What is in this article?:
- Small restaurant operators expanding despite the odds
- They look for niches to fill.
- They build a strong internal culture.
Beating the odds and competing against the resources of the big chains isn’t easy, but many concept creators have found a formula that works. What are they doing right?
Gingham is one of Enlightened Hospitality Group's growth vehicles.
They look for niches to fill.
Arsalun Tafazoli and Nathan Stanton eyed the San Diego restaurant scene and didn’t like what they saw. “Restaurants were defined by bad entertainment, plasma TVs, cheap products—the worst common denominator,” Tafazoli says. “We wanted to take a step back and create places that were conducive to conversation and had a good product.” The two started creating “socially engineered” restaurants, designed to encourage interaction, with a focus on craft beers and cocktails. In the past five years, they’ve opened five unique spots. They’ve stepped up their game with the two latest products, Soda & Swine and Polite Provisions, which will team the Michelin-starred chef Jason McLeod and master mixologist Erick Castro.
Jerry and Laura Lasco, with no previous hospitality experience, launched a Houston wine bar and retail store called Max’s Wine Dive to capitalize on the growing popularity of wines. A global wine list and gourmet comfort food served in an urban chic, relaxed atmosphere define the concept, whose slogan is “Fried chicken and Champagne? Why the hell not?!?” Diners can purchase wine on the spot at bargain prices. The concept includes a retail component called the Black Door. Clearly the combination has resonated with the public: The fourth Max’s location opened last July in Dallas.
“Our vision statement is to ‘revolutionize the wine experience,’ and this is a big part of it,” Jerry Lasco says.
Because it’s so saturated, the challenge of the burger segment is to rise above the noise. Epic Burger’s angle, which has helped it grow to seven units in four years, is to exploit the public’s concerns about sustainability.
Founder David Friedman created a “mindful” experience with Epic through a variety of practices, such as sourcing humanely raised meats that are free of antibiotics, hormones and additives; nitrate-free bacon; preparing trans fat-free fries with sea salt; serving cage-free organic eggs; using plant-based packaging and providing a nutritional fact calculator.
“I think the concept is really relevant to the growing base of consumers looking for something a little more healthy, mindful and environmentally sensitive,” says Scott Norrick, c.e.o. “This allows us to differentiate ourselves in the customer’s mind. It also attracts good people to come to work for us.”
They never lose sight of the bottom line.
Social experiments aside, even Tafazoli acknowledges that nothing happens if the money’s not there. His portfolio of restaurants has been able to expand through cash flow. “We are transparent about the fact that we are a business,” he says. “It’s about finding a happy medium. If we don’t make money, we can’t grow.”
Some owners are more fanatical. “I am amazed at how many people I talk to who don’t know their costs,” says Steve DeFillipo, owner of Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse, with locations in four East Coast cities and plans for two more. “I am a nut about the p&l statements. I go through them item-by-item and ask whether we can do things better. There’s no way you can grow unless you’re making money.”