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In the Kitchen: Flat Rock Grille poised to expand lodge concept

New management team fine-tunes menu with seafood for Southern palates

A traditional fried calamari appetizer gets an upscale
    twist with an option of sauces. - Photo courtesy of Flat Rock Grille
By Joan M. Lang
December 01, 2006

Preparing for growth can be one of the biggest challenges a restaurant company undertakes. It requires not only financial acumen, but also discipline and focus when it comes to defining the concept itself.

Take the case of Flat Rock Grille, a six-unit, casual, seafood-and-steak concept based in Charlotte, N.C. Launched in 2002 in Greenville, S.C., the Southern-style, lodge-themed grill has announced aggressive southeastern-U.S. expansion plans, bringing in veteran chain builder Fred LeFranc as president and CEO, charged with refining the brand and directing its growth.

LeFranc, who joined the company in May 2005, says Flat Rock had excellent bones and a lot of potential but needed some fine-tuning.

Over the past two years, LeFranc has hired an infrastructure of like-minded, growth-oriented executives, strengthened the brand message, revamped the menu and opened a prototype last November in Charlotte as Flat Rock's flagship growth vehicle. The company's new headquarters opened in Charlotte at the same time.

Being in the South represents a particular challenge for a concept with a seafood-intensive menu, according to LeFranc, whose last job was a successful stint at Ruby's Diner, in Newport Beach, Calif.

"People in the South tend to like seafood that's fried, stuffed or sauced, rather than simply prepared. We had to get our arms around that first," says LeFranc.

Ultimately, the company ended up downplaying the daily fresh fish selection in favor of more complex specialties, such as Crab Stuffed Shrimp, Grilled Hickory Salmon and the trademark Sea Fry, a Carolina-style seafood platter.

"This area is slower to adapt to the trends than the coasts are, so what we've done is add our own twist to standard Southern-style specialties," says LeFranc.

Flat Rock Grille is too small to have a corporate executive chef at this point, so LeFranc outsourced menu development to culinary consultants he's worked with in the past and who understand Southern food sensibilities. Collectively, the menu was analyzed, repositioned and revamped, with an emphasis on upgrading presentation and introducing new flavors without abandoning what the core customer wants, says LeFranc.

The result is a menu of strong sellers that are at once familiar and distinctive. For instance, the popular planked salmon is first marinated in bourbon, which gives it a distinctive flavor profile. A fried calamari appetizer is presented on a trendy, triangular white plate with a trio of sauces: traditional remoulade, plus the more contemporary choices of sweet Asian chile and chipotle ranch.

Customers can choose among six or so different species from the daily fresh fish selections (such as Idaho trout, Atlantic salmon, Hawaiian yellowfin tuna and Pacific mahimahi) cooked any one of three ways (blackened, grilled with lemon garlic butter, or baked with white wine and garlic) and complemented by one of six sauces (mango salsa, lobster cream, chipotle tartar, remoulade, sweet Asian chile and wasabi cream).

The real stars of the new menu, however, reside in sections headlined Lodge Specialties (Cedar Planked "Whisky" Salmon, Pan Seared Shrimp Pasta, Grilled Wasabi Tuna) and Regional Favorites (crab cakes, pecan-crusted flounder, fried shrimp and the best-selling Sea Fry).

"These are our signature dishes," says LeFranc. "They're what set us apart from all the competition."

Seven out of 10 of Flat Rock's best-selling dishes are seafood-based.

"We have steaks and chicken, but we lead with seafood," explains LeFranc. "Demand for seafood is growing, especially in our markets, and menus are evolving."

To test the waters, each location runs a three-week rotation of specials such as a seared-tuna appetizer.

"We want to get prompt feedback," explains LeFranc. "We want to be able to experiment and see how different concepts work."

Something that works well is extended; otherwise it comes off the menu, possibly for revisions, and the company will try again.

LeFranc cites a recent Medi-terranean tilapia special that performed very well: "It's not way out there, but it has some different flavors, like olives and tomatoes and capers, and it was very well received. We'll also be looking at combo platters where we can introduce customers to different things."

Specials are also important, according to the CEO, because Flat Rock enjoys good frequency; the average is one visit per month, but 9 percent of the concept's customers are "core level," visiting once a week, and 16 percent visit more than once a month. Yet new customers are also coming in; "new visitations" account for approximately 20 percent of monthly traffic.

Some of LeFranc's recent efforts have focused on purchasing. "Seafood is a volatile category, and we needed to make better arrangements," he explains.

The company now buys all of its seafood through Poseidon Enterpri-ses, which has a processing facility in Charlotte, and has contracted with U.S. Foodservice for distribution. Out of about 50 core menu items, 38 are under contract, including such basics as frozen crab and shrimp.

The company's flagship in Charlotte represents a step up for the concept. The décor is warmer, more colorful and a little bit more upscale while still reinforcing the mountain-lodge ambience with exposed beams and fireside decor.

"Now it's more of a lifestyle restaurant, rather than a theme restaurant," notes LeFranc. The concept is reflected in Flat Rock's general positioning as "a retreat for your soul and a treat for your taste buds."

"With the new décor, we're offering a $40 experience at $25 to $30 average check," explains LeFranc, "which is where we need to be. We occupy a niche underneath Oceanaire [Seafood Room], at $50 to $55, and McCormick & Schmick's, at $40 to $45, but above Red Lobster."

When LeFranc took over, Flat Rock's average check was about $18.

With everything now in place for expansion, the new management team is on the hunt for new locations. The company is looking to open four to five new units in 2007 and five to six the year after that, adding new markets in Georgia and Tennessee to its current roster in North and South Carolina, Virginia and Alabama.

"We hope to have 30 or 40 Flat Rock Grilles online within five years," says LeFranc. "It's an exciting brand, and we occupy a very distinct niche."

SFlb Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine


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