Tilted Kilt is expanding and by the end of this summer, will have a total of 72 restaurants—10 of them in Chicago, making the Windy City the restaurant chain’s largest market.
There are restaurants in 18 states and Ron Lynch, president of the company says he “can easily see 300 in the U.S. in big cities” with a goal of being in every state. He expects to have 80 units open by the end of this year with another 70 deals in the pipeline.
Tilted Kilt Pub and Eatery is a sports pub chain with a Celtic theme and servers in mini kilts and skimpy shirts revealing plaid bras.
The first Tilted Kilt was an independent restaurant in Las Vegas, created by Mark DiMartino. When Lynch—then an area developer for Schlotsky's Deli—saw the restaurant in 2005, he was hooked, and approached DiMartino about buying the franchise rights. By 2006 there were three Tilted Kilt franchises.
But despite the sexy image, Lynch runs Tilted Kilt as a serious business and doesn’t forget that a business should be profitable as well as good fun.
RMGT spoke with Ron Lynch.
Why do you have a strong focus on Chicago for your expansion?
The first two stores in Chicago were outstanding representations of the brand and became a springboard for growth in Chicago. When you open really good restaurants off the bat it’s great representation to start with. It gets the ball rolling. After that there were lots of people interested in being franchisees in Chicago and others in moving slightly outside Chicago.
What is the key to Tilted Kilt's success, especially now when so many other restaurants are floundering?
I think consumers are rewarding us for being different. So many restaurants have grown so similar with their menus and their look.The tilted means we’re a little bit different to everyone else—we’re a little bit edgy, we’re a little tilted and a little cheeky.
We are moderately priced and we have a good variety of menus—we even have a very healthy menu, with items like a black bean wrap, a salmon salad. What comes to mind when thinking about sports bars is fried food. We have plenty of that but we have plenty of healthy alternatives.
We have full bars with 24 beers on tap. We also have 40 to 50 TVs. We want customers to be able to see four TVs from every seat. If you’re a football fan, you want to see how your team’s competitors are doing, as well as your own team.
How do you keep your menu fresh how has that helped with your success?
About every 18 months we bring in five chefs and we present our menu to them. We tell them what’s selling, what our menus say. We ask them to tell us where we have a weakness or where we can improve on the menu. We’ve gotten some amazing feedback but they have to fit within our pricing parameters.
We pay them a small fee and a bonus if we select one or more of their items. It keeps our menu fresh and we improve our food. We can use their items for LTOs and we try to do three of those per year. A lot of those LTOs make it onto our permanent menus.
We’re always looking for new chefs to work with us. But they also come from our vendors, who recommend them, our franchisees recommend them, or we meet them when we are out eating.
What is your overall strategy?
We’re in the entertainment business and we just happen to serve good food and drinks. But if you don’t have good food and drinks you won’t be in the entertainment business. So it’s a catch 22. If we don’t have great or better than average service and great value on our food, we’re not going to get our customers back.
We’re a bunch of food guys here so we spend a lot of time on that. Could we serve a better steak or halibut instead of cod? Yes, but are we still staying in that moderate price category. The challenge is to make a profit from what we do.
What about the chain attracted you to it?
What attracted me to it was a real catchy name and a costume that set it apart and matched the theme completely. It’s a really upscale sports pub. We’ve improved the food and the beer selection and the basics were already there in that first location.
A chain like Tilted Kilt, with its sex appeal, of course comes in for some criticism. How do you handle that?
We characterize ourselves as very PG13 and we are very edgy. We sell sex appeal and we won’t back off that at all and won’t apologize for it. Some neighborhoods don’t want it but we invite people [from the neighborhoods] to the pubs and entertain them and then we [usually] have no problem opening in those areas.
Who are your customers?
Young guys who enjoy sports and beer. The average age is 36.7 and it’s 75 to 80 percent guys. We get a good amount of girls, especially for big sporting events when it’s close to 50/50.
We’re not a college bar by any stretch of the imagination. We don’t really want the young crowd because the older ones don’t want them here and they get drunk and make a mess. Our customers want to enjoy the game, to feel safe and not be worried about a kid throwing up on their shoes.
How do you market to them?
We advertise towards where the sports are. We get the biggest bang for our buck advertising on the internet like on Fox Sports, ESPN and where the guys are going. We put banner ads up or click and play for our commercials. We have huge payback from these. I’d like to advertise more to women but I’ve got to go for what gives the biggest bang for my buck.
What do you look for in franchisees?
Foremost is a food background. We’ve found it’s easier to teach them the bar end of it. Ours are really hard restaurants to run. We’re a full kitchen, a full bar, and we’re more like a fast food restaurant at lunch. To be a serious player at lunch people have to be confident that they can get their food in 10 to 12 minutes. We have had a few pubs that have been slower than that and it’s not good.
And it’s important to us that we’re consistent with our food. There are a couple of studies that say people rank consistency as number one when they choose a restaurant. We can see it here, too. You can count on our food.
How do you find your franchisees and do you prefer to have multi-unit operators?
The franchisees typically come to us. We’ve made ourselves available. One of the best things we did was we have had a booth at the NRA show for the last four or five years. And that just gave people in the business a topline awareness of who we were.
We had a booth there and a mockup of our pub. We had servers there and we had a line down the aisle. And early on that’s important. I don’t think you could sell a franchise if they didn’t know anything about you so more than anything it was about creating that topline awareness.
We’re really interested in our franchisees having more than one restaurant, but only if they can handle it. Every time you bring in a new franchisee you’re taking a risk that they’ll be less than you already have. My guess is that we have enough franchisees in our system that I’d really love to grow organically.
What do you look for in your servers?
It’s important for our servers and bartenders to be able to interact with customers. We do role-playing with them and we need to know whether they can think on their feet, and will they be a people person. That’s what we’re trying to hire: people who can communicate and make a connection. There are a lot of places you can go for decent food, decent service and nobody ever makes a connection with you. Customers just want to be recognized as a human being. It’s not real complicated.
What is your biggest business challenge?
Financing from my franchisees. And sometimes you can see that they’re running out of capital, running out of profits. I wish I could make it easier for them and provide capital. I’m looking to see if we can create some kind of superfund out there for our franchisees.
By Amanda Baltazar