations, but deMarco didn’t sweat it. The liquor license—and better weather—was coming.
Opening a 5,375-square-foot restaurant in this shaky economy is a bold move—something deMarco freely admits. “It’s crazy that we’re doing it,” he says. “But we’ve been on this train for months; it needed to get to the station. Once a train gets rolling, you can’t stop it mid-track.”
“Think big” has been a successful business model for many Philadelphia restaurateurs, if less so in the suburbs. Higher volume often delivers greater earnings, but it can also mean more overhead—and an exponential increase in the number of things that can go wrong.
“Keeping Belrose strong as we settle into Downingtown won’t be a problem,” says Donaldson. “But Firecreek will be a challenge for a while. We’ve got a hundred more seats, twice the number of employees, and more moving parts.” (Those moving parts also include the yet-to-open Doghouse, a casual burger joint adjacent to Firecreek.)
Expanding from one restaurant to two should be a real test for deMarco, particularly on the business end of things. “Carlo’s going to learn new aspects about operations that he only got a taste of at Belrose,” says Donaldson. “Being a chef/owner has taught him a lot, though. He’s well aware of costs and where things need to be cut.”
Adds deMarco, “Owning a business and being intimate with the numbers makes you a good business person. You learn all about P&L when it’s your money.”
That appreciation for the bottom line has helped him maintain a solid relationship with Donaldson and investors at Belrose and Firecreek. The only person who puts a cap on the kitchen’s creativity is deMarco himself—and that’s only when the cost of ingredients gets out of hand.
“I look at menus from 10 years ago, and it’s like, ‘Oh my god.’ The cost of product and staffing has gone up dramatically.”
But that’s just the sort of challenge deMarco craves.
“There is an infinite amount of new information and products out there, and a lot of cool stuff happening in kitchens,” he says. “But I’m much more concerned about being precise and consistent than I am about being weird or eclectic. I may try stuff like cooking sous vide at home or playing around with my smoker—and maybe I’ll think about doing it here—but it has to make sense, and it can’t be out-of-control expensive.”
The menu at 333 Belrose Bar & Grill changes with the seasons, and deMarco has never strayed from a basic palette of fresh, simple and boldly flavored ingredients, and contemporary American cuisine with international influences.
“Stylistically, I’m cooking the same as I always have—using lots of texture, bold flavors, bright colors—and the menu hasn’t grown much,” deMarco says, adding that his preference has always been smaller, concise, “tight” menus.
Compared to other chefs who are constantly experimenting with new equipment and ingredients, deMarco is more straightforward, his dishes emphasizing the ingredients over cutting-edge techniques. At home, he loves to cook with his family—more the boys than his wife, who, despite his coaching and adoration, is “a terrible cook”—and for friends. Easter Sunday this year, it was leg of lamb prepared in his “big, green egg” smoker.
DeMarco’s lust for grilled and smoked meat and seafood plays out well for protein-hungry diners who shun carbs in favor of cowboy-sized steaks and crimson-rare tuna. Originally, Firecreek had positioned itself as a steakhouse. But as opening day approached and the economy slid, they made a quick marketing shift, adding “American Grill” to the moniker.
“In this economy, ‘grill’ translates a lot better than ‘steakhouse,’” says deMarco. “We want this to be an everyday place, where people can come in after work, have drinks and apps; bring a date, sit outside and enjoy the view; or have a night out with the kids. Being a Saturday night destination isn’t what we’re looking for; great food and a great experience is. But we don’t want to go over the top.”
Part of Belrose’s charm is the cozy, bare-bones bar and spacious yet intimate patio. The latter is consistently one of the most popular places to see and be seen year-round, despite the occasional migration of customers to the newest “it” restaurant.
Neither Donaldson nor deMarco are looking to copy Belrose, but they did make a conscious effort to bring some intimacy to Firecreek’s vast measurements. The open kitchen and the granite-topped chef’s table invite a closer connection to the food, and the patio’s fire pit and scenic views offer a dose of serenity. All of that juxtaposes well with the energy at the bar and on the floor, as servers buzz around with dishes and drinks, delivering the kind of bustling, upscale dining experience you get downtown.
“The concept is working,” says deMarco. “I hired well, and we’re doing things in the kitchen that are proving successful on the execution side of things. Main Liners are a loyal but super-demanding clientele. I’ve lived here my whole life, so I can say that. The plus side is that there’s no chance of slipping into complacency. I have a pretty good read on what my customers want.”
For deMarco, one of the secrets to his success has been sticking close to home. He gave California a shot—twice—working at the original California Café in Marin County, and running a corporate operation for Stouffer’s and three outposts of Pacific Fresh. He also ran the kitchen at Bridget Foy’s in Center City for six-plus years. But working on the Main Line has been the most gratifying.
“I have no desire to work downtown again,” says deMarco, who prefers the slower paced, less aggressive competition of the suburbs to the saturated city scene. “It’s nice to work in my back yard, and I really enjoy creating cool spaces for people to enjoy a nice meal and sip on whatever it is they’re into. I’m definitely not a great front man. I don’t relish walking around in a fancy chef’s coat.”
DeMarco contends he’s not looking for an empire. “But I am looking to make money,” he says. “It sounds hokey, but I like hitting my food and bar and wine costs. It’s motivating to see that you’re making money for yourself.”
For deMarco, a major perk of opening 333 Belrose was co-owning the building—a prospect far more imaginable here than it would’ve been in the city.
But ownership also can be an annoyance—as with deMarco’s property in Conshohocken, the short-lived Westside Grill. Its several reincarnations have all failed. DeMarco and Donaldson are working on a plan to turn it into a lively, affordable Mexican restaurant. They’re also planning a place in the pending Uptown Worthington development in Malvern—an adult-oriented, tapas/wine bar with funky cocktails and a sophisticated look and feel that’s sure to attract plenty of eager customers.
For now, though, there are other fires to tend to.