A year passed since the corporate parent of Outback Steakhouse sold Lee Roy Selmon's, figuring the 9-year-old chain's future lies as a regional rather than national restaurant chain.
Outback founding partners Bob Basham and Chris Sullivan kept majority ownership in a deal with eponymous co-owner Lee Roy Selmon, a Tampa sports icon and Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive lineman.
They installed Greg Lynn, a 42-year-old casual-dining veteran, as president to fine-tune the six-store operation. Lynn, who had been the first store manager of other Outback offshoots like the initial Fleming's Prime Steak and Winebar in Tampa and Cheeseburger in Paradise in Chicago, chatted about why a barbecue chain known for Selmon's mother's baked beans and meat loaf recipes just put six types of tacos on the menu.
What's with the fish, shrimp scampi and adobo pork tacos?
They're popular foods customers want today, part of a larger effort to make us more of a gathering spot for family events and watching sports. We are a family restaurant first that had evolved to be known for Southern dining, so we want to get back to where we started.
We put in more big-screen HDTVs. Lee Roy makes us a natural in sports, and he's gotten more involved. We added more handheld comfort foods you can share: Selmon-ized sliders made with pulled pork, brisket or authentic Nathan's Famous hot dogs. A USDA prime burger. For sports fans you really need buffalo wings, so we added a second style. If new items do well, we make them permanent.
You cut prices. How?
We lowered prices overall 15 percent, but were adamant not to sacrifice quality. We added smaller portions, like a 7-ounce sirloin for $11.99 that's now our No. 1 item. Our new food items are really different ways to package foods we already have. A lot of the savings was shaving pennies that add up quickly. We buy economy-size Alessi's salt shakers. We switched from special carry-out bags to a cheaper standard size. We gave up linen for paper napkins. It was interesting that customers commented on the high quality of our paper napkins but never said a word about our linens.
How about diners who may be turned off by all that pork fat?
We added four salads and two mayo-free dressings. We needed more variety and fresh flavors.
So what's the reaction?
We have suffered like the rest of the casual sit-down restaurant industry. But after the menu changes, traffic is up double digits and sales up from a year ago. Much of the added traffic is 21 to 34. We're not back to where we were in 2007, but we're doing $3 million a store (about the same as an Outback Steakhouse).
Coming from big chains that measure everything, how can you afford research as a small chain?
Easy. We're in the restaurants every day. We'll hire consultants for some recipes. But we get ideas and follow trends reading, going to trade shows, and from a chef who constantly experiments in the Tampa store.
You trimmed the wine selection and steer clear of the craft beer movement, why?
We trimmed slow-moving wines last fall. Craft beers may be taking off, but we don't think $8 beer resonates with our value side.
You grew up in blue-collar surroundings in a small Ohio River town called Wellsville. Is that where your love affair with sports began?
I played football both ways, center and linebacker, in high school, then majored in sports training and medicine in college. I was a football graduate assistant at the University of Illinois, then interned with the New York Jets. I coached a small high school team that got to the state semifinals before we played the team that won the championship. We lost 6-0 after we fumbled on the 1-yard line. But I realized that to get ahead, coaches must be vagabonds who move every few years, usually to places they don't necessarily want to be.
So a summer job working as cook, waiter and bartender at a Chili's near your relocated parents in Clearwater was appealing.
I fell in love with the restaurant business because it's like team sports, all about relationships. Like offense and defense, which require different skills in football, managing the front and back of the house in a restaurant is similar. I was a store general manager in 18 months.
Are there plans to open more Lee Roy Selmon's?
We really want to be sure we've got everything just right first and maximize the opportunity within our walls. We want to understand where we and causal dining fit into the new normal.
Mark Albright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8252.