Way back in 2000, Restaurant Hospitality named Smokey Bones Barbeque & Sports Bar a Concept of Tomorrow. Our assessment: Darden’s new BBQ chain had the potential to be the Next Big Thing. Thirteen years later and five years after being cut from the Darden team, Smokey Bones stands at 66 units. Last year, current owner Sun Capital Partners brought in Chris Artinian, until recently c.e.o. at Morton’s The Steakhouse, to turn around the brand, now known as Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill. We recently asked him about his rise to the top and how he plans to spark new growth.
Your first job at Morton’s was stocking the pantry, and you wound up in the executive suite, in charge of a national chain. How did you do it?
I was with Morton’s for 17 years, and 15 years after joining I was named c.e.o. I have always been very passionate about the restaurant business. When I left school I went into the insurance business, and I did well, but I didn’t enjoy it. I had a relationship with someone at Morton’s, and they gave me the opportunity to start at the bottom, work my way up and learn the business. I went from pantry cook to line cook, then server, captain, manager, regional manager, vice president, then made a quantum leap to the c.e.o. of the group. It was a very exciting time, and there’s no question it was hard work, but I had great people mentor me throughout the process and my timing was good. When I started at Morton’s the company had 18 restaurants; at the end we had 78.
What lessons/practices from Morton’s, if any, are you applying at Smokey Bones?
When you have people paying $113 per head compared to an $18 per head concept, a lot of people wonder what applications they can share. But service in general, excellence and the desire to be the best in class are not limited to fine dining. Whether you’re running an ice cream store, a car repair shop or a Smokey Bones, it’s all about hospitality.
We want to drive the culture and create a great working environment and fun atmosphere for our guests.
We want to make sure the food is a standout. We went through every menu item to see where we could improve and become the best in class in food and value. We made sure our burgers were the best, and we rolled out a new smoked brisket and macaroni and cheese and some exciting limited-time offers, such as smoked prime rib. We used our smokers to create great products that are incredibly well-received. We have started serving signature dishes that are not just barbecue, including pastas and infused burgers. And our new beverage program includes a great selection of beers as well as wine and spirits. We are bringing out great new margaritas and events to introduce them.
We are making sure we execute, at a very high level, the brand promise: great food and service in a fun atmosphere. When Roger Drake joined us in November as senior v.p. of marketing, he brought the ability to leverage public relations and social events in a way to keep the concept edgy and fun. We constantly have something to talk about.
How do you bring “fun” to the dining experience?
Through our “boneisms,” which are plays on words, through a great-looking staff, all wearing jeans and a tee shirt, suggesting that this is a place where it’s relaxed. We have HD TVs in all of our restaurants, so you can watch sports. At night we schedule a lot of events and offer games such as cornhole and karaoke. The music is upbeat, and as the hour gets later the volume goes up. The overall atmosphere is lively and fun, and it appeals to all ages. Our bread and butter is the dinner hour, when we see lots of families with children, but we will see every age demographic in our restaurant on any given day, which is cool.
What’s your game plan to jump-start growth of Smokey Bones?
We have 66 today, and I think we could do 666 throughout the country. We are actively looking for new sites, and we expect to open at least two new locations by the end of 2013. We think success will continue to breed more growth and faster growth. We hope to open two to four new units this year, and six to eight in the following years. We’ll accelerate that if the economy supports expansion.
We have a strong base in Central and South Florida. We are in 17 states, all east of the Mississippi. We feel we can expand more in Atlanta, near Washington, DC, Virginia, Maryland, Boston and outside New York City. These are the easiest places to start, since we already have a presence and infrastructure in those markets.
We need to be disciplined about the brand. Everyone is excited, our guest satisfaction scores have really jumped over the last six months and we are happy. But the economy is unpredictable.