Marlow’s Tavern is betting that craft cocktails and fancy menu items will go a long way in differentiating it from other chains in the struggling casual-dining segment.
Executive chef John C. Metz founded the upscale-casual chain in Alpharetta, Ga., in 2004. Since then it has grown to 10 locations — nine of which are in the Atlanta region, and one in Orlando, Fla. The plan is to continue to focus growth in those two markets and their suburban metro areas, he said.
“I think people really want to experience what I call ‘affordable luxury,’” Metz said. “I think that they like to treat themselves when they can with special touches or special items. And that’s our intent.”
In other words, Metz explained, when consumers dine out, it’s supposed to be special, and they’re willing to pay a little extra for the good stuff. Marlow’s target audience is young professionals, a group that appreciates quality, Metz said.
“You want people to … appreciate the levels we go through to have a fresh burger or to have fresh fish that a lot of casual-dining restaurants kind of got away from,” he said. “We try to have some fun.”
In conceiving Marlow’s, Metz wanted to create a place where friends and family could gather after work and enjoy themselves without feeling rushed by the outside world. Service is a priority, but the experience is elevated without feeling stuffy.
Cocktails are made with upscale ingredients, such as bitters, house-made bacon-infused vodka and top-shelf liquors. Menu items are designed for a developed palate. Among the offerings are Crispy Carolina Trout with shaved Brussels sprouts, shallots and applewood-smoked bacon; Steak Frites with hand-cut fries and fresh arugula; and Seared Ahi Tuna Salad with avocado, crispy wonton strips and a soy-ginger dressing.
Many of those meals, Metz said, are designed to be shared over cocktails or craft beers. Both the cocktails and menu items can shift from season to season. Flexibility, Metz said, is just one of the benefits of being a smaller, emerging chain.
“We don’t want to grow too fast; we want to grow smart,” he said, adding that all Marlow’s restaurants are currently company owned.
Marlow’s upscale-casual positioning is a smart move, said Mary Chapman, director of product innovation at restaurant research firm Technomic Inc.
“As consumers are exposed to more and learn more about flavors and interesting ingredients, … contemporary casual seems to be one of the ways that casual-dining concepts are using to differentiate themselves,” she said.
Once a customer is in a restaurant like Marlow’s, you know he or she is willing to spend money to get good food. That means the concept’s growth potential is high, Chapman said.