Only 10 months into service, Romacorp’s TR Fire Grill had the confidence to bring its new concept to the global stage.
Most owners and chefs of debut restaurants—even those that are corporate—have modest ambitions for their projects: They simply hope to make it through that first, all-important, establishing year. After that, they can generally think about reviewing the concept, adding menu items, physical expansion, franchising, and more.
Romacorp Inc., the parent company of TR Fire Grill, which launched late last fall in Winter Park, Florida, is not typical. Only 10 weeks into service, Stephen Judge, president and chief executive officer, announced plans to take the American craft food-and-beverage concept to Hawaii, and then overseas to Malaysia, Indonesia, and the United Kingdom (U.K.).
The decision doesn’t come without serious consideration, however. For starters, the casual, farm-to-table bistro, which includes downhome-made-sophisticated items such as a waffle dusted with white Wisconsin Cheddar and bacon topped with fried chicken and agave syrup, has already received some inspiring validation. After being open only a month, it won OpenTable Diners’ Choice awards in four categories: overall cuisine, service, ambiance, and American food. Additionally, TR Fire Grill was ranked first for Overall Cuisine in Orlando—an enormous market of which Winter Park is only a small part—by OpenTable, and is on the list of best restaurants in Winter Park.
“At first, we didn’t realize how strong the award really was,” chief marketing officer Jim Rogers admits. “When we did, we got really excited.”
Rogers says that the team, which tested menu items and trained extensively before the launch, has also seen steady growth in sales and amazing response from their guests, from whom they’ve been soliciting feedback since the beginning. And the commendations have been consistent with the purported objective, which was to prepare artisanal fare from regional sources ranging from Brooks Tropicals in Homestead to Wish Farms in Plant City, and credit them with pride on the menu.
“The menu is diverse and innovative but done in a way that people understand,” Rogers says. “Our chef likes to say that you don’t have to Google our ingredients. He’s not combining things just to combine them, but taking things people know about and giving them a twist.” For instance, the Salmon & Zoodles main course uses zucchini to replace pasta under a hearty fish fillet and weaves in piquant sweety drop peppers, asparagus, green apple slices, and Feta cheese. For more Mediterranean flair, it’s tied together with a pistachio Romesco sauce.
That retooling approach, along with bringing in an eclectic mix of live entertainment from regional musicians, has fired up the chef-driven café’s customers.
Perhaps this seemingly just-add-water-and-stir success isn’t surprising if you consider that Romacorp is also the namesake operator for Tony Roma’s, which currently claims more than 150 locations in 31 countries. Tony Roma’s existing franchise partners, such as Grand Companions Sdn Bhd in Malaysia and Indonesia, along with new ones who are excited by the concept, are the second reason for TR Fire Grill’s rapid-fire growth. “They see that this is replicable in multiple locations,” Rogers notes. “There’s nothing quite like this overseas. It’s an American brand that will have that local input. Eighty percent of the menu will be consistent, but we will tweak the recipes based on what we find.”
Of course, he adds, while the franchises will drive as much consistency as they can, they will also have the flexibility to adapt to cultural and food norms of the countries in which they’re located. For instance, while TR Fire Grill will retain its identity in Malaysia, where the Muslim population can’t eat certain ingredients for religious reasons, some dishes won’t be available.
Revamping such popular appetizers as the Hawaiian ahi tuna tacos, where the seared fish is tucked into crisp tostadas with grilled pineapple salsa, edamame and apricot-shallot sauce, won’t be necessary at the eatery’s first planned expansion in Waikiki Beach, Hawaii. This is where WDI International Inc., also a current Romacorp franchisee in Hawaii, California, and Japan, will build the TR Fire Grill expansion this summer.
After that, Sir Francis Mackay’s Fulton’s Restaurant Division, a wholly owned subsidiary of Graysons Hospitality Limited, will construct a TR Fire Grill in the U.K. Rogers says that while Sir Francis Mackay’s Fulton’s Restaurant Division will begin with one location, this new partner does have the option to develop more sites, and that the U.K. is the perfect place to do so because of the diversity of its marketplace. “The U.K. is the gateway to Europe and the Middle East because of who travels there and who lives there,” he says. Considering the global components of TR Fire Grill’s menu, which includes everything from classic Atlantic cod fish and chips to smoked pork brisket with green chili sauce, jalapeño-Cheddar biscuits and “angry” vegetables, he’s no doubt correct.
Rogers, who has worked globally for companies like Krispy Kreme, and Judge, who grew up in the U.K., certainly know what they’re talking about. In fact, the employees of Romacorp “have lots of experience in the international realm,” and after every location opens during the year of 2016–17, the company’s leaders are looking ahead to more discussion about future locations in these and other franchise markets.