Where do you go for grab-and-go cuisine?
My answer: the Business Journal Chef of the Year Jonathan Blackford’s Fork & Knife in Costa Mesa.
Last March, I profiled Chef Blackford’s transition from Executive Chef of A Restaurant in Newport Beach and CdM Restaurant in Corona del Mar to running his own quasi-ghost kitchen on 17th Street. He is indirectly competing with dozens of other local restaurants, yet his concept is unique: a hot dinner pickup menu, high-end grab-and-go, and a curated gourmet market with many house-made products from pasta to pâté.
I have been eating my way through his grab-and-go selections, and his gourmet cookies, and his artisan cheeses and cured meats.
But when I stopped in last week, Blackford had removed some of his retail items, added a few tables and chairs, and was serving lunch on-site. He has also applied for a liquor license to sell beer and wine, and has plans to add a dinner menu.
“We’ll do dinner Thursday through Saturday, something really different,” Blackford told me. “We’ll offer five entrées, six small plates, unique stuff you don’t see in Orange County. I’m not in love with tasting menus, I like to pick my own stuff when I go out. It’s more fun to try a couple of different things than to be locked in to one menu. And if you did the same tasting menu all weekend, you would not get people to come more than once.”
He’ll be adding a beer and wine retail section, and will serve those libations with lunch or dinner. Once that is launched, he may cut back on the grab-and-go selections.
“We have too many concepts,” admitted Blackford. “We have to figure out which ones we’re going to keep, and which ones were going to scale back. Our catering has really picked up, it’s almost as much as our grab-and-go.”
Fork & Knife has been open 10 months, and Blackford says he is still transitioning now that the state’s COVID restrictions have eased.
“When they opened restaurants back up, there was a mad dash to go. We actually took a big hit because everyone was going out to restaurants. Our pickup dinner died. It went from 60 to 70 dinners a week to maybe four. It was a huge drop-off. So, we said ‘let’s ditch the merchandise, put in tables, do a full lunch menu.’ I’m learning as I’m going, but I think we’re moving in the right direction.”
A restaurant grant helped Blackford buy more equipment for his catering business and allowed him to take a step back and reevaluate what he wanted to focus on.
“This isn’t my endgame,” Blackford reminded me. “We’re going to open a restaurant at some point, but now is not the time.”
One pressing issue facing all restaurants, said Blackford, is that kitchen equipment is scarce. Purchasing a simple fryer can take six to eight months because manufacturers don’t have enough material and they can’t get the electronic components. Convection ovens are on backorder, with a wait time of 18 to 24 weeks.
“Everyone is sold out because restaurants are reopening. And the staffing issue—everyone is short staffed,” added Blackford. “A lot of people are getting out of the food and beverage business. It took a beating. It’s a grind, a lot of people say it’s not worth it. You can go be a banker and have less stress.”
Fork and Knife is closed Sundays and Mondays, but Blackford still finds himself working every day, sometimes for long hours, preparing food, ordering supplies, and even doing the accounting.
“It’s allowed me to learn every aspect of the business,” he said. “I do all the books by myself, the licensing, the permitting, everything. Now I know it from start to finish. It’s also been important to keep my name relevant. It’s easy to fade away. That was my goal with Fork and Knife. I am proud of our Yelp—and I am not a huge fan of Yelp but it’s a good tool. I think we have one 4-star review. Everything else is 5 stars. We have more than 50 reviews; I feel proud about that, we are doing the right thing.”
I give 5 stars to the smoked short rib grilled cheese sandwich I devoured at lunch. It has Oaxaca cheese, Holey Cow cheese from Paso Robles, four-year cheddar, smoked short rib, thick cut Italian loaf, and roasted red pepper soup. It’s a wonderful combination.
Fork & Knife, 401 E. 17th St., #A-2, Costa Mesa, (949) 877-0330, forkandknifecm.com