CLEARWATER — Ask the new head of Smokey Bones Bar and Fire Grill if he likes the food and he points to his waist. He's still trying to shake off the 14 pounds he gained sampling every dish on the menu when he started the job.
Chris Artinian, 43, took over as the chain's chief executive officer in June after 18 years at the famous Morton's steak house, where he rose from an hourly pastry employee to president and CEO.
Smokey Bones hired Artinian to expand the size and visibility of the 66-restaurant chain, which plans to add four to six locations in 2013 after several years of no growth.
Founded in 1999 by Darden Restaurants, the casual restaurant chain was sold in 2007 to an affiliate of Sun Capital Partners, which also owns Boston Market, Friendly's, Sweet Tomatoes, Bar Louie and other restaurants totaling $2 billion in annual sales. Headquartered in Orlando, Smokey Bones has three restaurants in the Tampa Bay area — in Brandon, Citrus Park and Clearwater.
The Times met with Artinian this week at the Smokey Bones in Clearwater, where he taste-tested a new prime rib entree and apple pecan crumble now available for the holidays.
Going from Morton's to Smokey Bones seems like a big change. What are some similarities or differences you've seen so far?
One of the similarities is that there's an expectation of good food, service and hospitality, regardless of price point. What I bring over from Morton's is that invigoration of a culture of excellence and making sure we touch every guest in a way that makes them feel like they can come back right away.
How did you get to Smokey Bones?
Morton's sold on February 1st. We were a public company that went private and everything was consolidated. I was in this unique opportunity of what's next? I got introduced to some folks at Sun Capital and we really hit it off. Sun Capital had done some great work with Smokey Bones and fought through 2008 and 2009 when everyone was fighting for their lives and got to a great base line from where they can build. They wanted someone who could finish the job. We're 70 to 80 percent there, but we want to strengthen the culture and execution and chase after the best in class.
How have you tweaked the menu?
What we did with the menu coming out of the gate was to look at what we can do to enhance it. Macaroni and cheese is a great example. Everyone's got macaroni and cheese, but what makes ours different? We added asiago cheese, which is a much better quality cheese, and caramelized the top. Basically it's the same recipe that we accentuated and made to look a little better.
What did you think of the name change a few years ago from Smokey Bones Barbeque to Smokey Bones Bar and Fire Grill?
I think that's part of the evolution. Darden started the concept and it was barbecue-centric. They realized they could really expand upon great food and have a broader menu. I think bar and fire grill represents all that we are. You can do both. As many people as we have drinking at the bar, we have as many people eating at the bar.
Any concern about going into casual dining, a restaurant segment that was hit hard during the recession?
At Morton's, about 80 percent of our business ended up on an expense report. So when business travel went bye-bye, we were really off. So I wasn't afraid of the fight casual dining has gone through. I think that people still want to go out and have a great value. And value is not necessarily the cheapest thing out there. Can I be treated well with great food and feel like this was an escape? I think that's what's missing in casual dining today. We deliver on the food and hospitality, and I think that differentiates us.
What do you think of the trend toward fast casual restaurants?
I think it's a real business and, especially at lunch, they do a great job getting people in and out. I think that lunch is a very competitive sector, and what we're trying to do is provide a great value in a very timely experience. The days of a three-martini lunch are long gone. Who's got the time? But you do want a little bit of escape. We offer an experience where you feel like you got out of the office but get back to your desk within the lunch hour.
Coming from Chicago, were you familiar with barbecue?
I think I'm just familiar with food. (Laughs) I've been in this business my entire career. I cooked with my mom at a young age and to this day I think she's the best cook on the planet. She taught me about flavors and what goes with what and about cooking from the heart. And that's what we're going after here. What is the soul of what we do? You can get ribs anywhere. You can get a burger anywhere. But is it going to be hot, fresh and consistent and complemented by friendly people and a great experience? To me, that's what restaurants are all about.