Restaurant executive takes detail-oriented, ignore-the-obstacles approach to new venture
Brad Blum has been at the helm of big brands, including Olive Garden, Burger King and Romano's Macaroni Grill.
| 6:10 a.m. October 4, 2019
Brad Blum sat in one of the private rooms at Bravo Italian Mediterranean in Sarasota soon after the ribbon cutting that marked the unveiling of the new restaurant concept.
The door was closed, but that didn’t stop a woman from walking in, looking around the room and telling the chairman and CEO of FoodFirst Global Restaurants that she was hosting an event for 30 people there the next day. She also told him she might need it arranged differently.
“That can be done,” Blum told her. “That can be definitely done,” he said, before thanking her for having her event at Bravo.
About 10 minutes later, the woman came back. She told Blum she was hoping the wall opened because she thought the group might get larger. “We'll have to remember that in the future,” Blum told her. “You know, if this continues this way, we can always put an opening in the wall.”
Whether it’s tearing a wall down or orchestrating a turnaround for a global restaurant brand whose profits have plummeted, Blum doesn’t see obstacles.
Blum served as CEO of Romano's Macaroni Grill from December 2008 through July 2010, CEO of Burger King from December 2002 through July 2004, and president of restaurant company Darden’s well-known restaurant chain Olive Garden from December 1994 through March 2002. According to a biography of Blum, he led a turnaround of the business from “double-digit declines in same-restaurant sales” to “29 consecutive quarters of same-restaurant sales increases, industry-leading overall revenue growth, outsized growth in profits, and significant shareholder value creation for Darden.”
During his career, Blum was also a marketing and brand management executive for General Mills. He was an executive on the start-up team for Cereal Partners Worldwide, a joint venture between Nestlé and General Mills. He led efforts to create new cereals, including Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Apple Cinnamon Cheerios, and also led a turnaround of the cereal Wheaties.
Today, Blum is the chairman and CEO of FoodFirst Global Restaurants Inc., which acquired two restaurant brands, Bravo and Brio. Blum is an owner-partner in FoodFirst with investors GP Investments Ltd.
Blum calls the Bravo at the Westfield Siesta Key mall in Sarasota the “Bravo of the future” — a concept focused on fresh ingredients and made-from-scratch cooking. After the recent unveiling, Blum spoke to the Business Observer about how he doesn’t see obstacles, what he does when he takes the helm of a new organization and why he’s borrowing hospitality strategies from Italy. Edited excerpts:
Taste of Italy: At the newly reworked Bravo in Sarasota, there’s a sampling table near the kitchen where a chef will offer samples. “Why do we want to do that?” Blum says. “Because that's what they do in Italy. I can get a lot of questions and a lot of times the answer I will give is because that's what they do in Italy.” It’s a strategy the former Olive Garden and Romano’s Macaroni Grill executive has embraced. “I've worked with some Italian brands — I've always wanted it to become more like Italy because I've not met an American who has gone to Italy and says, ‘Wow, this was really terrible. I hated it.’ Everybody loves it.”
Culinary chief: FoodFirst is emphasizing the core customer experience — the food — through its leadership structure with Johnny Imbriolo as the chief culinary officer. “Every company has a chief executive officer,” Blum says. “In the restaurant business, every company has a chief operating officer who really oversees the operations and has a chief financial officer overseeing all the financials, but hardly ever is there a chief culinary officer. Johnny sits at the table right around that group I just mentioned. So the culinary area is not like three levels down in a marketing department, but it's elevated. And that's why we named the company FoodFirst.”
Culture counts: Blum is known for leading turnarounds of major restaurant groups. “I was asked in one instance what are you the most proud of?” he says. “And for a while I would state a statistic, like 33 consecutive quarters of the same-restaurant sales increases after it was almost out of business. But then I realized that really wasn't what I was most proud of. I said in one word, I can tell you what I was the most proud of and why I had such fulfillment. And that was culture. Having a really amazing culture with people living with good values and supporting one another and having a purpose they believe in more so than just making money.”
Courage and conviction: Blum says he wouldn’t join a company unless he had a vision of how it could excel. “I had to look and say, ‘Okay, what is something that could be done that would quickly change the trajectory of the business?’” he says. Most of the organizations Blum has led have involved a turnaround. “People found out early I could do that. It takes a certain amount of courage and conviction to do that.”
Mr. Clean: Blum wants the restaurants he’s leading now to have high standards — much higher than even the health department. “If we only do one thing, only one, I want us to have the cleanest and the safest restaurants in the industry,” he says. “I want to do that for our team members. I want to do that for our guests. I want to do that frankly, for our company, for all stakeholders that are associated with us. When the whole restaurant team dedicates themselves to having the cleanest and safest restaurants in the industry, magically somehow, the food is prepared better and the service levels go up. It's almost like in someone's home, if the home is really cleaned up and organized, there's a different pride in the household.”
Training takes time: Training employees well is essential for any company, according to Blum, but even more so for a restaurant company. “I don't view training as an expense,” he says. “I view it as an investment, even though it's hard to really analyze the return on investment sometimes because it's a little bit softer, a little more qualitative. It takes time, but it's very powerful and it's long lasting if you do it right.”
“I just don't really think about obstacles.” — Brad Blum, chairman and CEO, FoodFirst Global Restaurants Inc.
No detail too small: In Bravo, diners will find bowls of fresh lemons displayed. “We were talking about the size of the lemons and the quality of the lemons yesterday,” Blum says. “We want the very best, the very highest quality, the right size and just the right amount of lemon juice that comes out of the freshly squeezed lemon. I'm extremely detail-oriented about things. I wanted everything just right in this restaurant. I want everything just right with a menu item. But then I also get to a certain time that I say, ‘That's really running well now. I'm going to just get out of that, almost get out of it completely.’ I think all the details coming together make a tremendous difference.”
Expect to win: Blum tells his team members what they internalize is crucial to success. He says, “If you start to act like a champion for a while, then what happens? Well, then you start to maybe be more like a champion. I don't want you to hope that we win. I want you to expect that we are going to win. Don't be arrogant, but expect it and that you can take personal responsibility to achieve it.”
Perfect 10: Throughout his career, Blum says he hasn’t focused on obstacles but on opportunities. “I just don't really think about obstacles,” he says. “I ran Wheaties, which was a dream come true — Breakfast of Champions — and Mary Lou Retton got a perfect 10 and stuck it and got the gold medal. And I said, ‘Okay, I want to do something that's never been done before.’ ‘What's that?’ ‘Well, I want to put a woman on the front of the Wheaties box.’ ‘Are you crazy? A woman?’ And I said, ‘Yes, a woman.’ And guess what? We did it.”