In many ways, expanding a restaurant is like skinning one's knees on success. A restaurateur decides that they want to spread roots, reach different markets, and make more money. If it's a successful venture, the entrepreneur is blessed with longevity. If it's not, it can be catastrophic to the entire business. For the modern food kingpin, a little talent and some nominal fame can bloom into Bon Appetit centerfolds, cookbooks, and TV shows, or leave one icing their knees so to speak.
In the past decade or so Charleston itself has become its own, hopefully enduring food name. For such a small city, we compete amongst enormous territories swarming with restaurants of every kind, and we often win. But all restaurant patrons — and, likewise, the culinary media — crave newness and lose interest in the old. So it's not surprising when successful restaurant-owning locals decide to take the show on the road. Even with consistent, dogged reinvention, the most successful restaurants close eventually. Clutch your pearls, Sean Brock.
In the face of this near certainty, laying down roots seems like the only way to live on, and it's a brilliant scheme. There are many success stories about expansion stemming from Charleston. Just ask Brock, whose outbound restaurant is booming thanks in part to a second Atlanta-based Minero and Husk's Nashville sister.
Butcher & Bee owner Michael Shemtov also opened another Nashville location in an old mattress factory in East Nashville last December.
Shemtov is a hard-knocks expert in restaurant expansion. In 2001, he helped open the Mellow Mushroom on King Street and soon after became the marketing director for the corporation. When he dreamed up Butcher & Bee, he immediately envisioned also building five to 10 parallel locations. That will take time, though. "The key to success," he says, "is deciding on the set of values you prefer and embracing them."
Some restaurants, particularly when they begin to divide exponentially, rely on consistency as a business model. Diners can walk into any McDonald's and know that the Big Mac will be there to comfort them — and that kind of reliability is every bit as craveable as the burger.
Though Shemtov's business model operates on his imminent expansion principle, most budding restaurant expansions happen organically. For Callie's Hot Little Biscuit owner Carrie Morey the decision to expand was a combination of planning, readiness, and happenstance. Morey turned down many spots in Savannah, Atlanta, and D.C. because they didn't feel right. Ultimately, she opened a place in Atlanta's Virginia Highlands this past New Year's Eve. "It has these big, floor-to-ceiling windows in the front," she says, "I could see myself standing in front of them every morning, rolling out dough as people walked by."
Helming an expansion enables restaurant owners to restructure menus to fit a site, if they wish. Shemtov's two menus are very different because both focus heavily on local ingredients. For Morey, who sells her much-lauded biscuits both packaged in stores and fresh-made at her bakeries, the consistency model works best. Many owners, however, ride the line, keeping a few signature items on menus while working with new chefs to create dishes singular to that location.
When Steve Palmer, founder of the Indigo Road Restaurant Group, oversaw the opening of an O-Ku in Atlanta, he demanded that only two dishes carry over: the green eggs and hamachi hako and the lobster temaki. Palmer's Atlanta-based Oak Steakhouse features the same stunningly pricey, certified Angus steaks that Charleston customers dine on, but other elements of the menu have been tweaked in consideration of local food resources like Georgia raised Grass Roots farm fried chicken.
Reiterations of restaurants bring up natural questions about the relationship between quality and quantity. Ask any enterprising restaurateur to draw a line between a healthy expansion and chain-restaurant apathy and you'll be met with reluctance. No one wants to hang a number on a business model that, with success and time, may undergo changes in expansion principles. But it's also because all agree that there isn't a magic number of locations when forecasting — unfortunately, you only know where that line of superfluity lies once you've crossed it.
Some, like Shemtov, believe that seemingly infinite growth is possible if the right staff is there to run each campaign. Palmer agrees. He says his restaurant expansion model has always been to promote his most current employees to fill new roles. Oak Atlanta is presently quarterbacked by Chef Eric Zizka, former chef de cuisine at the Charleston location. In the more modest, "gourmet grassroots" facet of the industry, however, most are like Morey — just rolling with the punches and moving forward. That is, until a few locations under their belts change the outlook.
It's fun to dream and plan, but when it comes to the doing, it's those skinned knees that are tough to take. There are lots of stings to be endured when undergoing a project of this magnitude. Owners say the travel requirements suck. Every owner is compelled to fly circles over every aspect of the project, and it's hard to step away. There's always the bummer commute and fussy housing arrangements to consider. Most — particularly those with actual children — have elected to open in locations somewhat relative to Charleston to lessen the blow (though Shemtov's eye sees as far as Los Angeles). "I just spent my first weekend in two months with my children," says Morey. "Being away from them so much while I was opening in Atlanta was what really put the nail in the coffin for me as a commuter."
Even more daunting is the cost, which owners report hurts like hell — especially because it can be hard to budget. New, unforeseeable expenses come up all the time in restaurant openings, and most Charleston owners wanting a new location with clout build from the ground up. Of Greg Bauer's four CO locations in Charleston, Savannah, Charlotte, and recently Myrtle Beach, only the one in Savannah was converted from an old restaurant. He says he'll never do it again. "Too many compromises have to be made," he says. "Starting from the bottom means that the vision is entirely your own."
That said, perhaps the hardest bit of all is being patient. As Bauer knows all too well, there are so many delays and switcharoos to the whole affair that it requires not just patience, but a long-suffering endurance. Every owner laughs when you mention the word "deadline."
And even if they have a history of expansion success, Palmer says failure is never far from his mind. "I think I wake up with that thought every single day. It never goes away completely," he says.
Nearly everyone whose venture was Charleston born and bred pays homage to the Holy City, some more overtly than others. The city's certainly a sweet name-drop if you're trying to establish that you come from good stock — and that name is a device that the vast majority of entrepreneurs will employ. Some, like Morey and her biscuits, draw heavily on the "Charleston-ness" of the food offered through advertisement and press. Others, like CO, promote their Charleston-style service.
"We aren't really the type of restaurant that's going to feature a lot of 'Charleston, good 'ol Southern-cooking' type of dishes on the menu," he says. "We bring our home city along through that air of courtesy and open hospitality people associate with Charleston."
The other restaurateurs mention this intrinsic hospitality as being endemic to their eateries. "That kind of charm and friendliness is not just something we'd like to have at our restaurants, it's something we require," says Palmer. "People walk in and expect that they're going to be treated with that Charleston grace and sunniness, and that's what we want to give them every time they walk in."
Once in a while, Shemtov is asked by a professor to speak to College of Charleston students. He tells them this: "In every life, a person gets about five or six really big moments, the kind of moments that can change destinies. What happens next is all in the choosing." Though each entrepreneur is knowingly choosing risk, they're good with it. Best of luck, knee-skinners.