If you’re considering opening another restaurant outside of your current area, you may be in for a rude awakening. Changes ranging from minor menu redesign to a major concept overhaul are often required to stay competitive in a new location. And while change is never fun, history proves that those who adapt are more apt to survive.
The art of adaptation
“When opening in a new city, our chefs keep 70 percent to 80 percent of the core STK menu, with the remaining 20 percent to 30 percent focusing on dishes the city is best known for,” says Jonathan Segal, c.e.o. of STK, which opened its first location in NYC in 2006 and has since expanded to L.A., Miami, Atlanta and beyond.
“In Atlanta, we feature Georgia peach cobbler, while in London we have a grilled prawns starter. Nuanced changes like these allow us to appeal to locals while staying true to our STK brand.”
Cibo Wine Bar, based in Toronto, entered the U.S. market in 2011, and Nick Di Donato, Cibo's founder and president and c.e.o. of Liberty Entertainment Group, says it was important to display the authentic Italian concept for the new clientele in Florida.
“In Coral Gables we have a partially open kitchen with visible charcuterie station,” he explains. “As we moved forward with new locations we also added an open pasta-making station so people can see how fresh made our products are.”
When Bento Café, co-owned by Jimmy Tung, opened its second location in 2008 in Orlando, just 100 miles from its first location in Gainesville, FL, the owners were surprised at the number of adjustments the move necessitated.
“The biggest change was having to move from strictly QSR to implementing a full-service restaurant on nights and weekends; customers in Orlando were not receptive to our normal QSR format,” says Tung. “We then had to enhance our sushi menu to fit the palate of the more experienced sushi eater in the Orlando marketplace, and expand our beverage portfolio to compete with surrounding businesses.”
Change is unavoidable
Reworking can be difficult, especially with an established brand. So how can you predict what needs to change before opening in an unfamiliar location? Segal says that STK teams up with key partners in each location that understand the local landscape and can help the restaurant best approach the demographic.
“In each new market we adapt to meet the needs of local palates,” says Segal. “In London, you'll find dishes such as lamb rump and British cuts of meat, and in Las Vegas you'll find decadent options like Dover sole, which won't appear on most menus.”
Once each venue has opened, Segal says they are closely monitored to ensure they stay on trend. “Based on our assessments, we can develop or tweak further offerings and promotions that resonate with the regional audience for that location,” he says.
After opening its second location, Bento Café discovered that it needed to reimagine its décor and reach out to local businesses more than with its original location. “We added additional dining room decor to fit the more sophisticated dining experience found at surrounding restaurants and brought in Doorstep Delivery service to be able to reach a larger audience,” says Tung. “We also found ourselves having to do a lot more outreach to local businesses.”
As with all ventures, it’s important to listen—and react—to your customer’s needs and desires. “We respond to what our customers tell us,” says Di Donato. “Small tweaks based on the needs of a particular market are important to ensure we’re meeting customer expectations; when moving to South Beach, we created a happy hour after 10 p.m. as that market was more suited to late-night dining.”
Protecting your brand
How is it possible to maintain any kind of branding while constantly changing to adapt to each demographic? “The food quality must remain the same,” says Tung. “We kept our standards on our menu and maintained a very similar price point with the other locations.”
Segal stresses the importance of staying true to the brand throughout the process. “Staying true to what you do best is the key,” he notes. “We adapt specialty offerings with each new location, but these small modifications do not push us to abandon the STK brand.”
“Each location, although a Cibo, also has its independent character,” adds Di Donato. “We don't want to be a cookie cutter concept. Different original art, different furnishings, color tones: Although they are all similar, they are unique.”
Before choosing your next location, examine all options and decide what’s best for your overall restaurant brand.
“Scout the area and do your research,” advises Tung. “Go into the project with more capital and think outside the box on how you’ll reach the new demographic. If going outside of your comfort zone, choose a less risky location, such as one with lower fixed costs and less competition.”