Regional Chain Restaurants Take Their Time

A regional focus and small portfolios enable agility and consistency.

They may not have the major marketing budgets that national chains have, but smaller full-service chains have found effective strategies to endear themselves to consumers in a big way.

Sometimes it’s as simple as pacing the progress, often it involves menu engineering, but always it demands agile and consistent execution.

Not growing at “breakneck speed” means more opportunity to achieve consistency in food, atmosphere, and operations, says Terry Turney, senior vice president and COO of the 48-unit Saltgrass Steakhouse.

When Saltgrass opened in Humble, Texas, 30 minutes from its Houston headquarters, the company used seasoned staff to open and new-hires were trained at well-established Houston locations. By the time the new staff took over, they were immersed in the company culture. This site-launch protocol also positions Saltgrass with people and resources at the ready should the company decide to accelerate growth, notes Turney, and working outward from the Houston bulls-eye has been an effective way to grow the brand.

“Success comes much easier when you grow in markets where people know you, or at least have heard of you,” Turney says. “We are very established in Texas, and there’s plenty of room to grow and not put the brand at risk.”

The regional focus also allows Saltgrass to be agile when it comes to making menu or operational changes. If beef prices rise, the company can quickly determine whether the specifications of a cut need to change, analyze the impact on purchasing and production, test the new item in select locations, and roll it out chain-wide within a relatively short period of time.

“Being quick on our feet is an important part of our culture that allows us to balance profitability with guest experience, and consistently provide excellent food and service at a good value,” he says.

Like Turney, David Miller, executive vice president of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, parent company of Ocean Prime, points to the menu as a place where changes are frequently made, whether driven by the seasons, promotions, or chef inspirations. With nine locations in eight states, and a tenth slated to open in Philadelphia this summer, a carefully calculated growth plan has given Ocean Prime the ability to take its time when selecting everything from real estate to personnel, yet act quickly to effect change when necessary.

“A new item can move through our test kitchen in two to three weeks, be tried at [select] restaurants for about a month, and then roll out to the rest of our locations,” Miller explains. “We can do all of our homework and be ready for an effective launch in a relatively short time—while for larger chains, getting everyone on the same page could take half a year or more.”


Renee Junge, vice president of marketing for Islands Restaurants, which has 54 locations in Arizona, California, Hawaii, and Nevada, agrees that being small and regional also means being able to stay nimble and innovative.

For instance, it is easier to see where and how menu selections should be adjusted to suit local preferences, identifying and acting on local micro-trends such as adding a favorite craft brew to its San Diego units or bringing Kalua pork tacos and sliders to Hawaii.

The same goes for Ocean Prime, where the bar menu typically features numerous bourbon-based drinks. However, the company found that dark liquors are not as popular in Miami so drink options were changed to reflect local preferences.

Ocean Prime management monitors what is working—and what is not—by “keeping an ear to the wall,” Miller says, which basically means sitting down with managers, hourly associates, and customers on a regular basis for frank discussions. That is how the company learned bourbon was not for Miami, and that Ocean Prime customers do not want smoked bacon in their creamed corn.

Knowing they can have an impact on what dishes are offered and how things are done attracts a high caliber of employees who want to be involved in the growth of their restaurant and in the chain as a whole, he notes. He describes Ocean Prime’s employees as “entrepreneurial” and empowered. If local preferences call for introducing new selections of Sauvignon Blanc to the wine list, they simply add them.

“They know their feedback is heard and they learn the process for making changes, soliciting feedback, and doing tastings and rollouts,” Miller says. “In many larger companies, the employees are simply given the menu and told: ‘This is what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it.’”

Another brand that owes much of its identity to its region’s culinary heritage is The Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grill, which has 37 locations in the Mid-Atlantic and Long Island. Founded in Ocean City, Maryland, Greene Turtle bases a good part of its menu on crab—the state’s seashore staple. From crabcake sliders and crab dip to the Eastern Shore Mac & Cheese and Surf and Turf entrées, Greene Turtle prominently features this native crustacean to distinguish its menu from other chain seafood competitors.

“People know us from their visits to the beach, and they remember us when they go home and find a Greene Turtle in their hometown,” says Bob Barry, company CEO and president. “They know what to expect.”

Meeting expectations always requires a delicate balance and creative juxtaposition of localization and chain-wide consistency. At Black Bear Diner, a 58-unit chain in nine Western states, each restaurant is personalized with murals and menus featuring local images and landmarks.

“That keeps us fresh and unique to each locale and helps us [maintain] the delicate balance between being a small-town mom and pop vs. a [larger] chain.” says David Doty, Black Bear’s vice president of marketing.

That each restaurant is designed to hit the hometown hot buttons of its community fits well with the brand’s down-home personality, an endearing characteristic that contributes to its growth.

In fact, Doty describes the company’s growth strategy as “pull” rather than “push,” noting customers have been largely responsible for pulling Black Bear Diner to new markets.