December 18, 2014

Dining & Spirits

It's a Group Restaurant, Not a Chain

In Florida, despite a few Outback dreams, some restaurateurs prefer a non-chain strategy and a local focus on markets they know.

| 6/1/2008
Kres Chophouse
Kres Chophouse in Orlando is part of the Urban Life Group.

Frank Chivas’ first restaurant purchase was prophetic. First the veteran fisherman reconstituted five units of a dying chain, Chicken Delight, as a new chain, Pep’s Sea Grill, small no-frills seafooders in seashell pink.

Clever, but chains were not to be his life. Chivas moved up in glamour, building Salt Rock Grill in Indian Rocks Beach with a cigar bar, see-through underground wine cellar, trophy steaks and boat-fresh fish. He quit cloning around and built and revised five more restaurants, four within two miles of each other and none the same.

When he started Island Way Grill up the coast in Clearwater Beach, “The one thing Frank and I agreed on, it would not be Salt Rock North’’ says chef Tom Pritchard, Chivas’ food wizard. Long on Chivas signatures of fresh fish, sharp service and smart décor, Island Way was still longer on seafood, with a swooping raw bar, Asian spices and sushi chefs working next to grouper fishermen.

Along the way Chivas and Pritchard morphed a Pep’s into a bistro, gave the old Marlin Darlin’ restaurant in Belleair Bluffs the lines of a racing yacht and turned an old barbecue joint into a seafood/barbecue restaurant and then into Rumba, where jerk flavors dance, reggae rocks and 40 rums sail the back bar.

Fish House filet
The Fish House, part of the Great Southern Restaurant Group, serves up a filet mignon.

Chivas’ group transformed into a flexible collection of restaurants with individual menus and themes.

In Florida, despite a few Outback dreams, many restaurateurs prefer the group, or non-chain, strategy and a local focus on markets they know.

Pensacola’s The Great Southern Restaurants Group (aka Good Grits) added Jackson’s, where duck confit meets Vidalia onions, to its lineup of the Fish House, Atlas Oyster House and the Fish House Deck Bar. All have a contemporary Southern edge, are within blocks and share party bookings and split ad costs. Yet each is different, which Jackson’s chef Irv Miller says is “an awesome thing.”

Similarly in Orlando, the Urban Life Group includes restaurants as different as hipster Hue, Kres Chophouse, Citrus and CityFish near the heart of the Thornton Park revival.

Likewise, Big Time Restaurants of West Palm Beach has dotted the Gold Coast with Big City Tavern, City Oyster, City Cellar, Nobles and now Rocco’s Tacos.

Groups can combine back-office functions like training, payroll and buying with efficiency and economy. And they don’t spread staff, supplies and energy over hundreds of miles as they would with only one concept.

It’s also flat-out more fun to invent, design and run four restaurants than to make copies — and there’s more flavor for diners. Groups demand more creativity and individuality, sometimes daily, than a corporate test kitchen can roll out. While groups like flashy décor and names, they must have more food knowledge at the top and in each restaurant.

Chef Pritchard, for instance, scouts new ingredients, recipes and talents and tosses around ideas while grazing and kibitzing at all the restaurants. Still, each has a chef who plans menus, runs the kitchen and orders food (although the group buys beef and fish).

Groups also adapt quickly: One-of-a-kind restaurants are easier to open, close and change to meet new tastes or price levels or fit odd sites. The Chicken Delight that Chivas bought in Jupiter became a Pep’s Sea Grill, then a Marlin Darlin’ and now it’s Pep’s again (the only one).

Tags: Dining & Travel

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