Courtesy of Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill

Casual Dining Makeover

“How do you go from $113 per head at Morton’s Steak House to $18 per head at Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill?” That’s the question Christopher J. Artinian—who became president and CEO of Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill last summer after serving in the same capacity at Morton’s Restaurant Group—hears frequently. Artinian spent a total of 17 years at Morton’s, ultimately rising to the helm, before leading and completing the sale of Morton’s earlier in 2012.

The lesson casual dining can learn from fine dining is that there really isn’t a lot of difference in the two, notes Artinian. Lower price points should not impact service or menu expectations.

“As simple as it sounds, you’re dealing with people in both settings,” says Artinian. “And you’re dealing with them on two sides—the guest who comes in the door and the employees who serve them. You need to inspire both to achieve what you want. Regardless of segment or category or price point, you have to make sure that the guest gets delivered the experience.”

Upping the ante on that experience has been a focal point for Artinian and his Smokey Bones team. “We are chasing best-in-class casual dining,” he says. “Admittedly we are not there yet, but we are quickly closing that gap and expect to eclipse it shortly. Our guest satisfaction scores have come up because we are building a culture where people understand we’re here to serve.”

On the hiring side, it’s about finding people who enjoy serving and helping guests feel welcome. Artinian describes it as a “passion to be around people” and treat them as if they are a guest in your home. In addition to an immediate re-evaluation of the Smokey Bones service model, the new team also thoroughly evaluated the menu.

“We tasted every food item on the menu, every ingredient, to make sure we maximize the quality of what we’re putting on the plate,” says Artinian. “We wanted to be sure the value of what was being offered at $18 a head was far beyond what guests would get anywhere else.”

For starters, a new menu rolled out in February featuring the Smokey Bones signature brisket that is smoked every day. “The product was always fresh but we improved the technique to insure that the product gets to the plate in the freshest way possible so you never lose any opportunity to maximize flavor,” he explains. “We also upgraded our rib eye steak to a bone-in steak which gives greater flavor.”

A new lunch menu launched in March, with all selections priced under $10, and the beverage and beer selections were also enhanced. Most locations are open until 2 a.m. and serve a full menu until closing. And next month, the company plans to roll out a new core menu at its restaurants that will introduce more salads, sandwiches, and entrées.

What Artinian enjoys most about casual dining is the “edginess and come-as-you-are” ambiance. “We’re serving a broader audience at Smokey Bones—more families, but it also skews a little younger. Also, in fine dining the bar is typically a complement to the dining room, but here it’s more of a destination. There’s an entrepreneurial feel to the business we’re building at Smokey Bones—and it’s fun.”

This year, Smokey Bones plans to add four to six new locations to its portfolio of 66 restaurants currently operating in 17 states. Additionally, last November the company opened a new outdoor-dining patio at its Waterford Lakes restaurant in Orlando, and Artinian anticipates the patio dining will produce a significant 50 to 75 percent lift in revenues. The company announced another 10 patio expansions will open this year, and is building its presence in existing markets from Florida through the mid-Atlantic.