In a field crowded with aggressive competitors, pinpointing a new niche is tricky, but Dennis Thompson thinks he's done just that. Launching Firebirds Wood Fired Grill, his goal was to fill what he perceived as a well-defined gap between casual and fine dining. The Firebirds founder and chairman envisioned a product with a comfortable, modern interior, top-quality food prepared over a wood-fired grill and professional service.
When the first Firebirds opened in 2000, in Charlotte, NC, the response was promising enough that Thompson and his partners — several of them, like Thompson, former Lone Star Steakhouse execs — opened a second in 2002, and four more the next year. By the end of 2009, the company had 17 restaurants up and running, mainly in the Southeast and Southwest.
Based on the name, and the backgrounds of the investors, one might assume that Firebirds is a steakhouse concept, but steaks are only part of the menu mix, which favors bold flavors. About 10 salads, a selection of burgers and sandwiches and a section called “Aspen classics,” consisting of pork, seafood, chicken, ribs and meatloaf, round out the dinner menu choices. Starters include smoked chicken wings, seared ahi tuna, buttermilk-battered onion rings, coconut shrimp, crab cakes and other tasty bites, along with a daily soup. “Only about 45 percent of the food served is steaks, and if you consider just lunch, that's even lower,” says Doug Glendenning, c.e.o.
A Brand Evolves
Between the first unit and the 17th, Firebirds management has gone through some trial and error. Early on, the menu ran some six pages long and encompassed more variety, including rotisserie meats and wood-fired pizzas; today, it's down to a single page. Reducing the choices allowed newer units to increase efficiency and focus on producing fewer items more consistently. And, without needing a rotisserie or wood-burning pizza ovens, the kitchen footprint shrank, trimming about 1,000 square feet. Newer units have incorporated exposed kitchens, which reinforce the care that goes into preparation and help set the mood.
Originally, Firebirds was targeted to the 25- to 55-year-old set, but time has shown that the concept appeals to families as well, especially in the early evening. “We spent a lot of time on the kids' menu, so there's no veto because of that,” Glendenning says. Also, the menu variety is probably a factor in the guest base being equally split between men and women. It also helps draw guests with different agendas. “It's a great place to have a burger or a salad before seeing a movie — or a filet, lobster and a bottle of wine,” Glendenning adds.
Several years ago, management decided to brand the bar area, dubbing it Firebar, creating a separate place with drinks and appetizers where guests can have a drink before dinner or stay the entire evening. Signature cocktails and martinis like the popular Double Black Diamond (fresh pineapple and citrus vodka) are available.
The menu at Firebirds gets the once over quarterly to make sure it's still hitting on all cylinders. “We try to stay ahead of what's out there, not only with the menu but also with the wine menu, so we can take advantage of good buys,” says Tyler Michael, the company's marketing director. Ever-changing specials are added to the menu eventually if orders are strong. “We are strong believers in comfort food and what people like to eat,” Thompson adds. “When we add new items we don't go off into fancy food.”
Inside a Firebirds, a main point of activity is the open kitchen, where smoke from hardwood flames reinforces the menu offering in a fragrant way. Overall, the Firebirds interior is meant to evoke a mountain lodge, with its soaring stacked stone walls, mahogany woods, bold colors, warm lighting and beamed ceilings. The focal point of the 6,500-square-foot, 225-seat space is a large stone fireplace.
A large wall display showcases 500 wine bottles, underscoring Firebirds' wine program, which features a continually evolving selection of 30-plus wines by the glass and 60 by the bottle. A variety of “special selections” available by the glass allow guests to taste pricey vintages for a reasonable cost.
Servers at Firebirds undergo training to hone their knowledge about food, wine and other beverages and salad service, and they learn about flavor profiles. Back of the house staffers have an incentive program for mastering advanced skills, such as butchering, and for reducing waste.
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Firebirds devotes about two percent of its annual budget to marketing. Much of that has taken the form of direct mail campaigns to regular guests, but recently social media has gotten greater emphasis. Promos center around birthdays, popular movies and other special days.
Guests often get coupons for discounts or free new menu items, and the company solicits feedback on the new dishes. “These people are already our guests; all we're doing is enticing them to come back more often,” Michael says.
Modest, Steady Growth
What's in store for Firebirds? Don't look for rapid expansion. The company has been building new restaurants using existing cash flow, and the partners prefer that approach. “We've opened five stores in the last 18-20 months, arguably the worst downturn since the Great Depression,” Glendenning noted at the end of 2009. “But this is a complex concept, not one where you can go out and open 30 stores a year.” He thinks adding two to three new units per year make more sense. Right now locations are a little scattered — in the Southeast, Delaware, Arizona and Nebraska. Going forward, development will focus on the East Coast. The ideal location is in a suburban lifestyle center or upscale mall in a metropolitan market. The company looks for interstate access, movie theatres, upscale retail and ample parking.
“Dennis and I have always said if you do a good job and create an organization where people feel inspired, you'll have a lot of options going forward,” Glendenning says.
On the Menu
Lobster Spinach Queso
Spicy blend of lobster, baby spinach, tomatoes and pepper jack cheese with tri-colored tortilla chips $9.95
Crab Cake Salad
Jumbo lump crab cakes, mixed greens, julienne tortillas, tomatoes, cilantro-lime vinaigrette $13.95
Sesame Encrusted Salmon
With ginger mustard aioli, Parmesan mashed potatoes, fried spinach $19.65
Chile spiced, pepper jack cheese, pickles, fried onion rings, roasted garlic ranch dressing $10.65
FIREBIRDS WOOD FIRED GRILL
CONCEPT: Polished casual, lodge-themed dining with wood-fired specialties
OWNERSHIP: Primarily owned by partners Dennis Thompson, S. Douglas Glendenning, Leslie Rudd and Mark Wattles
KEY EXECUTIVES: Dennis Thompson, chairman; S. Douglas Glendenning, c.e.o.; Mark Eason, president and c.o.o.
LOCATIONS: 6,500 square feet, suburban lifestyle centers and upscale malls
AVERAGE CHECK: $14 at lunch, $27 at dinner
SYSTEMWIDE SALES: Approximately $60 million
GROWTH PLANS: 17 open, plans to add 3 more per year