This is part of Restaurant Hospitality's special coverage of the 2012 MUFSO conference, taking place Sept. 30-Oct. 2 at the Hilton Anatole Hotel in Dallas. Tweet with us using #MUFSO.
“It’s taste over trend. Good food never goes out of style.”
That’s how Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises founder Richard Melman answers those who ask his secret to opening successful restaurants, and it became a running theme at an event Sunday that combined up-and-coming Hot Concept winners with industry veterans on the opening day of MUFSO.
Melman, whose Chicago-based company operates about 80 restaurants around the country, presented this year’s Richard Melman Innovator of the Year Award to renowned Los Angeles chef and restaurateur Joachim Splichal, founder of the Patina Restaurant Group. The award is presented by Restaurant Hospitality magazine to honor outstanding restaurateurs.
Both Melman and Splichal joined the panel, sponsored by e*Restaurant from Alametrics, that also featured the four Hot Concept Award winners selected by Nation’s Restaurant News, including Coolhaus, Del Frisco’s Grille, Pie Five Pizza Co., and Stacked: Food Well Built.
Natasha Case, chief executive of Coolhaus, was the first Hot Concepts winner that is known primarily as a food truck, though the concept also has a brick-and-mortar location in Los Angeles, with a second soon to come in Pasadena. The ice cream sandwich brand is also growing in retail and grocery stores.
Coolhaus is known for its unique flavors, such as fried chicken and waffle ice cream or a “sushi sandwich” made with wasabi ice cream and ginger cookies.
The brand has 11 trucks in multiple cities, and Case said the “integrated collaboration” of the truck, brick-and-mortar and retail parts of the business has helped fuel brand awareness and improve operations.
Social media has also become an important tool, Case said. Not only can Case follow what’s going on day-to-day on the trucks based on customer Tweets, for example, but the company is working to build brand loyalty by making fans feel part of a community.
The business of pleasing people
Mark Mednansky, chief executive of Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group based in Southlake, Texas, said the new Del Frisco’s Grille concept attempts to offer something new and more approachable for fans of the company’s core Double Eagle Steakhouse and Sullivan’s brands.
Overcoming challenges, developing talent
With capital in place following a recent initial public offering, Del Frisco’s Grille is poised for growth, he said.
The challenge, said Mednansky and others, is hiring the right people. “You have to put your employees first, take care of your guests, and the profit will come.”
When asked what keeps him up at night, Paul Motenko, co-chair and co-chief executive of Stacked in Southern California, said, “I get the most stressed right before signing a lease. It’s a long-term commitment.”
Newport Beach, Calif.-based Stacked, which recently announced its fourth location coming to Thousand Oaks, Calif., said guests have really embraced the fully customized experience the concept offers. At Stacked, guests use iPads to build their meal, selecting every aspect, and only paying for what they’ve chosen.
Initially, Motenko said he was worried people would create “wild and crazy” things that wouldn’t like, but that hasn’t happened.
That’s in part because the menu’s core categories include familiar dishes like pizza, macaroni and cheese, and salads. “People know what they like, and they take ownership for it because they created it themselves,” he said.
Motenko, who also built the BJ’s Restaurants Inc. chain, said one of the keys to success for both brands has been the creation of a strong culture among employees — one where guest happiness comes first. “If you don’t like to make people happy, there are other businesses to go in to,” like accounting, said the former accountant.
Customization is also key for Pie Five Pizza Co., a fast-casual concept developed by Pizza Inn based in The Colony, Texas.
Clinton Coleman, Pizza Inn’s interim chief executive, said the concept was born of a solid operation with a long history in making pizza. But it was important to “approach it with fresh eyes” for the fast-casual segment.
“The food had to be great,” said Coleman. “People’s expectations have really gone up in fast casual. The expect it to be as good as in casual dining.”
Great food and service is at the core of the Patina Restaurant Group concepts, said Splichal, whose company operates more than 60 restaurants across the U.S., as well as a thriving catering and contract foodservice business.
Most recently, Patina group opened C&M, a coffee and dessert concept featuring Intelligensia brand coffees and high-end milk sorbet and cookie creations at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or LACMA.
Splichal said his company works hard to identify young talent and develop chefs, having them work with a baker and work on a farm, and sending them to Europe. “What’s missing today is a foundation,” he said. “Too many just want to be on TV.”
Melman, whose children have become more involved in LEYE, said, “It’s smart for seasoned restaurateurs to surround themselves with bright young kids, and to listen to them.”
In the end, however, it’s not about pleasing critics but pleasing the public, he said. “You can never stand still,” said Melman. “This is a marathon. You’re never done in the restaurant business.”
Find more MUFSO 2012 coverage online at Restaurant Hospitality's sister publications, Nation's Restaurant News  and Food Management .