Company. Beef O' Brady's Industry. Restaurants, hospitality Key. Eyeing customer trends, and finding concepts that best cater to them, is the strategy at the company.
When Beef O' Brady's opened its first location in Brandon in 1985, its concept and vibe was billed as the family alternative to another up-and-comer at the time: Hooters.
For late founder Jim Mellody, the goal with Beef's was to bring sports, beer and wings, topped with an Irish blessing, to the growing community east of Tampa. Today, 200 restaurants in 23 states celebrate “good food, good sports,” at Beef's and that number continues to grow throughout the Southeast.
But while the chain grows, it's also expanding into a new hospitality segment: fast casual.
“We have been thinking about this and working on this for 18 months,” Beef O' Brady's CEO Chris Elliott says. “Even though we had the idea that we wanted to do something fast casual, we were having a tough time in the beginning, on how we would morph Beef's into something that would work in that format.”
That work has culminated into the first Beef's Express, expected to start serving customers on Town Center Drive in Lakeland by the end of summer.
In what is considered a hybrid of fast food and casual dining, Beef's Express will feature the most popular items from Beef O' Brady's menu, like burgers and wings. It will add other choices for a broader customer base, like salads and pasta.
Unlike a typical Beef O' Brady's, where customers are seated and then served by a waiter or waitress, Beef's Express takes orders at a counter first, and then delivers food and drinks to tables they choose. The concept is similar to what's found in other fast casual establishments like Pei Wei or Panera Bread. But unlike those establishments, Beef's Express will offer something more -- an eight-seat bar that serves beer and wine.
“You could actually come right up to the bar, take a seat there, and order any food you want,” says Joe Bullara, a longtime Beef O' Brady's franchisee in Bartow and Lakeland who helped develop the Beef's Express concept with his son, Ryan Bullara, as well as Beef's first-ever franchisee, Don Bosko.
The menu and the bar, however, is where most of the similarities between the fast casual restaurant and the sports bar ends. A typical Beef O' Brady's, for example, could seat almost 200 people. Beef's Express, however, will be less than 100 seats inside, with some additional seats outside. Also, there will be far fewer televisions -- from 50 found in the sports bar to just four hanging on the walls at Beef's Express.
“We're not looking for customers looking to spend three or four hours,” Bullara says. “Instead, Beef's Express will cater to those who are looking to get in and out, where they can get good food without having to spend a lot of time doing it.”
That style of customer dictates where Beef's Express needs to be — near a busy shopping plaza with strong anchors like department stores and movie theaters. Lakeside Plaza, just off the Polk Parkway about 15 miles from Interstate 4, was exactly what Beef's was looking for, executives say. It features Belk and Kohl's department stores, an 18-screen Cobb Theatre and nearly 70 other businesses.
It's also across the street from other high-volume stores like Target and Publix.
“You would have a lot more customer traffic nearby than you would for one of our regular locations,” says Bosko, who worked with the Beef's founder, Mellody, in Brandon before he opened his first franchise in 1991. “We want the people who want to get a bite to eat before a movie, or after it's over. We want the shoppers who would rather spend their free time in a store, and not waiting on their food in a restaurant. And this place was perfect for us.”
But movie theaters and department stores aren't the only businesses in Lakeside Village. The new Beef's Express will also have competition from other fast casual concepts, like Burger 21 and Crispers.
That kind of close competition, Elliott says, will help prove if there's room for Beef's in what's quickly becoming a crowded restaurant market sector. “If we have trouble making this work, it won't be because of its location,” the CEO says.
But even with more established options so close, market data shows there should be room for Beef's Express. Chicago research and consulting firm Technomic Inc., for example, reports fast casual brands in its top 500 list collectively increased annual sales by 12.8% in 2014, to $30 billion. The growth rate was nearly double the next-largest increase from any other restaurant segment.
California-based build-your-own-pizza chain Pieology pushed year-over-year sales 230%, to $44.6 million, after it tripled its number of locations. Closer to home, Tampa-based chicken chain PDQ more than doubled sales from 2013, while BurgerFi out of North Palm Beach was right behind in growth.
“This has been a trend that has just exploded since the recession,” says Dannette Lynch, regional director for the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, who covers the area from the Space Coast to Southwest Florida. “Budgets, for a while, eliminated some people from the fine dining experience, but they were still looking for something that was a step up from fast food.”
It's not that fast food like Burger King and Wendy's are going away anytime soon, Lynch adds. However, some of the creativity and innovation of many fast casual locations -- from Tijuana Flats' mural-filled locations to BurgerFi's chairs made from recycled drink bottles -- have helped attract customers away from drive-thrus.
The shift has prompted McDonald's, for one, to step lightly into fast casual. That includes interior seating designs that cater to customers staying longer than just a few minutes, and the giant chain has cut down its menu and added more health-conscious choices.
“Fast casual is definitely meeting the needs and demands of a growing market segment among customers,” Lynch says. “And it's here to stay.”
Elliott already has had a lot of interest in the Beef's Express concept before it even opens -- primarily from his existing base of franchisees. Many have looked to expand into other market segments to supplement the sports bar market, and fast casual has been by far the most popular.
“There is a lot of curiosity about what we're doing, but this is still an untested frontier for us, so I'm sure many of them want to kind of wait and see what happens,” Elliott says.
Beef O' Brady's franchisees typically pay a $35,000 fee, as well as a 4% royalty fee, and another 2.3% for advertising. While those basic corporate expenses would likely remain the same for franchisees wanting to open a Beef's Express, Bosko at least feels the overall investment might be much more attractive.
“We're talking much smaller footprints,” he says. “My south Lakeland location, for instance, is 4,500 square feet. But these new restaurants will be closer to 2,700 square feet.”
Fast casual franchisees also won't have to pay for expensive television sports packages. The regular season of the NFL, for example, costs $4,000 per location.
Will all this be enough for Beef O' Brady's to transition from a pub concept it's used for 30 years into something new? Elliott says his team will get that answer quickly.
“We open by August, so by the end of the year, we should know if it's working or not,” he says.
“Every restaurant we open, there's always a risk involved, and we have to figure out if it's worth taking that risk,” Elliott adds. “This is one of those things that is really risky, and we won't know if it's a great decision until after we do it. But we're confident that this is where we should be going.”
At a Glance
Beef O' Brady's
Year founded: 1985
CEO: Chris Elliot
2014 revenues: $212 million
Employees: More than 5,000 system-wide
Locations: More than 200
Source: Beef O' Brady's