« December 2006 Table of Contents
In the Kitchen: Flat Rock Grille poised to expand lodge concept
New management team fine-tunes menu with seafood for Southern palates
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
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
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
"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
Something that works well is extended; otherwise it comes
off the menu, possibly for revisions, and the company will try
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
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
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