Homegrown: Central Ohio restaurateurs eyeball expansion

Jill Moorhead
Chris Crader at Cosecha Cocina, which opened this month

Call them multiples. Independent operators. Multiconcept independent restaurant groups. Juggernauts, even. Just don't call them chains. The owners of Columbus-based restaurants who have been successful in growing their businesses are understandably squeamish about having the term, usually associated with plastic-covered menus and conveyor-belt consistency, applied to them as soon as they open a second location. There's not really a simple way around the word “chain,” though. It's a pretty good bet that the term, “multiconcept independent restaurant group” won't catch on anytime soon. Whatever they're called, Columbus is home to an ever-expanding force of foodies-turned-entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs-turned-foodies.

John Barker, president and CEO of the Ohio Restaurant Association, agrees that there has been a surge of local owners expanding of late. Not only are they winning a larger market share, he says, but they're gaining in both scale and structure with improved supply chains and attention to back-office procedures in marketing and HR.

For some restaurant groups, expansion was always the goal. For others, it's the result of an extremely successful first try. We take a look at both styles of growth, and why they're starting to happen here.

Organic Growth

Some of the city's most beloved restaurateurs have started to quietly (or not so quietly) expand their footprints into neighboring suburbs and cities. Most often, they're doing it in a slow and methodical—or even organic—way, spawned not by a pre-planned strategy for growth, but instead spurred by the overwhelming success of their debut venture.

“They say nobody got hurt from growing too slowly,” says Mikey Sorboro of Mikey's Late Night Slice, Oddfellows Liquor Bar and BrewZaa. “We've done a fine job of growing too slow.” With four brick-and-mortar locations, three trucks, two counters in concert venues, one corporate cafeteria and one centralized delivery hub throughout Columbus and in Cincinnati, Sorboro and his team have been incredibly nimble. When food trucks hit the scene, his pizza showed up at nearly every community event. When concert venues needed food, he said yes. And when phone apps for ordering food became a thing, he opened a hub for deliveries only.

For Sorboro, his slow growth is strategic. Lewis Center's BrewZaa, for example, is a test to see how the group does in the suburbs, within shopping centers and with simple buildouts. “I want 50 locations in the next few years,” he says, “but it's got to be methodic; it has to be right.” Sorboro and his partners are actively searching for new locations, scouting sites and chatting up real estate brokers. “We're growing up and starting to use big boy tools [like brokers],” Sorboro says. “We're trying to spend every Friday out of town, beating the pavement, talking to bartenders and seeing what areas are happening.”

Chris Crader of Harvest Pizzeria, Curio, Salt & Pine, The Sycamore and Cosecha Cocina keeps his eye on the horizon as well. “I hate the word ‘chain,'” he says. “But I guess that's what is happening.” From his first endeavor, the German Village Harvest Pizzeria in 2011, he now has eight locations in Columbus and Cincinnati, and he's content to keep his brands regional. “We shoot for an A-plus product every time, and I think that it's absolutely impossible to maintain that if your goal is to have 1,000 units. We want to maintain the attention to detail and the level of quality that we currently have. And our growth has to make sense [from] a personal and emotional standpoint.”

Crader looks at each growth opportunity on an emotional level. The Cincinnati location was spurred by a chef who wanted to return to the area to be around family. As for Harvest's Old Dublin location, which opened last fall, he felt it was a good fit. “We liked the community and felt our brand and message would resonate with the neighborhood.”

Among the multiconcept independent restaurant groups (is the term catching on yet?), Tina Corbin is an outlier in that none of her five restaurants (Club 185, the Rossi, Little Palace, El Camino and Philco) have been duplicated. She's wary of piggybacking trends and focuses her creative energies on staying relevant with each of her restaurants, like a diversified stocks portfolio. “We design things to be more on the longevity side,” she says. “Our selling point is that we provide a great product that isn't available in 10 million places right now.”

Has she considered a stock split, so to speak? “Philco intrigues me as the first restaurant that could have multiple locations,” she admits, saying that she has her eye on Cincinnati.

Growth By Design

As home to Wendy's, Bravo/Brio Restaurant Group, Rusty Bucket and Piada Italian Street Food, Columbus is no stranger to food and beverage companies with a vision for aggressive growth. Some younger groups based in Columbus are eager to join the ranks of their elders. For them, it's not just food and drink they're selling; it's a brand.

Troy Allen of Rise Brands, operator of 16-Bit Bar+Arcade and Pins Mechanical Company, is not shy about his plans to grow at an accelerated pace. The marketing veteran openly shares that his plan for Pins Mechanical is to show profitability, show that it's scalable, identify additional markets outside of Columbus and then sell off the brand. When he opened 16-Bit three years ago, he did it with the expectation of expanding to five different cities in four years. The Fourth Street arcade bar has sister locations in Cincinnati and Cleveland, and Allen has his eyes on Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Louisville for prospective future sites. His 14-person management and development company is currently working on four brands and plans to open a third concept this year.

Allen believes that being a hospitality industry outsider is a strength for his company. “I'm not here to run a bar; I'm here to run a business. We are very brand-forward. We are very experience-driven. Our staff knows exactly what our sales goals are, what our margins are, and I want them to understand how they're going to make money. When I get my end-of-day reports, I look at the hourly tipouts before looking at the sales report.” And it's not just profits that drive Allen. Brand-building is exciting. “If I'm not continually creating or doing something, then I get bored,” he says. “I always look at what's next.”

When Zach Weprin, co-owner of Fusian, opened his first fast-casual sushi restaurant in Cincinnati in 2010, he and his partners had a goal: to establish a brand. His dream is to have a Fusian in every major market across the country, and he's off to a solid start. By 2018, Fusian will have 14 locations in five cities throughout Ohio.

With operations and a corporate office based in Columbus, Fusian was a calculated risk for Weprin. “It seemed foolish to launch a sushi company in the Midwest,” he says. “It requires educating the consumer [on raw fish].” But lines out the door at locations from Clintonville to Grandview to Easton show that it was worth the risk. Fusian invests nearly every dollar back into the business, and Weprin pays close attention to peers in the industry, as well as lessons learned in opening new locations. “Going from one to two [locations] is difficult. Going from two to five [locations] is extremely difficult.” Each stage of the lifecycle adds new challenges to brand consistency, says Weprin, who pays close attention to replicating company culture, value, mission and vision in each new endeavor.

Different by Design

In a time when consumers are paying more attention to shopping locally, opening locations in other cities has its struggles. Customers—especially millennials—are savvy and want to support businesses grown in their own backyard. The struggle to be relevant at a local level is real. But many restaurant groups rely on a few simple ideas that can kindle love wherever they are.

“When I think of a negative of being a chain, they're just replicating the same concept across the country,” says Cameron Mitchell, whose Cameron Mitchell Restaurants operates 31 restaurants under 13 different concepts around the country. “In our case, we try to harness our strengths to continue to evolve. All of our restaurants look different. They're designed to fit the city and the location that they're in.”

For Fusian, design is a factor but so are collaborations. The group collaborates with other chef-driven partners at the local level. In Columbus, it's A&R Creative Group's Alchemy. In Cincinnati, it's Dan Wright of Senate Pub and Abigail Street. “We work to build a community of integrity,” Weprin says.

And for groups who call Columbus a second home, it's about the people—and keeping folks wanting more. Joe Lanni, co-founder and owner of Thunderdome Restaurant Group, which operates Bakersfield and The Eagle locally, avoids building multiple concepts in the same market. “We don't want [Bakersfield] to be thought of as being in every neighborhood in a city. We want to be truly thought of as Columbus' Bakersfield and Columbus' Eagle,” he says, adding that hiring is also a part of his keep-it-local strategy.

“If we have 140 employees in Columbus, 138 of them are native to the city.”

Location, Location, Location

Why is it that Columbus is so flush with chains, homegrown and otherwise?

Of course, there's the test-market claim. “Growing up in a restaurant family, my dad always told me that if you could make it in Columbus, you can make it anywhere,” says Lanni of Cincinnati. “Columbus is kind of a benchmark. If you can make it there, you've got a concept that will be broadly accepted.”

But there's something else going on here. Local restaurateurs say they find Central Ohioans to be active and curious consumers. “Columbus is such a ripe area for new concepts,” Sorboro says. “It's a ‘build it and they will come' atmosphere. It's hard to balance between growing a concept with a lot of potential to expand and staying here and doing new stuff that you know people will go crazy for.”

There's no ignoring the numbers. “We have 2 million people in the metro area right now,” says Mitchell, who serves in the growth-driven collaboration of CEOs, the Columbus Partnership. “And Columbus 2020 is projecting 3 million by [2050]. Columbus is a thriving city. That's what's attractive about it. There's a tremendous amount of business development here. And we've got [restaurant] operators from both Cleveland and Cincinnati poking around here. They'll have success here.”

Both Mitchell and Lanni agree that more creative concepts and an already competitive field of local restaurant groups is good for the industry as a whole. Lanni cites the strength of the local restaurant scene as part of the appeal of the Short North for Thunderdome, and Mitchell believes that competition raises quality. “It's a tough market, and it forces us all to be better operators,” he says. “You can no longer be successful being mediocre if you're going to survive. Overall I'm bullish on Columbus, from a restaurant development standpoint. I feel very lucky.”

Mitchell predicts that with the opening of the Columbus State School of Hospitality Management & Culinary Arts in 2018, the city will become even more attractive for restaurants, whose workforce will come from the school's new graduates. “For the city itself, [the school] will be our crown jewel. When that first class graduates, the culinary landscape in Columbus will be incredible as a result,” he says. “We talk about all the great companies recruiting people to move here. We don't have the topography of other cities, so the lynchpin is all in our restaurants.”