In the restaurant game, there is no singular path to high revenues. This emerged as the one prevailing truth when FSR began its quest to highlight 10 of America's highest-performing, stand-alone restaurants.
While one list-maker claims its own USDA prime beef certification, another intrigues diners with Pan-Asian cuisine and a 16-foot tall Buddha in its dining room. While one has roots as a masculine saloon for political powerbrokers, another has been churning out refined Italian cuisine for decades. Restaurants located in high-powered urban centers dominate the list, but one casual, family friendly eatery sits in a quiet, middle-class suburb. And in a surprising twist, one $30-million-a-year eatery actually closes its doors for nearly three months each year.
From culinary and culture to operations and environment, the 10 restaurants listed below—all landmark, destination restaurants claiming revenues above the $16 million mark—showcase the varied paths restaurateurs travel in their quest to create a compelling, successful concept.
Joe's Stone Crab
Since its founding in 1913 by Hungarian-born Joe Weiss, Joe's Stone Crab in Miami has been serving its award-winning menu to hundreds of thousands of seafood lovers each year.
The family-owned eatery, now in its fourth generation of family leadership with a fifth generation on the rise, follows crab season—which runs October through mid-May—and then the restaurant closes for about 11 weeks across late summer and early fall.
Even so, Joe's general manager Brian Johnson says sales reached $30 million in 2012, and the average check rang in at $46 per diner. Their impressive revenues include the 450-seat restaurant and an adjacent 85-seat café, which also serves breakfast—as well as Joe's highly profitable, direct-to-customers stone crab mail-order business.
"During the Christmas holiday, direct order is huge and we'll ship two or three full truckloads a day," says Johnson, who began as a waiter at Joe's in 1980 and now oversees about 360 employees.
As a key point of differentiation, Johnson adds that the direct business carries Joe's signature service, where all calls to the toll-free number are answered at the restaurant and processed by Joe's employees, not through an outside call center.
"It's all about building consistency," Johnson says.
To celebrate its Centennial anniversary this year, Joe's has invited guests to post their favorite Joe's memory on the restaurant's website. Later this year, Joe's will select the 100 best stories and treat the authors and a guest to a special anniversary dinner at the restaurant.
New York City
While a towering 16-foot tall Buddha floating above a virtual reflecting pool might be enough to prompt curious visits to TAO, it's the midtown eatery's Pan-Asian cuisine that has fueled its 13-year run as one of New York's most-celebrated restaurants. TAO partner Paul Goldstein reports 2012 sales of approximately $24 million at the 12,000-sq.-ft., 350-seat restaurant.
TAO features a lengthy list of tempting Asian specialties, including Kobe beef cooked on a hot stone, Peking Duck, Wasabi-Crusted Filet Mignon, Lobster Wontons, Satay of Chilean Sea Bass, and Dragon Tail Spare Ribs. The restaurant also hosts special events and can accommodate 1,000 guests for a standing cocktail reception, 600 guests for a buffet lunch or dinner, and 300 guests for a seated meal.
New York City
When veteran Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr opened Buddakan in early 2006, filling a 16,000-sq.-ft. former cookie factory with nearly 300 seats and scores of relics and tapestries to build a modern-day Chinese palace, the opulent décor and over-the-top atmosphere that is more akin to Las Vegas glam than New York posh immediately attracted the curious.
For all the talk of Buddakan's supped-up environment, however, the restaurant's staying power rests in its modern Asian fare, including Cantonese Spring Rolls, Edamame Dumplings, Glazed Alaskan Black Cod, Peking Duck, inventive cocktails, and lauded desserts. Last year, sales at the New York eatery topped $22 million.
Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse
Despite a dining room that seats only 180 and a bar that accommodates 70, sales at Gibsons' downtown Chicago location reached $20.3 million in 2012.
Each day, the revered Chicago steakhouse serves an average of 500 USDA Gibsons Prime Angus steaks and nearly 1,400 pounds of potatoes. Remarkably, the restaurant is still using the same kitchen line it started with 24 years ago.
"The line that produced $1 million in revenue the first year, now produces over $20 million," Gibsons co-founder Hugo Ralli says.
While Gibsons has leveraged its location in Chicago's economically blessed Gold Coast to reach local diners, the steakhouse has also crafted relationships with hotel concierges, local businesses, and charities to further boost its standing. An innovative spirit hasn't hurt, either. Gibsons—which also runs two steakhouses in suburban Chicago—invented the "Chicago Cut," the restaurant's 24-ounce bone-in rib eye. And Gibsons was among the nation's first notable restaurants to debut the now-common, 10-ounce martini glass.
Maniacally focused on the customer experience, Gibsons "Franchise Theory" dubs each server the CEO of a three-table business. Servers are responsible for developing and managing their employees (bussers and food runners among them), growing their business, and ensuring customer satisfaction.
"Our servers have total autonomy over their sections," Gibsons co-founder Steve Lombardo says. "They have the ability to buy their customers a round of drinks, pick up [the tab for] their dessert, or whatever they deem appropriate without having to check with the manager. This helps provide a better and faster customer-service experience."
The staff empowerment not only fuels customer service, but also bolsters retention and, subsequently, product consistency. Low turnover blankets the Gibsons enterprise and three of the store's original managers from its 1989 opening now hold equity in the restaurant.
Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab
One of the highest-performing players is the product of a dynamic partnership between two restaurant industry icons: Restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE), out of Chicago, entered into a partnership with Joe's Stone Crab in Miami to open Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab in LEYE's home town. (LEYE opened a second Joe's offshoot in Las Vegas, and a third is slated to open in Washington later this year.)
While the Joe's Chicago eatery serves Joe's world-renowned stone crab claws and key lime pie just like its Miami counterpart, the Chicago restaurant remains open year-round and boasts an expanded menu with a variety of fresh seafood and prime steaks.
"While some restaurants do either seafood or steak well, we bring the quality and expertise across both categories," Joe's managing partner Michael Rotolo says.
Capitalizing on the legacy and heritage of Joe's Miami unit and LEYE's thriving reputation and clout in the Chicago market, Joe's has been a solid hit since its 2000 opening. Last year, Rotolo says sales were north of $20 million—with the average lunch check hitting $38 and the average dinner check sitting at $74.
Harkening the words of LEYE executive and restaurant innovator Rich Melman, Rotolo calls Joe's "a private club that's open to the public."
"We have a great number of frequent diners and that's a wonderful advantage for us, and something that speaks to our quality and consistency," Rotolo says.
Among the nation's highest-performing restaurants, Bob Chinn's is a bit of an outlier. First, there is its suburban Chicago location—about 30 minutes northwest of Chicago's downtown core—which lacks the glamour of a fine-dining locale, but remains unquestionably comfortable, clean, and convenient. Second, Bob Chinn's is a family friendly, casual-dining spot where its owner, 90-year-old Bob Chinn, has preached economical pricing since day one. The average check, in fact, is $37.
"It's the competitive prices that bring people in," Chinn says.
The son of a restaurateur, Chinn sold kitchen equipment to Asian eateries following his return from World War II. In 1982, at age 60, Chinn opened his namesake restaurant. At 240 seats, colleagues warned Chinn that he had made his upstart eatery far too big.
"They said, 'Bob, it's going to look empty,'" Chinn recalls. "But I was confident."
That confidence paid off and in its first year, Bob Chinn's sales topped $3 million. It's been a steady climb in the three decades since as Chinn has added onto his suburban building and purchased adjacent land for parking. The Bob Chinn's enterprise now covers an expansive six acres.
According to general manager, Deno Roumanidakis, the restaurant serves nearly 1 million customers each year and employees more than 300 workers. Revenues in 2012, meanwhile, hovered near $20 million.
The restaurant executes seven days a week with efficiency and speed, serving up to 650 guests in two dining rooms and an enclosed porch as well as an additional 100 guests in the eatery's main bar.
"The high standards I set 30 years ago haven't budged, and that's why our guests return time and again," Chinn says.
Old Ebbitt Grill
A hotly frequented spot by Washington insiders and celebrities, from U.S. Senators to the likes of Led Zeppelin rocker Robert Plant, Old Ebbitt Grill remains a Washington landmark 157 years after its founding.
With produce sourced from local farms and proteins purchased directly from native regions, Old Ebbitt's fresh menu offerings capture business throughout the day as crowds pour in for breakfast, brunch, lunch, Happy Hour, dinner, and late-night dining.
Old Ebbitt Grill touts annual revenues above $20 million and is a member of the Clyde's Restaurant Group, a collection of more than a dozen Washington-area eateries.
Smith & Wollensky
New York City
Even Hurricane Sandy couldn't slow down Smith & Wollensky, the venerable New York City eatery that specializes in fresh seafood and lobster as well as steaks and chops. Sales for the last calendar year were estimated in the $18- to $20-million range.
Legend has it that the entrepreneurial-spirited Alan Stillman, who started the TGI Friday's concept in 1965 before opening New York's premiere steakhouse, named his restaurant from a perusal of surnames in the New York City telephone directory.
Since its 1977 opening, the celebrated restaurant has continued building its reputation as one of the nation's top steakhouses and dining spots for movers and shakers. Last year, the eatery hosted Warren Buffet's 13th annual Power Lunch auction, while Smith & Wollensky's dry-aged rib eye was featured on the Travel Channel's "Steak Paradise" this past spring.
New York City
With a starring role amid New York City's Theater District, Carmine's has earned a reputation as one of Broadway's "longest running hits." Indeed, Carmine's 44th Street location remains a hotspot 21 years after its arrival on the New York City restaurant scene, and 2012 sales were estimated to exceed $18 million.
Carmine's pairs a welcoming and energetic nostalgic atmosphere with generous, family-style portions of Southern Italian cuisine, including house staples such as the shrimp scampi, ravioli, and stuffed mushrooms.
The 44th Street spot is one of six locations in the Carmine's enterprise, joining sibling eateries in New York's Upper West Side, Atlantic City, the Bahamas, and, added just this year, Las Vegas.
New York City
Located in the shadow of Broadway, '21' pairs fine American cuisine with an award-winning wine list. The entire '21' complex features the main dining areas—the Bar Room and the romance-infused, 32-seat Upstairs, 10 private-event spaces (two of which were remodeled last fall), and the two-year-old Bar '21' and Lounge, which serves gourmet snacks, artisanal beers, and signature cocktails in a more casual environment.
'21' is the lone restaurant in the vast portfolio of Bermuda-based Orient Express, a luxury hotel company and adventure travel operator. According to Orient Express' company reports, 21 Club sales reached $16.2 million in 2012.