Chef Sheamus Feeley: Elevating 'Eatertainment' Kelly Hensel | January 2019, Volume 73, No.1

CULINARY POINT OF VIEW

Recipe: Cilantro Fizz Mocktail

This past fall, Chef Sheamus Feeley was named chief culinary and beverage officer at Punch Bowl Social—a U.S. lifestyle brand that is recognized for its innovative approach to experimental food and beverage. Perhaps best known as the founding chef and partner for Farmstead Restaurant in Napa Valley, Feeley also has experience in recipe and product development, operational organization, systems, and menu design. Feeley talked to Food Technology about his plans to lead the innovation of Punch Bowl Social’s scratch kitchen and drive the expansion of the craft beverage program.

Chef Sheamus Feeley
Q: You’re the third generation of restaurateurs in your family, correct? Did you always want to be a chef?

Sheamus Feeley: Yes. I actually studied journalism at the University of Arkansas, but my family always joked that I was just avoiding the inevitable. And my childhood was really always about food. My father’s side of the family has multiple generations of restaurateurs and my mom’s side has generations of farmers. Some of my earliest food memories are topping and tailing green beans with my cousins on the front porch in Arkansas.

Q: How has your diverse culinary background prepared you for this new role?

Feeley: I was lucky enough to spend a good amount of my career at the Hillstone Restaurant Group as their executive chef and vice president. Working for a large organization taught me how scale efficiently but also sustainably—meaning that expansion is possible without losing what makes it special in the first place. Just because you’re growing doesn’t mean that you have to lose who you are. Robert Thompson [founder and CEO at Punch Bowl Social] and the team have done a great job creating something genuine and unique. Never once during the hiring process was I asked to come in and start cutting corners. That’s not in this organization’s DNA.

Cutting corners was also not an option at Hillstone. Being able to run 50-plus locations with different menus and different markets at a very high level, prepared me to come on board with the team here. I was able to come in and use the processes, systems, and tools to deliver a consistently great product. We don’t have to rely on buying from a central commissary or having other people prepare our food just so we can have a consistent product. I think what happens with a lot of places is that they start to expand, and they begin to justify cutting corners. But I believe it can be done through responsible menu engineering and effective leadership, communication, and tools.

My job as a leader is to inspire and to create a framework of tools and processes that will set our teams up for success. And, ultimately, that’s how we create a great culture that’s obsessed about food, beverage, and hospitality.

Punch Bowl Social
Q: The company is growing at an incredible rate with plans to open eight more locations this year. Did you have to do a lot of tweaking to the process and systems when you came in, or were things running pretty smoothly?

Feeley: I’m fortunate in that I got to walk in and help a team that was already doing a great job. But I do believe that fresh perspective is a competitive weapon. One of the things that’s so great about the fit with Punch Bowl Social is that they’re already poised to continue to do really great things. I feel like I came in and have a chance to help it evolve and push it forward to be even more effective.

The DNA—the culture—of this organization is remarkable. The buy-in and the belief in what we do every day from the top to bottom is incredible. I always contend that the most difficult thing to do in an organization is change the culture, and, luckily, that’s not something I have to do at Punch Bowl Social.

We’ve got 15 locations at this point and I think my role is to help make sure that we’ve got the right systems and tools in place to continue to build on that. We want to make sure we have the same culture and approach once we have 25, 30, or even more locations.

Knock Off Burger
Q: What are the major considerations for developing an “eatertainment” menu for millennials, who as I understand it, make up most of Punch Bowl Social’s customers?

Feeley: The first thing we always consider is if we would want to eat it again and again. Is it craveable and compelling? That’s the first lens we see it through. We have a responsibility to balance that with making sure the items are genuine. And that’s where protecting our DNA and not buying pre-fabricated soups and sauces and not using the words like “semi scratch” is important. That’s never going to work for our brand. I believe that our guests—especially millennials—can recognize when someone is being genuine or disingenuous.

Apart from that, we need to make sure that we’ve got great offerings that people know and crave. For me, it’s our Knockoff Burger. It’s awesome. It’s good to have people know they can come in and get a great burger. But then we also have a sandwich called The Wolf—it’s grilled bologna with mustard, shredded lettuce, and cheese on Texas toast and served with potato chips. That’s one of those things a lot of brands would shy away from. But when you visit Punch Bowl Social it just makes sense. It resonates with our guests.

Superfood Grain Bowl
Q: Are there any new menu items in development that you can share?

Feeley: We’ve got some really great recipes and some great food and drinks. I think what’s fun is to keep them moving and evolving because it gives us a fresh perspective. It’s important to not just sit on our heels and cook the same things we’ve cooked over and over. Even if we just make small changes and tweaks to dishes already on the menu, it gives us a fresh perspective as a team. In that way, we’re getting into the recipe and challenging ourselves.

I also think that we are going to go after a little bit more of a healthy approach to create a bit more balance on the menu. Our chicken and waffles, burgers, and the bologna sandwich that I talked about—the Wolf—are all delicious but moving forward we want to make sure that we’ve got enough balance with some better-for-you dishes. Our Superfood Grain Bowl is a perfect example of something that we created for our guests that’s healthier and that they absolutely love. It gives our guests the ability to visit a few times a week and enjoy delicious food that’s not all overly indulgent. So, I think creating more balance is what we will work on moving forward.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Cilantro Fizz Mocktail
Cilantro Fizz Mocktail
Recipe created by Patrick Williams, Punch Bowl Social’s national beverage director

Ingredients:

  • Handful fresh cilantro
  • 1 oz homemade Jalapeño & Cucumber Syrup*
  • 1 oz fresh lime juice
  • 0.5 oz aquafaba (the viscous liquid you find in a can of chickpeas)
  • 2 oz sparkling water

* Take regular simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water) and shake with three jalapeño wheels.

Instructions:

  1. Build the first four ingredients into shaker tin.
  2. Shake vigorously for seven seconds, add soda, then double strain through a mesh strainer into a chilled glass.
  3. Garnish with one pretty cilantro leaf.