by Mary Bergin
Much media attention surrounded the opening of 8-twelve MVP Bar & Grill in Brookfield in July 2012. How unusual for superstars from two Wisconsin sports teams to forge a restaurant affiliation together. What could compromise the winning combination of Milwaukee Brewers’ outfielder Ryan Braun (No. 8) and Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers (No. 12)? It wasn’t the menu or location, but public perception.
Braun’s plummet from fan cheers to jeers because of performance-enhancing drugs (and a 65-game unpaid suspension in 2013) forced SURG Restaurant Group into quick rethinking. The hotspot for sports fans was overhauled the next year.
By autumn 2013, the restaurant had a new name, theme and décor. It didn’t close, but for a while didn’t have signage on the door.
“It was time to change due to the circumstances, and that’s why we did it,” says Omar Shaikh, co-owner of SURG. “We were a little blindsided, but moved quickly on it.”
Now the property is Hōm Wood Fired Grill, which counts artisan brewers, cheesemakers and farmers as its affiliates. This includes Hidden Creek Farms, owned by SURG co-owner Mike Polaski.
Gone is the sports theme and memorabilia, replaced by farm-based and rustic decor. About one-third of the 8-twelve menu—“the favorites,” Shaikh says—was moved to Hōm. That includes a pastrami-spiced pork chop, served with braised cabbage and spaetzle.
“The menu is less sports-driven, but with more to interest foodies,” Shaikh says.
SURG originally chose the Blue Mound Road location because it was high-traffic and lacked independently operated restaurants. That part didn’t change, so SURG stood its ground.
In downtown Milwaukee, SURG closed Graffito in autumn, 2013 and reopened it this April as SURG on the Water. What began as Ryan Braun’s Graffito in 2010 turned into SURG’s first dedicated space for private events: corporate dinners and weddings to bar mitzvahs and banquets.
“We took out booths, to make it a more open space,” Shaikh says. Occasional public dining, such as a brunch for Mother’s Day, is likely.
Other game changers
SURG certainly is not alone in its experience with changing themes and concepts as business or common sense demands.
For Kevin Henry, CFO/COO of Food Fight Restaurant Group, Madison, it was time for a sweeping change when the uniqueness of Pasta Per Tutti waned a few years ago.
The fine dining Italian restaurant “was very successful for quite a few years,” Henry explains, “but eventually the rest of the world caught up to us, and we were no longer quite as special as we once had been.”
Now the space is home to the casual but edgy Tex Tubb’s Taco Palace, which serves at least 20 types of tacos, plus other southwestern fare.
Joe Bartolotta of The Bartolotta Restaurants, Milwaukee, notes that being busy doesn’t mean being profitable. Case in point: Nonna’s, an Italian pizzeria, which Bartolotta opened in Brookfield in 1993.
“It only had 80 seats and, at such a low check average, we couldn’t make any money,” he says, so the space was turned into Mr. B’s, the upscale Italian steakhouse, a year later.
“We cooked our steaks in the pizza ovens and still do to this day, which gives the meat a crispy, caramelized crust,” Bartolotta says. “Our check average rose dramatically and Mr. B’s has been a success ever since.”
Don’t be too quick to simply expand the size of your busy restaurant, advises Ray Bolton, a partner with Architectural Design Consultants, Inc., Lake Delton. He says that’s a common temptation.
“There’s something valuable about a waiting line, or not taking reservations,” he says. “It can contribute to the image of success, just as dining with a lot of empty seats around you can be a negative.”
Sometimes it’s better to take a winning restaurant concept on the road. Scott Truehl’s customers at Friede and Associates, Reedsburg, include the Nitty Gritty—billed as the place to celebrate birthdays. Their first location opened in Madison in 1968.
Now there are three locations; all have group-friendly décor and walls with photos of birthday celebrants. The newest opened in late 2013 at Sun Prairie’s former Cannery Grill, where Truehl says a banquet room with glass chandeliers and mirrors remain.
That décor eventually will change “because that’s not them—it’s a bit out of place,” and being true to your brand means addressing all details.
“We try to listen to who the clientele is and how the restaurant operator wants them to feel when dining,” Truehl says. Décor can be busy, historic, sports-oriented, personable. A waterfront restaurant catering to boat traffic might want a larger deck and be seen easily from water.
“We might see a consistent menu among restaurant properties but unique specialties for a specific location,” he notes. “The most successful take into consideration their surroundings—maybe offer breakfast at one location but not others,” because of neighborhood potential.
What drives restaurant concept development? Opinions vary about what to address first in projects that take months or years to complete.
“The menu and vision of what you’re going to do are most important,” Bolton says. “The biggest problem we see is the lack of a business plan or pro forma—you have to understand what your expenses and operating costs will be.”
For Bartolotta, the first step involves location. “When a great space becomes available, we look at the deal we can get and then decide what concept would make sense there,” he says. “We look for a concept that hasn’t been done in the area, or one that we’ve long wanted to do.”
The nine Bartolotta restaurants have multiple personalities (seasonal Northpoint Custard to dinner-only Bacchus).
“Creating a restaurant is kind of an artistic process, so there is no straight line and no right or wrong order,” says Henry of Food Fight. “It can start as a style of restaurant or a specific cuisine. It could be a specific area of town that we believe has a hole to fill.”
The process requires a match of concept ideas (“we always have three to five in the back of our heads”), location and personnel. “The first question we always ask ourselves, if we think we landed on an idea for a concept, is ‘who do we have that can make this a success?’ If we can’t answer the question, the concept might not be a right fit for us at that time.”
Food Fight began with the 1994 opening of Monty’s Blue Plate Diner. Its 18th restaurant, Cento, opens this summer in downtown Madison. The promise is “Old World Italian traditions with modern techniques” in an open-concept kitchen with a six-seat chef’s table, rotisserie for roasting meats, fireplace-style grill and wood-burning oven.
Easily overlooked factors
When a project involves so many components, it’s easy to presume or underestimate one part’s importance. Bolton says the cost of kitchen equipment often is the biggest surprise.
“Kitchen design is often not as well thought out as it should be,” Bartolotta says. “A smart kitchen layout will mean less labor and more efficiency.”
Similarly, menu design “will determine two of your biggest costs, food and labor,” he explains. “The size of the menu is another consideration: The smaller the menu, the lower the costs.”
The average restaurateur tends to have a cooking or managerial background, Truehl notes, so “they might not be thinking about booths versus tables, conversational areas or the impact of sound levels.” His goal as a consultant is “to help flush out a theme and make it real.”
Before opening Fox River Brewing Co., Jay Supple of Supple Restaurant Group, Oshkosh, hired Rob LoBreglio of Madison’s Great Dane Pub and Brewing Co. as a consultant for one year.
Now Supple is on the verge of going wholesale with beer sales. That is in addition to changing key beer names, a strategic move to better match them with the waterfront setting of his Fratellos restaurants in Oshkosh and Appleton. Blü, a blueberry ale, becomes Blü Bobber. Caber Tossing Scottish Ale becomes Marble Eye, a reference to walleye.
“If you’re doing multiple restaurant concepts, do something similar,” Supple advises. “We’re on the water, but in two distinctive buildings, and we say our artwork at both is always evolving” because of gorgeous Fox River views. The two Fratellos opened three years apart, in the 1990s.
Fox River Brewing operates at Appleton’s Fox River Mall, and in 2012 Supple added Red and White, a wine bar with a patio and outdoor firepit, seven miles southeast.
“Be careful to not compete with yourself,” says Supple, whose classy-casual wine bar has a tapas-style menu for easy variety and sharing. Fratellos has more dinner entrees than the mall brewpub.
SURG’s Shaikh found opportunities to develop three complementary businesses in one Milwaukee block. Next to the elegant Carnevor steakhouse is Distil, whose forte is craft cocktails and small-plate dining, and Umami Moto’s with Asian fare.
It is a careful balance: “If we have a high-end steakhouse and add a high-end Italian restaurant next to it, we’re competing against ourselves for the same demographic, and there’s not enough of that diner to go around.”
Food decisions will define and complicate a restaurant’s development. Bolton mentions the decision of Wilderness Hotel and Golf Resort in Wisconsin Dells to add pizza to its food offerings.
“So many pizzas were being delivered to the resort,” Bolton explains. “When you have 1,000 rooms, rather than seeing that, they decided to get into the business and do room service delivery” in addition to onsite pizza dining.
What might sound straightforward gets complex fast. Consider decisions involving just crust: Whole-wheat? Pre-made? Conventional oven or wood-fired?
“They spent a lot of time analyzing,” Bolton says, and in May planned to begin selling pizza by the slice or pie in a converted laser tag facility.
The resort’s ongoing strategy, he says, “is to find as many revenue-generating reasons for people to stay on the property—make it a one-stop destination.”
“Stay true to who you are and what you do best,” Bartolotta says. “If your restaurant is failing, certainly it makes sense to try a different concept, but I don’t think restaurateurs will ever succeed when they try to chase the latest trend instead of following their passion.”
Food Fight’s Henry says it’s crucial for leadership, systems and structure to remain strong during restaurant transitions and expansions.
“You have to be willing to hold nothing sacred and be honest with yourself,” he says. “That can be difficult for any of us.” WR