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Riding A Cool Breeze

Bahama Breeze topped RH’s list of "America’s 50 Fastest Growing Chains" and continues to wow diners and critics with its bold Caribbean cuisine.
Hey, mon, let’s raise a glass to Darden Restaurants.

Riding A Cool Breeze

In hindsight, the concept makes perfect sense: Who wouldn’t want to ditch the dismal winter blahs for a two-hour Caribbean vacation? Come to think of it, why wait until winter? Whether crunching financials in a corporate cubicle or wrestling rugrats at home, a tall, frosty BahamaRita and a sizzling plate of coconut-crusted prawns sounds right any time.

Kicking back on the tropical all-weather deck to the strains of live island music sets the stage for the feast to come at Bahama Breeze. Friendly servers or "tour guides" transport diners to an island plantation house replete with high ceilings, 20-foot palm trees, island life artwork, natural bamboo and wicker furnishings and rich woods.

But Wall Street skeptics tried to knock the wind out of parent company Darden Restaurants’ sails when it looked to expand Bahama Breeze beyond its Florida base back in 1996. They said it would never fly outside of a resort area, let alone up north. Well, latest sales figures should blow those skeptics away. Ranked numero uno on Restaurant Hospitality’s list of America’s Fastest Growing Chains (see the August 2001 issue), Bahama Breeze reached gale-force sales of $100 million last year for a 85 percent leap over 1999 sales.

With 25 units thriving in 18 markets, Darden is on track to open eight more stores by next May. Affable president Gary Heckel projects a steady, but controlled growth rate for Bahama Breeze of eight to 10 units a year. With development costs of $5.5 to $6 million each, Darden is aiming for 150 to 200 units across the country over the next 15 years. "To reach that number means we’re real careful in our site selection, as opposed to doing 700 Red Lobsters."

It was Darden new-business president Blaine Sweatt, Roger Thompson (senior v.p. of strategic marketing) and Heckel, in tandem with the research department, who cooked up the Caribbean concept back in 1995. The concept opened its first unit right in its own backyard on International Drive in Orlando.

Why Caribbean? Rick Walsh, director of corporate relations, cites some powerful demographics. Boomers, now in the 45-65 year range, and turning 50 at the rate of 10,000 per day, comprise the highest percentage of upscale casual diners, and will continue to do so for the next 15 years. And frankly, these aging hipsters are losing their taste buds and insist on bolder, more colorful flavors to whet their appetites.

Vying with Bahama Breeze for a piece of the upscale casual pie are concepts such as Cheesecake Factory, P.F. Changs and Houstons, though there are no significant players in the Caribbean niche. "We think others are flirting with it, but there really isn’t any direct competition," says Walsh.

Beyond the demographics, Darden execs tapped into the growing American interest in global food influences, and what better cuisine to capture that diversity than Caribbean. "Think of the influences there," enthuses Walsh. "They’ve got it all—French, Dutch, Portuguese, Mexican, African and English. It’s a true cultural and culinary crossroads."

"Food is the driver here," asserts Heckel. He says the menu is so successful because people are more willing to experiment today. "What we’ve done is taken familiar things like chicken wings, for example, but given them a twist—marinating them in a jerk seasoning and then grilling them on skewers. They’re unique but people can relate to them." Heckel estimates that 20 percent of the menu could be considered "authentic" Caribbean cuisine.

The old menu standbys—pasta, pizza and salad—get a jazzy kick at Bahama Breeze. For example, check out the Seared Salmon Pasta featuring fresh salmon, lightly seasoned and seared, tossed in a passion fruit-thyme cream sauce with sugar snap peas, tomatoes, mushrooms and bowtie pasta. Or the Guava BBQ Duck Pizza with tender roasted duck, a guava BBQ sauce, grilled onions, mushrooms, mozzarella and scallions.

So while the two-hour vacation concept hooks them, it’s the food that draws them back. "We spent well over a year developing the initial menu," says Rick Crossland, senior v.p. of culinary and beverage. "Most of the items that started on the menu are still there but we’ll tweak it a couple of times a year, while continuing to highlight contemporary Caribbean cuisine."

Native spices—allspice, hot peppers, cilantro, nutmeg

and tamarind—complement meats and seafoods. Staples such as rice and beans and root vegetables including yucca, yams, sweet potatoes and eddoes round out the sides. Oh, and don’t forget your Vitamin C: Fresh-squeezed or pureed mangoes, bananas, pineapples and guava grace the drink menu, which boasts over 500 hand-crafted beverages.

Dishes are all prepared fresh, from scratch. Hence, Bahama Breeze has committed to one daypart only, dinner, to allow for the intensive day-long prep times, which start at 6 a.m. However, the company is contemplating Sunday brunch.

Executive chef Peter Olsacher and senior development chef Vern Thomas guide menu development. Both cut their culinary teeth on Caribbean cuisine, Olsacher having worked in the islands for eight years before settling in the states, and Thomas having grown up in St. Thomas, where he worked in resorts.

In terms of its staff, Bahama Breeze employs extensive measurement tools to track success on a daily basis, and bonus compensation is based on measurable operational quality. A mystery shopper service is one of those tools, as are health department scores and twice-yearly team member surveys.

A slew of accolades affirms that talent, including multiple "excellent" ratings from the Zagat Dining Guide, medals and awards from the Caribbean Culinary Federation and the 1997 NRA award for Best Beverage Menu.

Beverages account for about 25-30% of sales, says Heckel. The chain’s signature BahamaRita frozen margarita is the top seller, made with fresh kiwi, strawberry and mango juices, and a cute little clip-on shot of DeKuyper Cactus Juice Margarita Schnapps "for drizzling."

While Darden has pegged Bahama Breeze as a destination eatery, it’s also targeted sites populated by business travelers, yet near residential areas. It’s also moving into urban areas such as downtown Chicago, where it will soon open in a new office building.

Early on, there were concerns that Bahama Breeze would siphon sales from sister chains Olive Garden and Red Lobster. In fact, sales at the concept have actually risen, says Heckel. "It’s a different dining experience and because we have long waits, restaurants close to us benefit from that overflow."

As for those naysayers who scoffed at the idea of migrating a Caribbean concept up north, Heckel chuckles: "The reason it works is we have intense, detailed service delivered to each and every guest. We’ve got quality food and a selection process that picks the best in the industry. It’s been a wild ride."

Wild? From where we sit, it looks a lot more like smooth sailing.

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