There was a time when the theory behind restaurant expansion involved creating cloneable unit concepts so patrons could enjoy your brand no matter where they traveled and always know what to expect. Great service? Check. A slate of signature drinks that followed them no matter where they wandered? Check. Their favorite filet cooked perfectly with rosemary and garlic-infused butter? Check.
Then, about 20 years ago, a new entrepreneur appeared on the horizon. Perhaps they had a crystal ball or innate intuition that told them times were changing. Or maybe, when they looked at their children and the individuals they were growing into, they saw the seeds of adventurers. They wanted to experience everything without reservations. When they took off down the hill on their tricycles, they went full-bore.
However destiny first led them to the multi-concept restaurant, it’s proven a road worthy of traveling. These visionaries transformed the restaurant industry, creating unique and unusual concepts at every turn.
Let’s explore some of the top brands, what led them to the great awakening, and how to create your own multi-concept empire.
One of the First: Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants
Really, with a name like Lettuce Entertain You, how could you go wrong? It began on June 10, 1971, with the opening of R.J. Grunts. After about three months, it became one of the hottest restaurants in Chicago thanks to the foresight of owners Rich Melman and Jerry A. Orzoff. From there, almost every year saw a new opening, from Fritz to the Great Gritzbe’s Flying Food Show, Jonathan Livingston Seafood, Lawrence of Oregano, The Pump Room, Ambria, and more.
Melman and others joined forces to create The Taste of Chicago. The RPM Restaurant brand was born in 2012, and 2013 saw Three Dots and a Dash emerge—a tiki bar in River North acknowledged as one of the world’s best bars and the most Instagrammed. Now, over 50 years later, the organization remains family-owned with 60 brands and 130 restaurants, from Michelin-starred fine dining to fast casual.
When you look at their various restaurants, several things stand out. Unique, different, entertaining, sustainably minded. Clearly, they were ahead of their time, the definition of visionaries.
Striving to Be Different: Big Red F
The Big Red F Restaurant Group never set out to be a group or company. Chef Dave Query opened their first restaurant, Zolo Grill, in Boulder, CO, in 1994. This is how they describe running multi-concept restaurants, “Running a successful multi-concept restaurant company is like juggling ice on a hot day. You have a very short window to make an impression, and then you have to start over again, and again, and again. And that’s before lunch even begins on a Monday.”
Today, their brands consist of Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar, The Post Chicken & Beer, West End Tavern, Centro Mexican Kitchen, and the Velvet Elk Lounge. Independently owned and operated, they have six unique brands across 17 locations.
The Makings of a Multi-Concept Platform
Restaurant groups are not chains or franchises. They are individual restaurant concepts under one umbrella and are more popular now than ever. What makes them stand out from the crowd? Their unique concepts. Without fail, these enterprises arise from those with massive creativity and fearless resolve—one-of-a-kind, hugely popular destination eateries.
While they may not have the economies of scale possible with similar concepts, they have the diversity that calls to many. And, as like attracts like, culinary and entrepreneurial talent are drawn to these dark horses, thriving in the creative environment that allows them to express their unique talents unencumbered.
This type of atmosphere caters to guests who embrace life and want to be fully engaged in the process. They want to be entertained.
I recently spoke with Ben Kohn, VP of Partnerships for EMERGING Fund and an entrepreneur at his very core. When I asked him about the many ResTech (short for restaurant technology) ventures he’s involved in and if he had a favorite, he responded, “I love all my children equally.” Very PC and undoubtedly true.
And that’s the challenge multi-concept restaurant groups face. How do you spend equal time with all your children and not lose sight of the one that’s slacking and needs a bit more attention?
As this challenge became more apparent, some restaurant groups started slowing down on loading up on as many brands as possible and focused on one or two. For instance, Brinker International went from about five or six concepts to Chili’s Grill & Bar, Maggiano’s Little Italy, and the virtual brand, It’s Just Wings. They now have over 1,600 restaurants in 29 countries.
So, what’s the correct approach to expansion? If you lean toward riding bareback on a windswept beach under a full moon with the tide coming in, you may consider the multi-concept model.
At Emerging Concepts, it’s our job to help you determine the best approach when gearing up to take over the world. As real estate experts, data scientists, and restaurant aficionados, we help industry-leading restaurant brands and entertainment concepts chart their course, steering their concepts to profitable and exciting shores. To learn more about our expansion process or to schedule a consultation, contact Emerging Concepts today.