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Charging Ahead: Dave Magrogan

To Dave Magrogan, it's a rhino world. You just live in it.

DAVE MAGROGAN paces like a caged animal when he gives motivational talks, a sideline to his main business, which at the moment is cultivating restaurant concepts. It's an apt habit for a man who believes that “rhinos” — in other words, go-getters — rule the world. This no-nonsense rhino has done a lot in a short time: finished chiropractic school and run a successful practice; created a chain of authentic Irish gastropubs, Kildare's, which he is on the verge of franchising; started and quickly sold a casual Mexican concept; opened three Doc Magrogan's seafood restaurants; and, his latest trick, launched a health-focused restaurant called Harvest Seasonal Grill & Wine Bar. At the moment he is focused on maximizing the potential of Kildare's and Harvest. We chatted with this dynamo about his approach to empire building.

RH: Where does your portfolio stand these days?

Magrogan: We have seven Kildare's Pubs open, from Chapel Hill, NC, to Columbus, OH. One of the partners in the Notre Dame pub bought that one and is converting it to another brand. We have one or two in development, but no leases have been signed yet. We're looking at other sites in Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia.

There are Doc Magrogan's Oyster Houses in Westchester, PA, and Dover Downs Casino in Delaware. And Doc Magrogan's Fish Market opened recently at the Shoppes at Montage near Scranton, PA.

Mas Mexicali Cantina was a great concept. It did well, and we sold it to the group we developed it with. We wanted to focus on the Harvest brand. Mas required a lot of attention, and Harvest had a better return.

One Harvest Seasonal Grill & Wine Bar is open, and we're negotiating on sites in Tampa and Boca Raton, and possibly another one in the Philadelphia Main Line.

RH: How is ownership structured? It sounds like you've worked with a number of partners.

Magrogan: Some of them I own 100 percent. Others I own at least 60 percent. I like to own at least 60 percent so my team and I can control the brands.

RH: Harvest is a bit of a departure for you — there is less emphasis on bar sales, more on healthy eating. What's the thinking behind it?

Magrogan: It's not entirely new. A few years ago we developed a concept called Grady David's — named for my son — for a friend. It had a seasonally changing menu but was not calorie-conscious. I saw the success it had, and that made me want to do something similar for my own company. We were approached by the broker at Glen Eagle Shopping Center in Glen Mills, PA to develop a high-end concept. We went with calorie conscious because we wanted to fill the void for the educated consumer who wants fresh, local ingredients.

We studied the success of Seasons 52 and Bonefish Grill because they do so well in the suburbs, and I'm a big believer in the suburbs. We tried to make it as simple as Bonefish while learning what Seasons 52 had done well.

Harvest's customer base skews a little younger than Seasons 52. Our demographic seems to start in the mid-30s and there are more families. It's a bit hipper.

We would like to locate new Harvests where there are a lot of stay-at-home moms, well-educated households and first-generation wealth. Mom takes good care of herself and doesn't want to take her kids to a fast food place or a Bennigan's-type restaurant.

The landlords we've been talking to love the numbers.

RH: What kind of challenges have you faced lining up local suppliers?

Magrogan: It was actually easier than we expected, and the food cost has been lower than we figured. Our broadline suppliers have made some connections with local farmers. We had farmers planting stuff for us for fall harvest. “Local” has never been the driver of the concept; consumers choose us more for the quality and the health of the product and the atmosphere.

RH: What do you look for in a location?

Magrogan: For Kildare's: a college or prime nightlife area in a location where people can have fun and walk home safely. We like college destinations, especially on game days.

Doc Magrogan's has been done in downtown and casino locations; now we're rolling out lifestyle and shopping center sites.

Harvest really belongs in a premium shopping center with a co-tenant like Whole Foods, J. Crew — an upscale environment with lots of female shoppers and nearby residential neighborhoods.

RH: What are some of your organization's core values?

Magrogan: One of the major core values is the greatest guest experience — you can have a mediocre experience, but a great server, bartender or manager can keep the guest loyal.

Also, we're very positive with employees. A positive, enthusiastic attitude goes from the owner to the manager, the employees and then the guest.

Then there's the rhino philosophy: Charge through the adversities of the day. We try to get people to stay positive and focused on the goal. Execution is the goal. We may encounter small problems, but we can't take our eyes off the goal. Developing people is a value.

We have college students who started as hosts and are now general managers, running $3.5 million operations. We're very happy to promote from within when it's the right thing to do.

RH: Regarding rhinos: Can, or should, everybody be a rhino? If that were so, wouldn't they all be butting heads?

Magrogan: Everybody has a rhino in them in different degrees. For instance, Patrick, who works for me as director of development, pays attention to detail; he's a complete rhino about finishing projects, not taking charge, but getting it done at the right time on budget. Everybody has certain passions, and I try to get people who follow those passions. Front of the house and back of the house managers have different traits. The financial guy may be better at numbers than at working with guests. Everybody has cow traits and rhino traits.

RH: Are there any similarities between chiropractic and restaurants?

Magrogan: Both are about connecting with the guest. The reason I had success with chiropractic is that I connected with patients and developed a great relationship with them. I sold the practice and the same patients are still there. In the restaurant business, you have to sell the story. You explain the concept, show what your point of difference is, get commitment from guests, and take care of them. For people who come through door in the first six months, if the story is explained right and they get it, they will come back.