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Tee It Up!

In the 20 years since it was introduced, the movie "Caddyshack" the cultural radar screens of goofballs everywhere who want to laugh. Now, a star of that movie and his five brothers are introducing a restaurant spin-off. Though the first of many Murray Bros. Caddyshack restaurants has been built for laughs, don’t think for a second that this new concept isn’t serious business.

Tee It Up!

IN THE OPENING MOMENTS OF THE MOVIE "CADDYSHACK," CHEVY CHASE TURNS TO HIS caddie and offers this sage piece of advice: "There’s a force in the universe that makes things happen and all you have to do is get in touch with it."

It took a while for that advice to sink in, but 20 years later, all six of the Murray brothers–Andy, Ed, Brian, Bill, John, and Joel–were touched by that force and other flashes of brilliance. Last November, they and a slew of investors and partners broke ground at the World Golf Village for the first in a series of Murray Bros. Caddyshack restaurants.

Located between Jacksonville and St. Augustine, Florida, the 8,000 square foot, 180-seat restaurant opened in June and now joins dozens of others that imagine themselves eatertainment concepts. Sure, Caddyshack is a legendary movie, albeit a 20-year-old one. And you can’t discount the cachet of Bill Murray, a Hollywood icon who starred in the movie. And let’s not forget that he and his brothers, many of whom have appeared in movies and on television, are diehard golfers and former caddies. Still, one is tempted to ask: Are these guys nuts? Do they not read the trades? Have they not heard that far too many theme-heavy concepts have had about as much pomp, power, and endurance as a Yugo in a stockcar race?

Yes and no, says Andy Murray, who, together with Mac Haskell, is co-founder and co-chairman of the restaurant. Who should know better than Andy? He’s the only one of the brothers with professional restaurant experience. "No, we’re not nuts," he says (and, yes, he reads the trades). "From the outset, I said Hard Rock was–still is–the mothership of eatertainment. Those that followed copied only its merchandising and show. They paid little attention to everything else; things like food and service. They sold t-shirts and they gave you a Terminator on the wall. That was about it."

Haskell, who brings to Caddyshack years of financial and entrepreneurial skills sharpened on Wall Street, agrees. "When Andy, Bill [Murray] and I were on CNBC, I said that Caddyshack’s a restaurant and all that that implies. The others are about caps and jackets and things; it seems they are about catering almost exclusively to tourists. They forgot about the food. We want tourists, of course, but we also want to keep the locals coming back again and again."

By the way, not one of the investors or partners or on-premise employees likes the term "eatertainment." No one knows exactly what it means; they all know what it refers to; and, as one of the waiters told me, "we’d rather not be grouped with that bunch."

C.E.O. Robert Brown, who’s the former c.o.o. and executive v.p. of Hard Rock Cafe, doesn’t exactly bristle at the moniker. He’s not fond of it, but understands why some people in and out of foodservice might assume that’s what Caddyshack is all about.

"We’ve been pegged as part of the whole eatertainment/theme segment. In one way we have been prejudged. That’s a challenge for us. Because some of the others that fall into that category haven’t performed well, haven’t lived up to customers’ expectations, we can’t afford to slip up. We have to be that much better."

According to Jeff Trent, director of operations and also a Hard Rock alum, Caddyshack has the same challenges initially that any normal entrepreneurial restaurant has to face. He and Brown appear to be off on a crusade to neutralize the eatertainment perception: to prove once and for all that you can launch a restaurant with a theme and make it work if you pay attention to the quintessentials–food and service.

Neither has launched a crusade to neuter anything, much less delete the eatertainment reference from the restaurant lexicon. They have, however, come up with what they feel is a bolder, but gentler description, one that captures the heart and soul of what the restaurant is all about. You’ll find it in boldface in the business plan. "We refer to Caddyshack as a ‘lifestyle’ concept," says Haskell.

And that brings us interestingly enough to the restaurant’s slogan that, once again, underscores happily what Caddyshack wishes to be: Good food and fun. The slogan? "Eat, Drink, and Be Murray."

Let’s stick with the food, before venturing any further, because, in this case it’s what will make or break Caddyshack.

It’s no accident that Andy Murray’s one of the co-founders. If you plan to take the plunge into the restaurant biz, you best plunge as someone with restaurant experience, not as doctor, lawyer, movie actor, high-roller, or talkshow host, especially when you’re playing around with two-point-five-million investor bucks.

Andy’s had 20 years of trials and tribulations in foodservice, most notably as the opening general manager of Drew Nieporent’s Tribeca Grill in New York City. But he’s been elsewhere, too: Manhattan’s Lone Star Roadhouse and Mortimer’s, the latter being where he got his start as a sous chef after graduating with honors from the New York Restaurant School.

Mind you, Caddyshack’s menu is no Tribeca Grill, but the way the partners went about testing and evaluating and discarding items before approving what the kitchen would serve was equal to what any fine-dining restaurant would suffer before opening its doors.

Listen to Mac Haskell: "We were here for months before we opened. Every night the kitchen would cook for us different meals and bring them on different plates with different presentations, and we’d taste and test and we’d tell the kitchen what we thought: Liked this, didn’t like that. Let’s try something else. We wanted to make sure that what was on the plate was going to impress and gratify customers; that they’d say, ‘Wow, the food is really good here; we’ve got to come back.’"

At first glance, the menu is unimpressive; there are hundreds like it: traditional sandwiches (burgers and chicken breasts), steaks, fish, seafood, ribs, salads, some pasta and some pizza, appetizers and desserts. Nothing mind-boggling, except in how they’re prepared and served; except how they taste.

"This is not nouvelle cuisine; this is basic food," says Andy Murray. "Example? People have been screwing up hamburgers forever. You can’t find a decent hamburger anywhere. But, just put out a good hamburger like we do here, and people will come from miles to eat a good hamburger and they’ll walk away happy."

You talk foodservice to Rick Gibson, Caddyshack’s director of food and beverage, and–surprise, surprise–the third Hard Rock alum, who, with Andy Murray, is responsible for the R&D that went into developing the restaurant’s menu, and this is what you’ll hear. Not how great and wonderful everything is, but this: "You know, last Sunday we did 1000 covers in a restaurant that seats 150. When I congratulated Jimmy Scaggs, our general manager, he didn’t exactly dismiss it, but he told me he was concerned that one customer didn’t like his hamburger."

Before the brainstorm for a restaurant hit Andy Murray ("I want to be in the restaurant business and play golf"), there at the World Golf Village lay a cement slab and some steel beams just waiting for someone to come along and do something with it. "The story goes something like this," says Haskell. "Some of our investors are also investors in the Village. They had wanted to do something like a Caddyshack-type restaurant. They found us through our trademark and thought, ‘Who better to do a Caddyshack restaurant than the Murray family and some guys from Hard Rock.’"

Before former Hard Rock c.o.o. Robert Brown was brought on as c.e.o., he made it clear to Andy and Haskell that if he were to become involved in another start-up project, the focus had to be on food and service. Everything else, although a component of the restaurant, was less important: Stuff like merchandise, golf memorabilia, big TVs, and other assorted bits and pieces of theming things hanging from the ceilings or coming at you from the walls.

"At the time when we talked (several years ago) they were looking at a 25,000- to 30,000-square-foot box: The over-the-top kind of stylistic place that was big in the ‘90s," says Brown. "Having just come from Hard Rock, I argued that the big-box concept was already becoming passe. That what you want to build and sustain and be successful at is a restaurant. Fundamentally, that’s what you want to do: have some fun, some energy, but most importantly put out good food that’s reasonably priced."

So, instead of a 30,000 square foot box, they built an 8,000 square foot, 180-seat country club that defied all expressions of suitable CC decor and decorum and poked 19th-hole-fun at the solemnity of the game of golf itself. Caddyshack (the restaurant) was to become the epitome of Caddyshack (the movie) and actor Rodney Dangerfield at his most outrageous.

A media advisory advises that "the restaurant is built around the core values of an irreverent and fun lifestyle matched with a respect and love for the game of golf." "There isn’t a bad seat in the house," says Haskell. Yes, there are big TVs and huge TVs, lots of photography and memorabilia of the Murray family, a couple of pool tables in a game room, a horseshoe-shaped bar that’ll seat 30, and sight gags galore: a 15-foot alligator hangs from the ceiling, its transparent belly displaying discarded beer cans and license plates; a swordfish hangs somewhere else, a pair of boxer shorts dangling from its beak; and, for the sake of maintenance and repair expediency now that the caddies have taken over the club, there are fans made of lawnmowers and a fire hydrant made from a beer keg.

They are an attraction, not a distraction. The intended distraction is the food. High food-cost food. Food costs around 35 percent, says Jeff Trent. About equal to what a fine-dining restaurant would budget? "Anything less than that," adds Trent, "we’re shortchanging the customer."

Trent knows all about margins and how prime costs–food and labor–impact profits. He’ll find other ways to protect Caddyshack’s margins. Lowering food costs to what’s considered average in a theme (or, if you will, lifestyle) restaurant is not the approach Trent wishes to take. "When you drive your food costs down to 25, 26 or 27 percent, somehow the food isn’t the same."

"The restaurant business is all about food and all about value and entertainment," says Brown. "All the other things you plug into it are all well and good–they contribute to the experience–but you don’t want these things to get in the way, to blind you to your ultimate objective and that’s to make the customer happy and feel that they had a great dining experience. Lose that focus and you lose. Your customers don’t eat what’s on the walls or what’s hanging from the ceilings."

If the Murray Brothers and gang can maintain that focus, they’ll likely be raking in cash like Tiger Woods.

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