Restaurateur Scott Harris has enjoyed many accolades as an icon among Chicago’s successful restaurateurs, and deservedly so. But Harris hasn’t stopped to simply bask in his glory or rest on his laurels. During the past year he has worked hard to assemble a top-tier management team to help him write and execute the playbook for his next chapter: expansion into new markets throughout the United States. “I’d like to double the company in the next ten years. I think we can have Francesca’s all across the country,” declares Harris. “That’s my belief; I think it can be done.”
Having built a collection of more than twenty-two Francesca’s restaurants in Illinois, Wisconsin, North Carolina. Arizona, and soon in California, as well as other restaurant concepts, Harris’s company has bucked the industry trend with steady growth over the past several years. Growth of the Francesca’s restaurants grew more than 6 percent in 2011 and affiliate restaurants grew by more than 30 percent. Profitability has increased proportionately to sales growth since 2009. With overall annual sales approaching the $50 million mark in 2011, these figures represent sizeable growth–and the momentum continues. With the increase in the number of locations in addition to overall growth, the company is expecting to see revenue increase as much as 50 percent in 2012.
From Harris’s perspective, it won’t be business as usual going forward. He has grown the business by serving up a collection of neighborly eateries that have operated fairly independently. But that is beginning to evolve—the new playbook calls for a more unified company structure, more operational consistency from restaurant to restaurant and a more focused business culture.
“Growth doesn’t mean we’re going ‘cookie-cutter,'” says Harris, “far from it. It does mean, however, that we are going to grow by staying grounded, with quality as the most important benchmark—quality people, quality food and service and a quality dining experience for our customers. That’s what got us to this point and it’s going to be central to us in the future.”
To assist him in moving forward he has added a new senior management team, led by President and Group CEO Trent Brown. Building on a stellar military career before he entered the private sector, Brown has a strong track record of building and rebuilding companies. He has held top national and international leadership posts at companies such as Skire, SAP, Proficiency, PTC, and the Oakwood Group.
Brown and Harris are working closely on all operational and administrative facets of the business. During the past several months, Brown has assessed the growth potential of the various Francesca’s concepts and provided focus and leadership while overseeing the corporate expansion process. Brown is taking the lead in business development, building the kinds of relationships with the investment community that will support market expansion and nourish Harris’s new restaurant concepts. Harris continues as the creative lead in developing the new concepts.
“It’s an exciting opportunity to contribute to the growth of a superb restaurant enterprise,” said Brown. “My job is to build the right team so that, as we determine the best ways to grow our business, we will be certain to have the resources, organization and focus to succeed.”
Growth of the company will be achieved in a judicious, systematic manner. The current phase is primarily targeted at the creation of a formal, umbrella organization through which the growth will be channeled. “It’s a multi-faceted process,” said Brown. “We’re addressing a number of legal, administrative, and operational issues in order to put this new organization in place.”
Currently, ownership of the restaurants falls under several corporate entities. “While this structure has served Francesca’s thus far, there are good reasons why the company needs an overarching corporate identity that we can build upon to successfully grow,” said Brown. “It will take some time but the new organization will give us the tools and leverage we need to move forward. The business is likely to evolve, whereby some concepts are wholly owned and operated by the new umbrella company, while others are operated under a management contract. There will also be a number of new concepts that will be incubated to determine their growth potential. All of this is being worked out so that we have the correct structure in place so that when we make these decisions, roles and responsibilities can be readily identified and we can quickly allocate resources.”
Some of the company’s growth strategy has already been determined. “We have been refining the Francesca’s concept for twenty years and it’s ready for new markets,” said Brown. “We’re successfully operating Francesca’s in Madison, Wisconsin and Raleigh, North Carolina, we’ve just opened a Francesca’s in Scottsdale, Arizona and soon we’ll be opening one in Del Mar, California.”
Harris and Brown are very high on the Davanti Enoteca concept. The first location, in Chicago, has been a smash success and a new location in San Diego, California has had a very strong opening. Two more locations are in the works, one in Del Mar, California, and one in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“Francesca’s and Davanti Enoteca are both high-growth concepts that complement each other very well,” said Brown. “Francesca’s restaurants offer traditional regional Italian fare with a casually elegant Trattoria ambiance and a more traditional dining experience. Davanti Enoteca takes its cues from the rural cottages of Italy. We think of it as a lively, casual gathering place, with communal tables and re-purposed farm wood. The food is more contemporary—small plates and creative, interesting dishes.”
The two business leaders are also very excited about an artisan doughnut shop concept called “Glazed and Infused.” They are teaming up with Tom Culleeney, a former Executive Chef at Krispy Kreme, and Cristine McCabe, a Bon Appétit’s 2005 pastry chef of the year, to take Chicago by storm and bring new life to this classic. “Who doesn’t love a great doughnut?” asks Harris. Three Chicago locations are scheduled to open this spring.
Brown points out that it’s a team effort. “We’re taking Francesca’s great people, plus its restaurant and culinary savvy, and adding a corporate management team and structure that will help us develop the necessary repeatability and scalability we need to grow successfully.”
Helping Brown in this effort is new Vice President of Operations, Tod Barber, who built his career at Gibson Restaurant Group, Weber Grill Restaurants and Lettuce Entertain You.
As head of operations, he has been tasked with nurturing teamwork among the growing general management group while establishing better control and accountability measures. The company is implementing new, centralized accounting and POS systems. Barber is also looking at food procurement methods that will let the company take advantage of economies of scale.
Harris is determined to maintain the core values and deliver the unique customer experience that has spurned Francesca’s success. “We won’t sacrifice the independent, neighborly feel that makes our restaurants unique. Our success stems from our quality plus our responsiveness to the needs of the local communities we serve.”
Above all, Harris views this new chapter as an opportunity for the company to take advantage of its many strong points. “We’re getting more structured and organized, but we’re going to continue to balance that out by keeping our family feel. I’m certain, that as a family, we will continue to build a legacy we can be proud of.”
Since 1992, the family of Francesca’s Restaurants has grown from a single location on North Clark Street to 20 locations throughout Chicagoland, one in Madison, Wis., one in Raleigh, N.C., one in Scottsdale, AZ and soon in Del Mar, Cal. With a focus on exceptional service and quality ingredients, Francesca’s consistently changes the menu to offer the freshest, seasonal rustic Italian dishes. Touted as casual dining in a sophisticated, Trattoria ambiance, each individual Francesca’s restaurant has become ingrained in its community, and tailors both its menu and special events to match the tastes and energy of its guests. Mia Francesca has received numerous awards including being voted Chicago’s #1 Italian restaurant by Time Out Chicago magazine. For more information, please visit www.miafrancesca.com.