FAST FORWARD

Restaurant Hospitality’sThird Annual Concepts of Tomorrow Conference turns the spotlight on the powerful chains of the future.

FASTFORWARD

A sluggish economy and the madness of Sept. 11th could not keep up-and-coming restaurant operators from attending the Third Annual Concepts of Tomorrow Conference in Chicago. Independent restaurateurs envisioning a second, third and fourth unit, along with small chain operators looking to get fat and sassy, headed to the land of Melman in October, where the legendary concept creator gave a heap of welcomed advice to an eager audience that also witnessed the presentation of the award bearing his name–The Richard Melman Concepts of Tomorrow Award.

Restaurant Hospitality editor Michael Sanson welcomed Melman to the stage during a dinner and award ceremony that also saw the return of Buca di Beppo’s Joe Micatrotto, last year’s recipient of the Melman Award. "Naming this award was one of the easiest things the editors of Restaurant Hospitality have ever had to do," Sanson told the crowed. "This entire conference is based on the premise that a single idea can blossom into a gold mine of a concept, so who better to name this award after than the idea man himself."

Micatrotto told Melman and the crowd, "To be given anything from Rich Melman...To be given something of this stature is a great honor because he truly is a living legend. I’m still humbled and honored to be on the same stage with you."

Melman, clearly touched to have the bronze eagle named after him, joked with the crowd before handing the bird over to David Tuttleman, the self-proclaimed Mayor of Kahunaville, a 10-unit island-themed concept that will end the year with $48 million in sales.

Accepting the award from Melman and Sanson, Tuttleman said, "On behalf of my 3,000 fellow cast members at Kahuna-ville, I’m just honored that this crowd even acknowledges that I’m in the room; and moreso that Restaurant Hospitality... would give me something like this." To Melman and Micatrotto, he added, "Thank you for making me part of your world, and thank you very much, sirs, for giving me this award."

Keynoting this year’s conference was the legendary Phil Romano, creator of Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Fuddruckers and many other successful concepts. With his creations generating more than $6 billion in revenues to date, Romano captivated the conference audience as he shared some of his wisdom, insights and experiences.

Romano spoke of the importance of the entrepreneurial spirit and the necessary creativity it brings to the restaurant industry. "Major corporations do not have the ability to create... It’s not their core competency." Individuals create concepts, Romano asserted. That’s a good thing, he pointed out, because "companies need new concepts, or it’s like discovering a big oil field, and putting only one well on it."

Romano addressed the million-dollar question: What’s the secret to a successful concept? A big chunk of it is turning your concept into a brand. This is done, he said, by "creating a point of difference...good food, a good look, your service...You’ve got to have something different. Make that point of difference the basis for your brand."

He also spoke of "killing the sacred cows," that is, discarding today’s standards. "Forget those standards, go beyond them, write your own," he said.

Audiences also sat in rapt attention for a Q&A session with concept guru Melman, founder and chairman, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, which licenses more than 80 restaurants in Chicago and around the nation. His resume includes the creation and operation of a portfolio of famously successful concepts, including Wildfire, Ambria, Big Bowl, The Corner Bakery, Maggiano’s Little Italy and others.

Winning concepts hinge on one thing, said Melman, and that’s good food. "It always starts with the food." he said. "That’s why I’ll never have an office more than 20 yards from a test kitchen." Melman believes the segment to watch is fast casual. Still in its infancy, it has implications that will ripple throughout the industry. "As it gets better, what will happen to fast food?" Melman asked. "It’s a great segment. It’s unlimited right now."

The COT audience was also able to learn from Melman’s missteps, which are unavoidable, he said, and not to be feared. "I don’t think you can ever become a great businessman without failures," he asserted. What other advice does he have for new concept developers, asked one member of the audience? It boils down to passion, he said. "Making money is a very important ingredient in the scheme of things, but I’ve never made it number one," said Melman. "I always said, ‘I don’t want to be the biggest, I don’t want to be the richest or the most well-known; But what I want is to be the best at what I do.’"

They say great minds think alike, so it is no surprise that Melman reiterated a point Romano made earlier in the day. "I think in this business...there’s one word that has become almost a mantra with me, and that word is ‘flexibility.’ I think you have to be flexible with the changing times, I think you have to be flexible with the needs of the people."

Keynoting the second day of the conference was Howard Gordon, senior vice president of business development and marketing for Cheesecake Factory. Providing an insider’s view on running a high-volume chain operation, he talked about the difference between his company and casual competition. Some of those differences include an extensive menu, upscale, vs. low or midscale positioning, a shunning of typical media marketing approaches, and an expansion strategy that is site-driven, rather than market-driven.

Gordon spoke about the power of a brand. "Our brand is our promise," he said. "You, your corporation, and your guests all must be aligned in terms of brand perception," he advised. This orientation crystallized CF’s goal to become the segment leader in upscale, high-volume casual dining. They honed a unique "personality" for the restaurant, hinging it on the cheesecake angle, explained Gordon. He also pointed out that the concept’s complexity discourages copying.

Speaking on Cheesecake Factory’s success, Gordon said, "It’s not a mystery. Guests have more money to spend; they have many choices in how to spend their money. Great guest service makes for great business. Building relationships equals loyal guests, and if you don’t take care of your guests, then somebody else will. We know this, but it’s something to remember."

Ron Paul, who researches and writes about the restaurant industry as president and c.e.o. of Technomic, provided the latest industry analysis for the attendees of the Concepts of Tomorrow conference. Paul reviewed the latest performance data for restaurants, provided a primer on what’s hot right now, and addressed the factors driving growth today. (See "Trend Watch.")

Paul also looked at consumer trends to keep in mind when designing a restaurant concept. One factor, he said, are Americans’ lifestyles. Consumers are looking for ways to avoid stress, for convenience. They’re also looking for good value and for customization. That is, getting what they want, the way they want it. Another factor is that in the future, Americans will become even more pressed for time, not less. Lastly, consumers still have an enduring interest in food–but not in cooking. All of these factors will drive eating decisions in the coming years and drive more of them out of grocery stores and into restaurants. For these reasons, says Paul, "Concept development is alive and well...It hasn’t all been invented yet."

To purchase audio tapes from the Concepts of Tomorrow Conference, or for more information on next year’s event, contact Katie Smith at 216-931-9559 or at [email protected]