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Hillstone Restaurant Group rebranding Houston's units

Seven units set for conversion to Hillstone brand this year

Hillstone Restaurant Group is in the process of converting a number of its Houston’s restaurant locations to the Hillstone brand with the goal of bringing more local tastes to the menu, company officials said this week.

The move will also reduce the number of Houston’s-branded restaurants to fewer than 20, which may exempt the chain from impending federal menu-labeling requirements — though company officials say that was not their motive.

Houston’s locations in Boston, San Francisco and Dallas were converted to Hillstone earlier this year. Four more restaurants are currently in the process of conversion, including those in Coral Gables and Winter Park, Fla., Houston, and Santa Monica, Calif., according to Laura Biel, daughter of Houston’s founder George Biel and his executive assistant at the Beverly Hills, Calif.-based restaurant group.

Two former Houston’s in New York City were converted to the Hillstone brand last year.

At the time, the conversions in Manhattan were seen by some as an attempt to avoid compliance with the city’s calorie-posting mandate, which applies to chains with 15 or more locations. By changing the name, the restaurants were no longer seen as part of the Houston’s chain.

Biel said the shift to the Hillstone brand was not motivated by any desire to avoid menu labeling.

“That wasn’t the objective,” she said. “This is something we’ve been planning on doing for a while.”

Hillstone Restaurant Group is known for its eclectic mix of casual-dining concepts, including multiple-unit brands such as R&D Kitchen, Bandera and Gulfstream, in addition to Houston’s.

In developing Hillstone, Biel said the company was targeting restaurants in key metropolitan areas for the name change to signify a shift to a menu that focuses more on seasonal dishes, as well as local artisans and food purveyors.

The Hillstone brand is meant to embody a move away from the traditional notion of chain restaurants with identical menus, which has “terrible cache,” she said. “We’re making more of a move toward becoming more community oriented, as opposed to having a chainwide cookie-cutter feel.”

The converted Hillstone locations will keep some classic Houston’s dishes, but the menus will be designed to appeal more specifically to those communities, Biel said.

“It will be a slow evolution, not a dramatic difference,” she said.

Biel also noted that the company has not shied away from menu labeling requirements in other cities where it is mandated.

A Houston’s location on Long Island, N.Y., for example, posts calorie counts on the menu, as required by local legislation.

The idea of converting existing restaurants is also not a new one for Hillstone Restaurant Group. The group’s Woodmont Grill, for example, was previously a Houston’s location in Bethesda, Md.; and Cherry Creek Grill in Denver, Colo., was previously a Bandera.

After the conversions across the country this year, Houston’s will have 19 locations remaining, Biel said.

Unless the company opens more Houston’s units, the chain will not be required to post calorie counts on menus and menu boards under federal law adopted earlier this year as part of the health care overhaul. That law, which supercedes local mandates, applies to chains with 20 or more locations.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to determine rules for the federal menu-labeling mandate by March 2011, and the law is likely to be enforced late next year or early 2012.

George Biel founded the Houston’s chain in 1976. In recent years, the parent company changed its name as it became known as a multi-concept, casual-dining brand operator.

Hillstone Restaurant Group operates about 45 restaurants under 11 brand names.

The company’s newest restaurant is South Beverly Grill and an adjoining lounge called Honor Bar, which opened last month near the company’s headquarters in Beverly Hills.

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected].

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