Sullivan father and son of restaurant fame stay close on the job

Alex Sullivan, vice president of Carmel, poses with four generations of Sullivans: son Liam, father and Outback Steakhouse co-founder Chris, and grandfather William.
Alex Sullivan, vice president of Carmel, poses with four generations of Sullivans: son Liam, father and Outback Steakhouse co-founder Chris, and grandfather William.
Published June 18, 2016

The up-and-coming vice president of the restaurant chain arrives each day at his corporate office, appreciative that the veteran leader who launched the chain sits just down the hall.

The founder, with a string of successes on his resume, has long since turned over the day-to-day reins to the younger leader. Still, the vice president loves the fact that he's there to answer a question or brainstorm ideas.

What he loves even more is that the founder is his father.

"When I come into the office in the morning and grab my cup of coffee, it's nice to just go in and say, 'Hey Dad, did you see that Rays game last night?' " Alex Sullivan said of his father, Outback founder and current Carmel Kitchen and Wine Bar co-owner Chris Sullivan.

"It's fun to work with my dad on many different levels. It's great to work with someone who has been that successful in the industry. But in general, he's my dad, and it's just great getting to spend more time with him."

The role Chris Sullivan, 68, played in building Outback and Bloomin' Brands into a behemoth is the stuff of restaurant industry legend. So much so, you might think his son didn't want to operate in the shadow of his more famous dad.

But on this Father's Day, Alex Sullivan, 36, relishes the opportunity, even though it didn't immediately emerge.

After college, the younger Sullivan went into real estate. In 2002, it appeared to be the right move with Florida's housing boom in full swing. He went through a management training course with a developer and then rehabbed houses.

Alex gained a sense of independence.

"I did avoid it at first," Alex Sullivan said. "It was like, 'Go try to do your own thing.' When I was getting out of school, the real estate market was so hot. It felt like a good time to go get in.'"

When the real estate market went bust a few years later, Chris Sullivan asked his son about the "family business."

"He never wanted to put pressure on me to go into the industry, but he wanted me to make sure I understood the opportunity was there," Alex Sullivan said.

It's an interesting choice for parents. Some desperately want their kids to follow in their footsteps. Others would rather they do anything but go the same route.

Chris Sullivan took a more middle-of-the-road approach, but he's no less proud of how Alex has grown in his role since first training with a Richmond, Va., restaurant chain and then helping launch Carmel in 2010.

"It's a pleasure watching one of your children go into the business you're in and do well," Chris Sullivan said.

And if there's any doubt about who's running Carmel, consider this: The elder Sullivan called me while relaxing in Florence, Italy.

Like his mentor, Steak & Ale founder Norman Brinker, Chris Sullivan gives Alex a lot of support — and a lot of responsibility.

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Carmel now has seven locations — five in Florida and two in Pennsylvania. With operations director Wyman Shaw, Alex and his team handle day-to-day duties. A huge sports fan, Alex sees himself as a coach, crafting a game plan for each restaurant and striving to acquire great talent.

Carmel falls into the polished-casual category and builds its menu around what Alex calls, "Americanized Mediterranean." It's sophisticated, with diners ordering off of iPads. At the same time, Carmel offers a kids menu. The kids enjoy the technology.

Family remains in the forefront of his thoughts with customers and his own kids, says the married father of two.

"You see things like this Orlando tragedy and you see how fragile life is and you think about the important things in life," Alex Sullivan said. "At the end of the day, it's family relationships and getting to spend time with your family."

And if that time comes in the corporate offices of Carmel, that's just fine with the Sullivans.

That's all I'm saying.