Beef’s to Ride On Fast Casual Train

AR-140419726Perhaps it’s a sign of how much Tampa loves Beef ‘O’ Brady’s that everyone just calls it “Beef’s.”“Hey, let’s go to Beef’s to watch the game.” Personally, I’ve stumbled over the full name a few times, but that’s another matter. I stumbled over the Au Bon Pain restaurant name for years. There’s just no way to pronounce it without sounding like a rrreal ‘mmmerican or a Francophile snob.

Be that as it may, Beef’s will soon give people another reason to check it out. The company is joining the growing ranks of restaurants launching “fast casual” restaurants, following right in line behind Panera, Chipotle and Five Guys. This one will be called “Beef’s Express,” and Beef’s CEO Chris Elliott says he doesn’t mind if people think of this as a Beef ‘O’ Brady’s version of Chipotle. One could do worse in the restaurant world. Have you seen the lines at Chipotle recently? It’s like a money printing press.

I sat down with Elliott this week to hear a rundown, and he very much cautioned that this is an experiment, and that they’re starting with a single prototype in Lakeland — a test bed to try out everything from the menu and portion sizes to the furniture and traffic flow. He also explained what happened to the St. Petersburg YWCA location of The Brass Tap, since he runs that brand too, but more on that below.

“It took a little while to get our heads around the idea, but once we got into it, we became very excited,” Elliott said. “In the beginning we weren’t sure we could convert the Beef ‘O’ Brady menu to a fast casual menu.”

All this brings up the question: Why the heck are all the restaurant companies trying to be Chipotle all of a sudden.

My time as a business reporter has taught me that one of the biggest dangers in explaining a corporate project is to reduce everything down to one factor. Life is far too chaotic and contradictory, and I won’t fall into that intellectual pothole today.

So, let me count the ways the fast casual concept is taking off like a frenzy in the market — or rather, let’s let Darren Tristano count the ways. He’s a frequent source of mine, and he travels the country checking out restaurants and giving advice to owners for the consulting firm Technomic Inc.

♦   Compared to a full-service restaurant like Olive Garden or Red Lobster or Ruby Tuesday, fast casual restaurants like Chipotle or Five Guys average a 50/50 ratio of dine-in versus take-out traffic,
so they require a smaller footprint;
hence, lower real estate costs. Plus, Elliott says full-service Beef’s restaurants do 40 percent lunch, 60 percent dinner, while a fast casual joint has the opposite
ratio. So, launching Beef’s Express helps even out the revenue per hour.

   ♦   A smaller footprint means a restaurant doesn’t require an expensive stand-alone building, which opens it up to new sites such as malls, airports, strip centers and even travel centers.

   ♦   The catering opportunities are very strong for “off-premises sales” at a fast casual place. The kitchen can still produce the food, but there’s no need for dining room space. PDQ, for instance, does a
thriving business catering events
around town, something I’ve seen pretty much zero fast-food chains do well. Typical fast-food items don’t handle the transportation well. French fries have about a
three-minute shelf life before they turn pasty and cold.

   ♦   Fast casual joints can charge higher prices, which means better annual sales, which means higher return on investment for a franchisee who can open a store “with less cost/capital than brands
like McDonalds or Applebee’s but with
greater upside vs. Subway,” Tristano said. The labor cost per employee may be higher at fast casual places, but there’s no need for a host, waiters, bussers or
other floor staff. Just cooks, a cashier and a cleanup person. I’m not saying
that’s good for America’s job prospects; just observing the thinking of restaurant execs.

   ♦   Typically, fast casual food is a peg or two above typical fast food, and even KFC is getting in on the fast casual action. It built a test site in Louisville, Ky., called “KFC Eleven” with more upscale items.

Put that all together and Tristano says the average fast casual “unit volume” can top $1.1 million per store, versus “fast food that is much lower.”

But let’s focus a bit closer on Beef’s.

Elliott says the Express sites will only take some design cues from a regular Beef’s, but there will be no TVs (sacre bleu!). This is not the place to park all afternoon to watch a football game; that’s for the regular Beef’s.

The Lakeland mock-up is a 2,000-square-foot prototype with 64 seats, the size of a small Chipotle. People walk up to a counter, order their food and pay at a cashier. A server brings out the food. But here, Beef’s is pushing the envelope. Unlike Chipotle or Five Guys, which basically have one food item (burritos or burgers), Beef’s will have more than a half dozen: Chicken wings, burgers, chicken tenders, fish and chips, Cuban sandwiches, Philly cheese steaks, sandwich wraps and flatbreads.

Beef’s wants the average check to hover around $10, drink included. “The trick will be to have a more diverse menu and still deliver on what people want from fast casual,” Elliott said. “Quality, speed and value.”

Elliott is targeting an opening within 12 months, maybe by the end of this year. The Beef’s fleet of restaurants are virtually all franchisee operated, so Elliott can’t just build a slew of sites like McDonald’s or others can. “It depends,” Elliott said. “If the test goes well, we might get a lot of interest.”

Meanwhile, here’s other retail, restaurant and trend news around town:

So, about that YWCA Brass Tap location in St. Petersburg that closed last week. Elliott said it was a valiant effort, particularly because it was part of an adaptive re-use of a notable location, but the site just wasn’t seeing enough traffic. But it’s not going away forever. Likely, Elliott said, the Brass Tap brand will be relocated to a spot around the restaurant hub — Central Avenue, maybe close to the stadium.

Last week, we wrote a huge story about the launch of the Lyft ride-sharing service in the Tampa region. There’s a fight afoot, obviously, because taxi and limo companies don’t necessarily welcome the competition from plucky and less-expensive upstarts. Now Lyft just gave the taxi guys another reason to grumble. After raising $250 million in new venture capital, Lyft is cutting prices by 20 percent. Rival/compatriot ride-sharing service Uber made a similar move recently. As the TechCrunch blog phrased it, the move “won’t affect the amount of money that drivers take home. Instead, the company is temporarily suspending its 20 percent commission while testing out the new rates.”

The Channel District will soon have a couple of more bar/restaurants to boast of. Maloney’s Local Irish Pub will open soon along Meridian Avenue in the Grand Central complex, taking the place of the former Rajin Sports Bar & Grill, with a likely opening of late May. There’s already a Maloney’s in Westchase if you want to see the look and feel. Soon after, a partner restaurant will open directly next door called The Hideaway, more of an upscale lounge. There’s one in Clearwater if you want to check that out. Both are owned by Todd Wingard and Brian Pfeiffer, who say it’s a “leap of faith” to go into that area, but with hundreds of new apartment units going up, the Riverwalk complete soon and Jeff Vinik’s projects nearby, they figure this is the sweet spot for young professionals.

Fear not, Apple devotees, your International Plaza store is only temporarily closed. The site is undergoing another renovation and should re-open May 23. Unfortunately, if you don’t like crowds, there may be some frustrating news. Despite cries from the populace to triple or quadruple the size of the store, the site will retain its current footprint.

Good news for Oxford Exchange fans. The oh-so-classic styled bookstore/tea shop/retail store/business club/restaurant now has a full liquor license, which means beer, wine and cocktails. Another change: The restaurant is normally only open for breakfast and lunch, (private events at night) but the owners have decided to experiment with dinner open to the public at large on Thursday and Sunday nights. Call early for reservations, because the menu looks hot: Macadamia Mahi Mahi ($24), Steak Frites ($32), Shrimp N’ Grits ($24) and Vegetable Lasagna ($18).

After a devastating fire, A Modern Line furniture has found a new home in Seminole Heights at 4632 N. Florida Ave., adjacent to several other funky art galleries and creative projects. “Granted, we will be a bit lighter on merchandise to start, but the place is looking great and we still have a pretty swell collection to choose from,” co-owner David Call said in an email to fans. “Many thanks to our awesome neighbors, family, friends, customers and our local businesses for helping make this happen as fast as it has. You all rock! Love you all!”

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