Like so many in the restaurant biz, George McKerrow got his start washing dishes and bussing tables at 16 years old. He was supposed to go to law school following his college graduation, but he got another restaurant job instead. “My father came down and said, ‘what do you think you’re doing?’ I said I’m making a lot of money, having fun, and I’ll go to law school next year. Well, 50 years later, I’m still in the [restaurant] business,” McKerrow said at the inaugural FSR NextGen Restaurant Summit.
McKerrow cut his professional teeth at Victoria Station, a California-based steakhouse chain with a railroad theme that shuttered after financial difficulties. He became a regional manager there in 1981 before he was introduced to a “honky tonk saloon” in Texas called Hoffbrau Steak & Grill House. “We brought a similar concept [to Atlanta] and called it LongHorn Steaks on Peachtree Road, on a 40-mile-an-hour curve with a one-way drive lane and a yellow front bookstore. It took off from there,” he says. “We took the company public in 1992, and I retired in 2001.”
What was once just an idea in McKerrow’s mind has grown to more than 560 locations. As of 2023, LongHorn Steakhouse generated more than $2.5 billion in sales, and is now owned and operated by Darden Restaurants, which is also the parent company of Olive Garden, Yard House, and more.
“I’m really proud of the brand. Darden has had it since 2007,” he says. “It has become really an institution in the casual-dining steakhouse business.”
But McKerrow’s retirement didn’t last long. Soon enough, he was co-founding another Old West-style steakhouse chain—this time known for its burgers and chops made from sustainably sourced bison. It started because McKerrow followed the journey of CNN founder Ted Turner, who purchased his first ranch in Toston, Montana, in 1986.
“They tried to launch the bison business and frankly, it failed. There was a four-and-a-half year supply in the freezer, and they never knew how to bring it to market. Great ranching, but never came to market successfully, so bison ranchers were going broke left and right,” McKerrow said. “I thought it was a really unique, healthy product.”
That’s where his industry expertise came into play. McKerrow approached Turner and said, “I think if you want to introduce it to America’s table, you’re gonna have to do it through a restaurant that features high-quality preparation of bison. It’s a difficult product, cooks slow and low, and a lot of people had bad experiences with it.”
Bison has 50 percent less cholesterol than beef, and is more rich than salmon in Omega 3 fatty acids, McKerrow previously told FSR, and the animal is raised hormone- and antibiotic-free. While Ted’s Montana Grill serves both beef and bison, it offers farm-to-table control of the later.
The idea was a gourmet, upscale bison burger place, so the duo designed and opened the first Ted’s Montana Grill in January 2002 in Columbus, Ohio.
Today, the Atlanta-based concept has expanded its footprint to nearly 40 restaurants across 16 states. The Turner bison herd now spans 14 ranches comprising about 45,000 bison, and the worldwide bison count has nearly doubled from 2002 to now more than 600,000. Despite being native to North America, bison faced near extinction in the late 19th century prior to conservation efforts.
“Twenty-two years later, I’m proud to say we accomplished our four goals,” McKerrow added. “One was to save the great American bison, two was to help the bison ranchers be successful, three was to create a market for Ted’s family and future generations to own these beautiful pieces of property that he’d acquired, and number four was to create a restaurant company that was profitable.”
McKerrow shares more tidbits of industry wisdom on thinking outside the box, developing genuine hospitality with team members and guests, the power of “thank you,” and more.
What are some of the qualities you would say a person with a “pioneer mindset” has?
We’re the only industry that orders, receives, manufactures, sells, produces, delivers, and collects for our product, all in one day. And we’re a unique business, so we have an entrepreneurial mindset to begin with.
To be a successful entrepreneur, you have to be a high risk taker. Think of my partner, probably one of the ultimate entrepreneurs in the world, from racing (1977) America’s Cup to pioneering television around the world. [Founding] CNN 24-hour news when everybody said it couldn’t be done. It’s the same thing in the restaurant business. A honky tonk steakhouse in 1981? You had all the chains, the prime rib chain, Steak & Ale, Charthouse, those kinds of companies, then you had the family-style steakhouses, Ponderosa and Bonanza. There was really no high quality sort of Texas honky tonk saloons, and here we are—think of the number of Texas Roadhouse type restaurants there are across the country now. So in 1981, we were pioneering, and a lot of people thought we’d never be successful. I think we sort of opened a new niche in the brand.
I also think a willingness to think outside the box [is needed]. We’re in an innovative world right now, and if you’re not innovating, you’re stalling. If you’re stalling, you’re probably falling behind.
Let’s talk about hospitality and building a strong company culture. How do you develop a passionate, motivated, engaged team?
I think sometimes we overlook and think about our culture as sort of an inanimate object. It’s not. It’s a living, breathing, daily experience that goes on inside of our restaurants inside of our company.
First of all, being kind to each other, and being respectful of each other, and understanding that we all look good together, and we all look bad together. It’s something I say over and over and over again. There’s no us and there’s no them. First and foremost, you have to create a team environment.
When I think back and I go down and visit at the Darden headquarters, Todd and the gang at LongHorn, they have a whole lot of respect for the original culture that was created, which is: we have a lot of fun when we come to work. We treat each other with respect and kindness. And then we welcome our guests into our home. When we open the front door, we go out of our way to make a guest feel comfortable. When you think about us, as human beings, when we step into a group setting where we just walk into it, whether we like it or not, we’re nervous. We’re not sure where we should go, what we should do. It’s human nature, we have to feel that we’re part of a group.
It’s no different when someone pulls open the front door of one of our businesses, or any business at any level. Do they feel genuine hospitality when they open the door? Do they feel a welcoming atmosphere? If you have genuine hospitality amongst yourselves as team members, and you exude that to the public, you make people feel comfortable faster and more often than they would in other experiences. That’s “welcome, good afternoon, thank you, appreciate you coming in.” Not “hi, two for dinner.”
How many times do we miss the chance to say thank you to a guest for having come in and spent their hard-earned money and dining in our restaurants? It’s just as important to recognize them on the way out, say, thanks for coming. See us soon. Come back. That creates a culture where everybody’s on the same team, living and breathing the experience.
What’s the overall impact? How does this philosophy contribute to your success?
When those restaurants have those magical cultures and personalities in them, guess what happens? It becomes contagious to the guests, and the guests can’t wait to come, not only for the great food, the great beverage, the good prices, whatever experience they’re looking for, but they’re coming because they feel welcome and it’s a place that they can call theirs.
It also helps your team members stay with you if they go to work because they enjoy the atmosphere, they enjoy being recognized. Catch people doing things approximately right 100 times a day, build that emotional bank account, so then you can have a coaching opportunity when you need to and you don’t have somebody freaked out going, “all they ever recognize is when I do something wrong.” Because we’re not going to be perfect, we’re never going to have every guest experience perfect, we’re not going to have every team members’ experience perfect.
And last but not least, it really is welcoming your new team members onto the team and bringing them into the team atmosphere that you’ve got working in your restaurant. So that’s how I’ve gone about doing it. I’m the least important person in the room. I’m always there to say thank you. All I do is say thank you a whole lot.