Concepts of Tomorrow
Growth Strategies For Emerging Full-Service Restaurants
White tablecloth service, surprising values and a taste for authenticity give Brio Tuscan Grille a life of its own.
GROWS WITH BRIO
In music, the notation con brio means "full of life". That’s why thousands of diners at Brio Tuscan Grilles are singing the praises of brothers Rick and Chris Doody: This casual chain is a symphony of meticulously planned food-and-wine duets, lyrical interiors, and classical service. While it’s too much to say that diners get meals for a song, the cost-value tradeoff of a meal at Brio’s is, well, something that keeps them humming—and coming back for encores.
How much of a hit is Brio’s Tuscan Grille? The Columbus, Ohio-based chain is ninth on Restaurant Hospitality’s 2003 list of the Top 50 Growth Chains, ahead of Johnny Carino’s (#13), Buca di Beppo (#17), Carrabba’s Italian Grill (#27) and the rest of the casual Italian segment. Between 2001 and 2002, it more than doubled in size, from three to seven units, and increased its revenues by 68.4%.
So far, Brio has 11 units operating, and business is hotter than mozzarella stuck to the roof of your mouth: Per-unit volumes average $7.4 million per year. Nine units are on track to open this year, and eight more are in the works for 2004. Plans for 12 more Brios are on the drawing board for 2005, and another 12 for 2006. By the end of 2006, the chain is scheduled to total 42 restaurants.
The upstart kid sister of the hugely successful Bravo! Cucina Italiana, Brio goes its own way. While Bravo! features pastas, meat, wood-fired pizza, and other stick-to-your-ribs fare, Brio specializes in applying a light touch to white meats and steaks, lighter sauces, and flatbreads. While the ambiance at Bravo! is breezy and playful,it’s cool and sophisticated at Brio. The two chains are as different as Gina Lollobrigida is from Isabella Rossellini.
How has Brio Tuscan Grille succeeded against a field of big, well-known players?
Brio focuses on impeccable service; fresh, perfectly prepared food flattered with remarkable wines; excellent value; deliberate, agile growth; and an operating budget based on a solid economic model, in keeping with the mission statement of Brio’s parent company, Bravo Development Inc. (BDI): "At BDI, we strive to be the best Italian restaurant company in America and we want our people to believe they work with the best. We will develop loyal, lifelong guests by delivering the highest quality food and service to each guest at each meal each and every day." That mission statement is the touchstone for everyone at Brio, and BDI’s c.e.o., Rick Doody, is ardent when he says, "We don’t think in terms of competition. We think in terms of every day, every meal, one guest at a time, with a goal of creating guests for life."
"Our goal is to be the best Italian restaurant in America," says Doody. "We focus on that, and everything falls from it: growth strategy, compensation strategy, real estate strategy, training strategy. You have to have continuity with respect to that (the goal)."
Theme and Variation
Brio’s roots are in Bologna, where Rick Doody visited in the 1980s during a year-long sojourn in Europe. The family business is selling retail store fixtures, and Doody met a supplier who decided to attract business by schmoozing him. "I had nothing to do with the way we bought fixtures, but I played along," he chuckles. "He wined and dined me, and I had never eaten food like that!"
He knew then that he had to open an Italian restaurant, but instead, on his return to Columbus, he and his mother opened Lindey’s, specializing in American cuisine in a bistro setting.
Doody earned an M.A. from Cornell University’s hotel school, while his brother Chris attended Tulane and honed his chops as a chef in top restaurants in New Orleans. All the while, the Italian restaurant concept simmered in Rick’s mind. Over the next 10 years, he researched and analyzed ideas, impressions, and information about successful Italian restaurants. Then he met Phil Yandolino, a chef at Sfuzzi, who became his friend and a partner with Chris Doody in BDI.
In 1992, BDI fulfilled the dream by opening Bravo! Cucina Italiana in Pittsburgh on a site Doody had identified four years earlier. Featuring traditional Tuscan and regional Italian cuisines, Bravo! offered what Doody describes as "simple food made with the highest quality ingredients, prepared fresh-to-order." Bravo! is a polished, but relaxed restaurant where guests dine in the "ruins" of a Roman temple with an exhibition-style kitchen in full view.
Bravo! struggled, to everyone’s surprise. "It was out of its time and out of its depth, but in a good way," Doody explains. "People perceived it as being too upscale, with too sophisticated a menu."
Instead of closing Bravo!, the partners began studying thriving casual dining chains and independents and applying those lessons to Bravo!.
Business improved, and in 1994, a second Bravo! opened. It also struggled, rendered virtually invisible by a bad location. Confident that they had a winning formula nevertheless, the partners hung in, gradually coaxing sales to a 50% increase in the first year and doubling sales in the second. Nine more units followed, and by 2000, they posted an average gross of $4.1 million per year each, better than Olive Garden, Macaroni Grille, or Carrabba’s. By 2003, eight more Bravo! units had entered the fold.
In 1999, BDI sensed the time was right to for a more sophisticated dining premise, Brio Tuscan Grille. Development of the upscale Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio was under way, and BDI was offered a dominant spot on the site for Brio’s debut. "We expected to open doing $80,000 to $100,000 per week," Doody laughs. "We did $200,000 per week in sales! In 2003, the Easton unit will do nearly $9 million in sales for the year. When Brio opened in Easton, we had 10 Bravo!s open. The second Brio, in Winter Park, Fla., exceeded our expectations almost as much as the first Brio. Our third one, in Buckhead near Atlanta, did not go well, so we pulled back a little."
Undaunted, BDI’s partners knew they were on to something big. Brio Tuscan Grilles opened in Ohio, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Kentucky within the next three years; these were joined by units in Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Missouri in 2003, even as Bravo! units multiplied. "There is now less and less difference between the two concepts," admits Doody, "but we’ve overcome the developer mentality that one is superior to the other. Now it doesn’t matter much to them which one goes on the property. We decide that based on the quality of the tenants, the size of the project, and the potential revenue."
Brio is projected to grow over the next four years to 42 units, tracked against Bravo!’s growth at a ratio of 60% Bravo! units and 40% Brio units. That ratio could change, however. Last year, average weekly sales for Brio were $119,000 and $82,000 for Bravo!. BDI works toward a return on investment greater than 25% and a cash-on-cash return greater than 50% in the restaurants it develops, owns, and operates. Right now, BDI’s 28 units average 5,000 to 6,000 guests per restaurant per week.
Doody’s knowledge of his properties is encyclopedic. He knows the cost and location of every spoon and every fixture and the revenues of every property. In fact, his finely honed ability to observe, amass, assess and apply information is what drives Brio’s growth – not geography.
"We benchmark against the best," Doody says. "The best restaurant concepts in the country are P.F. Chang’s, the Cheesecake Factory, and maybe Outback on the public level. On the private level, we admire Houston’s a lot: They have very high-end volumes and seem to run their restaurants very well." He particularly admires Rick Federico, c.e.o. of P.F. Chang’s China Bistros: "He’s added a lot of value there, a lot of same-store sales. It’s a great company, a great niche." So impressed is Doody that four new restaurants will open within 500 feet of a P.F. Chang’s; several more are located on properties with Cheesecake Factories and Houston’s. Doody forges relationships with developers who specialize in affluent urban and suburban markets to ensure that BDI properties are synonymous in their minds with premium Italian dining. That strategy is paying off.
Brio is so successful that developers of upscale lifestyle centers compete for the privilege of signing one as a tenant. As a result, shoppers and diners equate Brio with quality and the tenants develop a mutually supportive relationship. Doody says upscale development landlords "incentivize us to be part of their project." Brio’s expansion plans center around maintaining the levels of quality and service its customers expect. "We want to be the best Italian restaurant in America, not the biggest. The minute we find that’s jeopardized, we’ll pull back,"Doody comments. "An advantage of being a private company is that we can pull back as needed. We can do whatever we want. It’s not a numbers game."
BDI won’t go public at any time soon, he says. Total capitalized investment for each concept is $1.8 million to $3.5 million per restaurant, including the capitalized lease value of the property. BDI carries minimal debt and is backed with a strong line of credit, enabling it to seize opportunities without shifting its focus from pleasing guests to pleasing only shareholders.
BDI has three operating partners, Rick Doody as c.e.o. and development director, his brother Chris, the c.o.o., and Yandolino, who oversees cuisine. To cultivate and retain superior management in individual properties and within the company, outstanding performers among general managers and executive chefs are invited to participate in the cash flows of their unit and the growth of the company as incentives, but without actual ownership.
Ironically, Brio is succeeding with the very concept — sophisticated casual Italian dining — that failed for BDI 10 years ago. Why? Doody attributes it to maturing Baby Boomers who have grown up in a global economy and have developed sophisticated palates. "They may never have been to Italy, but they know what the real deal is in Italian food," he says.
Modeled after a Tuscan country villa, Brio’s white Carrera marble counters and bar tops, sienna plaster walls, hardwood floors, antique mirrors, Corinthian columns, and subdued lighting create an intimate, but not stuffy, dining experience.
Brio specializes in white meats, light, tomato-based sauces, delicately seasoned entrees, and flatbreads. The list of boutique Tuscan, California, and Australian wines is selected to complement the menu, and servers are carefully schooled in food-and-wine pairings. Wine sales at Brio are higher than average in the casual Italian segment. Lunch checks average $15; dinner checks, $24. Unit sales break down to 77% food and 23% beverages, including wine.
"We’re very kid-friendly: Many of the kids we talk to say this is their favorite restaurant," Doody says. The children’s menu offers pastas as well as more ordinary fare. Kids stay in their seats to play with a glob of pizza dough or crayons.
The principles embodied in BDI’s mission statement are instilled in every employee at every meeting. Northern Ohio regional training coordinator Kelly McAndrew is only half-joking when she says, "We recite the mission statement 800 times a day, sometimes standing on chairs. We believe in it, and we make knowing it a priority. It’s our basic culture.
"We focus on taking the extra step. During training, if we do enough of those things and refer to the kinds of extra steps we’ve done and demonstrate it with guests here, the servers develop a sense of pride about what we stand for and are inspired to want to do it, too."
Service is king at Brio. One week of twice-daily two-hour training sessions, bolstered by manuals, help servers and chefs master of the principles of superior service. Chefs from other units conduct food tastings, item by item, for the staff. Everyone learns about food temperature and safety because "we expect the back of our house and the front of our house to be as one, to have the same information because they’re all going to use it," says McAndrew. Food runners ensure that food is served at the proper temperature, freeing wait staff to focus on pleasing guests. Two managers are in the house on every shift.
Unity of both parts of the Brio house is secured through a hefty investment in technology for teleconferencing, product management and plating capabilities, food management and inventory programs, and food costing.
Asked how he’ll know when he’s "made it", Doody grins. "You see it in the eyes of the guest. My wife says that the difference between the guests at our restaurants and those at other places is that ours smile more. I like to think that’s true," he says...with brio.