IDEA GUY: Food Fight President Schiro runs a lean, but fun, operation and believes in sharing the wealth.
HAT'S THE WAY I LIKE IT: Chef Kevin Tubb combines two loves, singing and cooking, at Tex Tubb's Taco Palace.
OLE: Bluephies serves up Southwestern fare, heavy on the vegetarian.
CAPITOL CHIC: Ocean Grill sits on a piece of prime Madison real estate.
From its humble beginnings 16 years ago as Monty's Blue Plate Diner, a funky joint born from a converted gas station in a transitional Madison, WI neighborhood, multiconcept operator Food Fight has grown to an eight-unit, $150-million company. Check averages range from less than $10 to $50-plus, and sales per unit average $1.5 million. With its eclectic portfolio of retro-trendy diners, an upscale Italian bistro, plus Asian and southwestern concepts, Food Fight is a major player on the Madison dining scene.
Key to the success of this growing operator is decentralized management, with each restaurant run as a limited liability corporation with employee-investment partners.
Chairman Peder Moren, president Monty Schiro and vice president Pare Grimmer head up a vibrant enterprise that's poised at the crossroads of growth. Together they're ready to plot their next development move, with the help of arguably the quintessential multiconcept operator, Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.
Schiro is the public face and the creative force of the team, with Moren and Grimmer serving as the silent money man and real estate expert, respectively. In fact, serendipity might as well be Schiro's middle name. From his earliest catering work during his college years, to the opening of his latest venture in an area art museum, Schiro's "faculty for making fortunate and unexpected discoveries by accident" (as Webster defines the term) has colored his career and life—well, that plus an innate design sensibility, tireless work ethic, passion for great food and a finely tuned barometer of what the dining public likes.
Overall, Food Fight's growth has been largely organic, driven by chance site discoveries—like the friend's warehouse that turned out to be a great location for the southwestern Eldorado Grill. Intuition and experience have trumped formal market research at the company, tempered by the finance and real estate acumen of Moren and Grimmer.
The company runs lean and its purchasing division, Buy Right Purchasing, achieves food cost and supplies efficiencies for Food Fight and about 45 other area restaurants. Franchising isn't likely for the diner-heavy portfolio. "Diners are too much work to franchise," says Schiro. "It's seven days a week, three meals a day; it's a brutal business." But Tex Tubbs' Taco Palace, what with its streamlined operation and simple menu, is a possibility.
Schiro's early experiences colored his core operating philosophies, and he pulls no punches on everything from absentee owners ("They're set up to be robbed blind!") to fostering employee loyalty ("It's simple— spread the wealth.")
We recently buttonholed the always-running Schiro to pick his brain on everything from concept creation and site selection to time management and grooming employees for management...let's call it My Morning with Monty.
RH: So Monty, what's your story?
Schiro: I'm not a chef, although I love food. I'm really interested in the design end of the business, having studied architecture. On weekends during college I worked for a catering company and made great money. Pretty soon I was running the guy's place. He thought I had some skill and put me to work managing a little Mexican joint of his that was losing money. It took just a few days to figure out what was wrong and turn it around. Basically, he was an absentee owner and employees were robbing him.
I dropped out of school to run another restaurant for him, a hip cafe back in the early '70s open from 6 a.m. ‘til 2 a.m., and I did everything: hosting, waiting tables, cleaning and cooking anddoing the books. I loved it, and ran on adrenaline,although after a year of that, seven days a week,it wasn't so much fun anymore. Long storyshort....(after sidetracking to L.A. and Chicago) Iworked as a manager for a Madison restaurant group with about seven area locations called Ovens of Brittany. They were ahead of the curve with fresh breads and bakery and were hugely successful, but they ended up cannibalizing themselves—another valuable lesson I learned. But they were the darlings of Madison back in '79.
I wanted to buy in at one point but they said "no thanks." They thought I was a loose cannon. So I decided to open a place on my own. I knew I could do it and make money and decent food, but I didn't understand business. I thought I did but I didn't. It so happens I was looking at a site one day in 1990 and across the street was an old gas station and a development group had purchased the site with the idea of putting a restaurant there. They (Moren and Grimmer) were looking for a guy to run the place and I got the job on the spot and that began our relationship (which ultimately became Food Fight).
The thing I learned from that relationship and that runs through this story is "share the wealth." If people want to buy in, we let them buy in. If they have great ideas, we encourage them to share them. It's all about collaboration. I believe in the idea of sharing ownership, sharing the wealth and sharing the responsibility. When I worked for others all I had was the responsibility. Our managers have that responsibility, and the opportunity for ownership, too.
RH: You also are known for having low employee turnover. What's your secret?
Schiro: The easy thing is finding good people; keeping them is the trick. But I swear, if you're just decent to people...it's so basic. And I just care about our people. In addition to collaboration and inclusiveness, we offer benefits—a 401(k), health and dental insurance for those with 25 hours in (we pay 55 percent of a single person's coverage) and we offer vacation to anyone with 25 hours a week, too.
RH: How did the relationship with Moren and Grimmer work?
Schiro: It was great because on the one hand, they didn't have a design or a name or a concept, whereas I was looking for money and business knowledge and these were very successful businessmen who really understood that side of it. They liked my hunger; I swear that's what got me the job. I wanted it so bad and I had the fire. They liked that attitude.
I said I wanted to be a partner and they said "absolutely; that's what we're looking for." And I said I wanted to help design the concept and they said "absolutely," because they didn't have one at that point (laughter). They'd never done restaurants before, but they saw an opportunity on the east side of Madison. It was a transitional area with some seedy bars and rundown buildings, but it had a great neighborhood vibe. Also, I believe you have to have a face attached to a place, so from day one I referred to myself as "the owner" of the Blue Plate Diner, not as a minority owner. I believe that's very important in an independent, to project that identity.
Peder became my mentor. Everyone I'd worked for before had kept financial information close to their chests. He was an open book—he wanted me to see and to learn and share.
RH: Most of your concepts have been home runs. Any strikeouts?
Schiro: (laughs) Oh yeah....but we turned them around. For example, with Firefly, we wanted to do an Asian concept, but it's tough food to do and people expect an Asian chef and we had an American chef. We didn't do a great job when we first opened it; we kind of screwed up the menu. The food was fantastic but when it came time to make big batches for 100 people, we couldn't do it fast enough and we fell short. But we recovered and won a local award for best fusion cooking.
I think we were among the first in Madison doing things that were unique. Part of my job is to travel to food-forward cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New York, to see who's doing what, what's cool, what's now.
RH: What's next for Food Fight?
Schiro: Opportunities are there; every week, we get phone calls. It seems everyone and their brother wants a restaurant in their mall. We're talking with the folks at Lettuce Entertain You for help. They have a consulting branch and they're helping us look at our structure. We're experiencing some growing pains. We have 10 restaurants now...what are we doing right? What are we doing wrong? Should we restructure? How do I avoid getting the late night call about the broken air conditioner?
I think in the next year we'll have managing partners with one person overseeing three or four places with that person reporting to me or Peder and I'll be the person analyzing food more...is the food the best it can be here? Are we gonna just settle for ok? How's that burger? You don't want to lose your edges. It's easy to lose your edges, so it's critical to have good people. You want people with motivation and energy.
RH: And how do you maintain your high energy level and enthusiasm?
Schiro: I do feel stretched thin, and when I am, then we all start feeling it. I'm a lousy trainer. I'm just not good at showing up at a designated time. We have standards and a corporate mission and a culture but that's why we're talking with Lettuce. We need to get smarter about how we structure and what the rules of the players are. Everything we've done has just been sort of organic and we need to get more organized.
I want to surround myself with the people who know the things I don't know, to help the company grow and as a result, they grow. I love nothing more than to see people grow into the positions they want.
AT A GLANCE
Corporate headquarters: Madison, WI
TEX TUBB'S TACO PALACE Tex Tubb's highlights the charms and talents of Chef Kevin Tubb, a Texan who combines his love of cooking and singing. The Taco Palace is promoted as informal, rustic, chaotic, comfortable, affordable and fun. Food choices include the usual suspects: chimichangas, tacos and burritos. "With a taco place you don't expect much, but we've got five to six different kinds of fish tacos for example, and they're just flying out of there," says Schiro.
JOhNNY DELMONICO'S This swanky, big-city steakhouse shines with crisp white linen-set tables, a rich mahogany bar and dark wood paneling with Art Deco-inspired metallic trim. Hand-cut and aged steaks, familiar steakhouse appetizers like beef tartare, crab cakes and oysters on the half shell and hearty salads and desserts round out the menu.
OCEAN GRILL Urban chic melds with casual comfort at Ocean Grill, where the fresh seafood menu focuses on pairing dishes with 32 wines by the glass, each available in 2.5- and 6-ounce pours. A "high-definition" aquarium (a flat-screen TV with animated fish at night that airs episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants at lunch), sound-absorbing highbacked booths and a bustling, open kitchen define the look.
FIREFLY The menu at this pan-Asian restaurant focuses on traditional dishes with signature items. Dinner includes such items as spicy green curry and Kung Pao chicken, along with signature dishes like curry braised short ribs and Thai hangar steak. Lunch offers a variety of quick items, like wraps and salads.
And brunch is a combination of French toast and egg scramblers, with unique items such as smoked salmon rolls and Thai steak and eggs.
BLUEPHIES This concept features contemporary fun food in an ultramodern setting, serving nouvelle Southwestern to comfort food with a vegetarian tilt. Chef and co-owner Bill Horzuesky offers such fare as five-spice black bean soup, a hearty portobello sandwich and smoked Mozzarella alfredo pasta. A dazzling dessert selection includes chocolate chile bread pudding and a chocolate chip cookie dough egg roll.
OTHER CONCEPTS: Monty's Blue Plate Diner, Hubbard Avenue Diner, Market Street Diner, Eldorado Grill.