Christopher J Artinian

Having Words With: Christopher J. Artinian

Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill president and CEO talks growth

Christopher J. Artinian says he’s learned what makes Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill tick since becoming president and chief executive nearly a year ago.

The former Morton’s, the Steakhouse CEO has tweaked the menu, focusing on good food at a good price, and amped up the atmosphere of the Orlando, Fla.-based casual-dining concept. Now, the 66-unit chain is ready for cautious expansion, he said.

Smokey Bones has been down this road before. It was created by Darden Restaurants Inc. and grown to 127 units before the company decided in 2007 to close 54 restaurants and sell the remaining 73. Sun Capital Partners Inc. purchased the concept for $80 million in early 2008 and reduced the unit count further to 66 locations.

Artinian said the chain plans to open two or three locations by the end of 2013, five units in 2014 and six to eight locations every year thereafter.

“We’re starting small,” he said. “As we measure our success, we can get more aggressive.”

What have you learned in your first year at Smokey Bones?

Smokey Bones was really an opportunity for this niche with food, drink and fun. It has become clear to me that this “come as you are” atmosphere with great food, fun events and the beers we have on tap really speaks to a broad appeal. I think it’s really a niche that we’ve created with this really fun attitude but with a real focus on guest satisfaction and food.

Growing Smokey Bones didn’t work out for Darden. Why will expansion work this time?

I can’t speak for what happened in years prior, but I can tell you, like everyone else in the restaurant industry, we went through some very difficult times in 2008 and 2009. Smokey Bones made it through by exercising prudent cost control and by exploring what customers really love about Smokey Bones.

What I often say is that the ones that made it through those years really have the foresight to know what to do next. We’ve learned a lot. We’re good at what we do, and we think we have the right culture, the right strategy and the right people to see this growth strategy through.

I think if you fast forward to today, we have a great foundation to expand on what we learned during those years. The strategy we have now is just so clear. The strategy is set, the culture is strong, and we’re ready to start opening up new restaurants.

What are your target markets for expansion?

We’re going to stick with where we have infrastructure. Of course, we’re based in Florida, but we also have restaurants in the Atlanta area; Washington, D.C.; Virginia; the New York area; Boston area; Indiana; and even parts of Illinois.

How are your efforts to expand into other dayparts going?

We rolled out a new lunch menu back on March 18, driving items under $9.99. It has been incredibly well-received, and we’ve continued to see lunch expand because of it.

What about late night?

It actually continues to be one of the fastest-growing parts of our business. We serve our full menu, with that quality of food, after 10 o’clock. That’s not something that everybody does. Our full beverage and food menu is available until 2 a.m.

How is your menu structured?

There are three major components of our menu. We’re the experts on smokehouse and barbecue — that’s really our roots. Also, we’re well-known for our burgers and our burger limited-time offers. We have three burgers on our current LTO. It drives one of the highest preferences in the menu, especially with our build-your-own burger. And then there’s the fire grill, which is our steaks and chops. Those three components really accentuate our barbecue roots, but also our credibility with having great food.

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