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Trio of restaurant royalty looks at the future of their business

From left, Bob Basham, founder of the of Outback Steakhouse parent company, Mike Lester, president of Melting Pot Restaurants, and Maryann Ferenc, CEO of Mise en Place, discuss  issues Thursday at an annual industry summit in Tampa.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

From left, Bob Basham, founder of the of Outback Steakhouse parent company, Mike Lester, president of Melting Pot Restaurants, and Maryann Ferenc, CEO of Mise en Place, discuss issues Thursday at an annual industry summit in Tampa.

TAMPA — Bob Basham, Maryann Ferenc and Mike Lester are restaurant royalty.

Basham founded chain restaurant powerhouse OSI Restaurant Partners LLC — now known as Bloomin' Brands Inc. — home to all-star franchises like Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba's Italian Grill and Bonefish Grill.

Ferenc is the CEO of Mise en Place Inc., the popular Tampa restaurant and caterer that last year celebrated its 25th anniversary. Mise en Place recently branched out into the Tampa Museum of Art and Tampa International Airport.

Lester is the president of Melting Pot Restaurants Inc., another Florida-born chain. The Melting Pot has more than 140 establishments in North America and is developing new properties like Burger 21 and GrillSmith.

They're leaders in their field, and on Thursday they shared a panel and their thoughts on the business at the 2012 Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association's Operators Summit.

They touched on everything from the locally grown movement to the future of eating out to what customers really want. Basham even managed to plug his latest venture: PDQ, the "pretty darn quick" chicken chain that the Outback founder hopes to pit against Chick-fil-A.

Here are some of the appetizers they shared:

What is your five-year plan — and your endgame — in the restaurant business?

Ferenc: Truly, my end goal is not to stop. It really is to continue to create and re-create ourselves and we need to do that … we are not driven by a concept. I think that as the restaurant matures there's a few things we want to do. One is to continue to be community engaged. The Tampa Museum of Art, we do the cafe and hospitality service. (Mise en Place runs the museum's SONO Cafe.) It was a risk, but we really wanted to be a part of the hometown community. And the wine garden (the First Flight wine bar at Tampa International Airport). We really wanted to be a part of the economic growth at the airport.

The other part of our five-year plan is to figure out how we might retire.

What are your thoughts on the locally grown movement?

Lester: We have just begun an R&D project (using locally grown ingredients) to roll into our Melting Pots across the country … that's difficult but there is a call for that and there is a future for it. I think it's going to be one of those things that isn't a trend. I think you'll see it permanently ingrained in the next five to 10 years. That's why we need to figure that out now. We see our consumers wanting it.

Ferenc: I wholly agree that it's not a trend and it will be a way of life and how we do business. I think in the U.S. … culinary and cultural travel is really becoming more and more important, being distinct and showing we are a different area of the country is a part of that. It isn't easy … we've tried to do it for the last 15 years, and it's not easy. You have a good relationship with a local farmer and then they go out of business. Multiply that across the U.S. and you can just imagine what the challenges are. But the customers are demanding it, and we are going in that direction.

In Florida it has been hard to get the local farms to make money, and we also have a funny growing cycle. It's important to learn more about our region, because the food we grow and when we can grow them are different.

What do you read to keep up with management and restaurant trends?

Basham: The book I read and prefer is Stephen Covey's book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, may he rest in peace. (Covey, 79, died Monday.) I've probably heard him speak 10 to 15 times. I read a lot on the Internet. I'm always interested in business articles. … I also spend time looking at (gourmet and food and wine) magazines because I'm always looking for an idea to get something new. There's a lot of great ideas in there. If we can dumb it down a little and make it easier, it would work in a full-service restaurant.

How is the industry addressing credit card security issues?

Lester: I'll be a truth-teller: What a … nightmare. We're ready for a new millennium. And if (the credit card machine companies) aren't ready, they'll go the way of Blockbuster. I have franchises that are going back to swiping credit cards (on old machines) because they're not storing the numbers in the system. In some ways they're more secure. I understand the damage we can cause to an individual when their credit card is stolen.

We as an industry have an obligation to treat this seriously. However, it's been tough on us. It shouldn't have snuck up on us, but I think a lot of operators were wholly unprepared.

What do you see in the next five to 10 years in the restaurant business?

Basham: I know what I want to see takeoff: PDQ! (The crowd laughed.) I think quick casual is something that's going to be there. My kids, where are the places they like to go? Chipotle (Mexican Grill) is quick, it's good, it's got good value. I think that's a trend I see continuing. I think the other trend is the technology part of it. How do they order? How do they pay? How do they use their smartphones? How do people go into restaurants and order?

Ferenc: I think culinary and cultural travel is going to influence how we make decisions about the business as the industry grows, and I think it will grow substantially in the next five to 10 years. … I also think the notion of service as an ingredient of the meal is beginning to catch on. It's as important as everything else and will continue … I also think this cocktail culture is going to stay around for a while. It's like a chef at the bar.

Lester: Consumer choice. I think that's going to be a big part. The consumers are going to want to choose. You see this a lot more. They're demanding flexibility on menus in restaurants. I think that's why quick casual is working. It's not just economics. There's a lot of choice there. When a consumer goes in there they can pick whatever they want and how they want it. Full-service restaurants are (rigid) in their offerings. I think in the next five to 10 years, we have to open that up and be flexible.

Where will the restaurant industry's future workers come from?

Lester: In five to 10 years from now, I worry about our labor pool. It's a recession now, and sadly one of the benefits of being in a recession is there are really excellent qualified people to hire right now. That's going to change. When we come out of the recession, if you see the pent-up demand statistics, people want to eat out at restaurants. We have a lot of growth in front of us.

But the age bracket we hire from is going to go to an all-time low in the next five to 10 years. Where are we going to hire from? We're going to be beating each other up.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404.

Trio of restaurant royalty looks at the future of their business 07/20/12 [Last modified: Friday, July 20, 2012 10:44pm]

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