Red Restaurant Group is slowly, deliberately picking up speed with back-to-back openings of two new restaurants on the hot South Florida scene: Rosso, Italia, a casual contemporary bistro; and Red, the Steakhouse, both in Boca Raton. That brings the group’s total to five (Red locations in Cleveland and Miami, one Rosso and the company’s original concept, Moxie, the Restaurant, which debuted 15 years ago in Cleveland). We spoke with owner Brad Friedlander about empire building.
RH: You decided to open two restaurants nearly simultaneously. How did that go?
Friedlander: It was a long process. We had two or three months when we had to change, fit, reinvent and adjust to the area.
RH: How do you prepare to open in a new market?
Friedlander: We brought a lot of people from Cleveland—about eight of them moved. They have a good work ethic. And we did a lot of testing. The first three nights were friends and family only; by the fourth or fifth nights things were running smoothly. We had to change the menu, adding a couple of things that people kept demanding.
RH: For instance?
Friedlander: People in Boca were pissed that we didn’t have a baked potato at Red.
RH: Rosso is your first Italian concept. Why Italian, and why Boca?
I always wanted to open an Italian place. There are Italian places in Boca, but they are more traditional. Red follows similar thinking: There are a lot of steakhouses, but not a lot of contemporary steakhouses. The check average is much lower at Rosso than at Red—$37 versus $80. Rosso is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s in a hotel, but it’s not a “hotel restaurant.” We’re going to do banquets, roomservice, pool service and patio service.
RH: Obvious weather advantages aside, why expand from Cleveland to Florida?
Friedlander: When we opened the first Red, in Cleveland, it took off with such a charge that we thought right away about opening a second unit. I went to Los Angeles, and put together a deal. But on the way home I realized that I couldn’t fly back and forth to the West Coast all the time. The next week I went to Florida. It was a year before the recession hit, and everything was mobbed. I thought it was an exciting place.
RH: How do you keep tabs on all five restaurants?
Friedlander: I get reports every night: which customers came in, what people didn’t like, how many dinners we served. They come in late at night, and if I’m up, I’ll take a look.
How Red develops concepts
RH: Your company recently was recognized as one of Cleveland’s best employers—something pretty rare for the restaurant business. What are you doing right?
Friedlander: We have employees who have been here a long time. We try to treat employees the same way we treat the customers. So, we try to think of a reason to say yes instead of saying no. We offer medical insurance. We serve two family meals a day.
RH: Your concepts are different: Moxie is modern American, Red is a contemporary steakhouse and Rosso is modern Italian. What qualities do they share?
Friedlander: All the food we serve is the finest that can be bought, and everything that can be is made from scratch. The staff at all the restaurants is well-trained. The chairs are comfortable: I go crazy over chairs. I will sit in 50 chairs before I choose one. The environments are unusual; they take people to a different place.
RH: 50 chairs?
Friedlander: It took me a year and a half to pick out chairs for Rosso. I’m looking for comfort and style. I get very involved in every aspect of the design—the signs, the china, the silver. Our partners are also involved in these decisions. And I love coming up with ideas.
RH: Walk us through the development of some of your concepts.
Friedlander: When we opened Moxie, then Red, in a neighborhood with warehouses and small businesses, people thought I was crazy because of that location, but I wanted to open a warehouse-style restaurant with a Soho feel. With Red, I wanted the kind of place that Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. would go to in Los Angeles: What would be on the menu, what would they like to eat that would be approachable to everyone—except vegetarians? I like steakhouses because they are much less labor-intensive than other types of restaurants and you don’t need to change the menu as often.
RH: You now have three Red steakhouses. Do you see that as a growth vehicle? What about the other two concepts?
Friedlander: We are anticipating opening seven to eight more Red and two more Rosso locations. We are investigating opening Reds in Washington, DC, and Chicago. And plans are being finalized for one in downtown Cleveland. A Rosso location in Cleveland is also being investigated.
Our ultimate goal is to grow the whole company to $60-$70 million in sales over the next seven years. Right now we are at about $20 million. We have all the people in place to grow.
RH: With such geographically diverse locations, how do you handle marketing?
Friedlander: We use marketing companies in both markets. And we do a lot on Facebook. Each restaurant has its own page and we do a lot of promotions. We buy some magazine advertising, we get a lot of press and we do charity events. And we promote at the tables: We’re here, we’re present.