Regional Chain Restaurants Take Their Time

Ocean Prime

A regional focus and small portfolios enable agility and consistency.

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.”


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