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Thompson Restaurants chief operating officer Alex Berentzen outlines the company’s expansion plans

The multi-concept group is now franchising Wiseguy Pizza

Since its founding in 1992, Thompson Restaurants has built a family of brands that include more than 70 restaurants across 15 concepts in five states. Part of Thompson Hospitality, the largest minority-owned foodservice company in the country, it is continuing to expand with new locations of three of its concepts, Wiseguy Pizza, Makers Union and Milk & Honey. Chief operating officer Alex Berentzen recently discussed the new restaurants.

What do you think is the most important thing about how you decide on new concepts and new locations?

We strongly consider the demographics, psychographics, and comp store sales data of the area. We look at mobility data, the behavior of the customers in the area, including where they live and where they work. We consider how much time and money they spend in the area as well. Out of the 72 restaurants in our portfolio, the majority are located in the DMV [D.C., Maryland, and Virginia] which is a relatively small market, so we spend a lot of time here analyzing the different neighborhoods and the behavior of the people in them. For example, when we are sourcing a new property, I spend about three days on or around the location to see how it feels, acts and behaves to truly understand how it operates. This is where the data is blended with observations and “how it feels.”

In terms of how we decide on new concepts, I like to refer to them as a deck of cards. When we are deciding what to open next, we see what is missing in the area and how we can improve it. When looking at our current portfolio and deciding what we can add to it, we are keen to fill the void of a salad/bowl concept, coffee concept, and a dessert concept next. We also are in development to launch a fast-casual Mexican concept and revamp our current Locals Taco & Tequila concept to provide a more efficient labor model and menu.

This summer, we are also officially launching universal gift cards, and a loyalty program spanning across the whole portfolio is slated for 2025. Our main goal is to capture the guest for every experience.

What makes a new concept uniquely a Thompson Hospitality project?

Our strategy is to dominate the DMV and South Florida markets and to become the premier restaurant group in those markets. We are an entrepreneurial company; we look at any and all ways to expand in these markets in terms that make sense for our brand. For instance, we currently own a hotel next to our HQ and manage F&B in three other hotels. These are examples of strategic partnerships we have in the hospitality industry and we are always open to complementing our business and strategic footprint — there is nothing too big or too small.

We are open to anything in the food [and] hospitality service industry, including the expansion of our off-premises catering and our franchising. We are currently finalizing our franchising framework for Wiseguy and started to take inquiries via our Wiseguy website.

You have three new restaurants that just opened (Wiseguy Herndon, Makers Union CC and Milk & Honey Fort Washington), each an expansion of an established brand. How do you choose where and how to strategically grow these brands?

When we expand brands, we strive to avoid reinventing the wheel. We look at brands with a strong following and brand identity and we ask if they are ready for growth [and] if they are profitable. These three brands, Wiseguy Pizza, Makers Union and Milk & Honey, are all very strong brands with followings and consistency. When we identify the need for the brand to grow, we find a new location and consider the demographics and psychographics. These three brands grew a lot in 2023 and will continue through this year.

Can you tell us about the three concepts you’re expanding?

[We say] Makers Union is “made for the people.” It is a dog-friendly community spot that provides weekly events, live music, delicious scratch cooking and fun cocktails. There is always something for everyone there, no matter the location.

Milk & Honey is a Southern-inspired kitchen by chef Sammy Davis [its founder]. It offers great brunch and a revamped dinner menu serving best-in-class cuisine and hospitality.

Wiseguy offers the best New York style pizza in the DMV. Through its stone deck oven, the pizza is crispy on the outside, fluffy and bready on the inside using only premium ingredients. Having never changed anything since its opening in 2012, fans can expect the same great quality and taste at all locations. What these locations all have in common is almost a cult like following.

Do you strive for each location of a particular concept to stay as close as possible to the flagship, or do you make shifts to highlight the community in which it lives?

It definitely depends on a brand-by-brand basis. For Wiseguy Pizza, when we acquired it from the founder, their team stayed closely involved from the beginning. We purposely did not change a thing. Most companies that acquire other companies want to make immediate changes. We did not. We just scaled the concept, added technology, systems and processes, but kept the product the same and most of the original operators are still with us keeping the brand what it was from day one.

For Milk & Honey, there are two formats: Full service and fast casual. When we first acquired the brand from chef Sammy Davis, who is still very much involved in the menu development, there were 5-6 locations and each of them had their own menu. Now with 12 locations, there are three menus across the board: One for the express concept and then two menus for the full service restaurants.

Makers Union went from one to four locations in the past year. Each location has varying decor and ambiance depending on its neighborhood — at The Wharf, Makers Union has a nautical theme and has more blue design features. At Cathedral Commons, there are specialty menu items thanks to its wood-fired oven and a more feminine design. Each location has some version of a nod to its surrounding area to make the guest feel a part of the community and provide a full-service restaurant that makes them feel special.

What would you most want someone to know about Thompson Hospitality’s experience?

We are a company with more than 31 years of excellence, family-owned and operated. We are a no-nonsense company with an entrepreneurial spirit. We are diverse in our businesses and people, and that is our superpower. Our mission: Make a positive impact — one guest, one client, one team member at a time. We offer consistent food and great hospitality with menu and service continuity throughout our stores. Guests can expect the same quality experience, kind employees and clean stores no matter where they dine. 

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