« June 2006 Table of Contents
One on One: Greg Carey
President and COO, Buckhead Life Restaurant Group
By Fiona Robinson
June 01, 2006
The Buckhead Life Restaurant Group in Atlanta announced in
January that it was taking its upscale Chops Lobster Bar
concept nationwide. The first out-of-state location for the
multi-concept restaurant group will be Boca Raton, Fla. Pano
Karatassos, Buckhead founder and CEO, hired restaurant industry
veteran Greg Carey as president and COO to lead the Chops
Carey is known for his trademark positive attitude, his
passion for providing a superior guest experience and his
dedication to his staff's professional development. Carey is
challenged with making the 16-year-old Chops concept
operational on a national scale, and on one level. The original
two-story restaurant has the Lobster Bar on the lower level and
Chops on the second floor.
Carey is well versed in the business of broadening
restaurant concepts. His restaurant career spans three decades
and includes positions at a variety of concepts, from quick
casual to fine dining. Most recently, Carey held the COO
position at P.F. Chang's China Bistro, where he led the
company's growth from 12 to 50 restaurants.
Prior to Chang's he was COO for Rainforest Café in
Minneapolis, which grew to 15 locations under his
five-year-tenure. I spoke with Carey early in May to get an
update on the Chops expansion, which is scheduled to kickoff in
Florida by year's end.
Robinson: What motivated you to take the job with BLRG?
Carey: Honestly, it's a legendary restaurant group, even
though it's 12 restaurants. Pano is a legendary restaurateur. I
quite frankly wanted to go to a business that I could
personally and positively impact but wanted to learn from
someone like Pano, who could teach me more. That combination,
plus the expansion vehicle, was critical in my decision-making
Buckhead has several different restaurant concepts. How did
you decide to go national with Chops Lobster Bar?
The high-end steak and seafood [category] continues to
explode: I's doing great. We wanted to jump into that niche,
but with a unique point of difference. We're building a Chops
Lobster Bar, a high-end prime steak restaurant and a prime
seafood restaurant together under one roof on the same
Will the Chops interior be repeated in each location?
Visually, the two are very different. Chops' dining room
will have dark, serious tones of a traditional steak house. The
Lobster Bar side will have a tiled roof with a Grand Central
Oyster Bar look. We're taking a lot of what we're successful
Will the menu change
between dining rooms?
It's all the same menu. It will look and feel different, but
the menu will have 30 fresh seafood items and all of the prime
What is the ideal site
for a Chops Lobster Bar?
We have to go to markets with great demographics. Because of
the style of restaurant, we need to go into sites and centers
that reflect the operation. Since early January, when we posted
that we're going on the road, I started getting deluged with
opportunities from these great mixed-use developments happening
around the country. [The ideal location has] shopping, great
restaurants and phenomenal real estate.
Where are future Chops Lobster Bar locations planned?
We're focusing on Boca, getting it up and going first. We
are talking to four or five developers. We feel like we want to
be the dynamic restaurant in a market. In Florida, there may be
three, maybe in Miami and Orlando. There won't be two or three
in a major market. When we go to Vegas, we'll go with one. We
don't have any desire to have multiple restaurants in one
How do you choose what markets are best for Chops?
There's not a restaurant operator who will tell you
otherwise: It's great real estate. The great thing is, we've
had [the concept] for almost 20 years - it's been a highly
successful restaurant. We understand the concept completely.
It's not a big deal to take this great concept on the road; we
have the people and culture to develop it.
Real estate is the most significant driving force. It's
expensive in many instances. But that's what we have to do. If
we look at B locations, we will fail. Our focus is A sites, and
those are difficult to find. I'm not worried about people,
concept or culture.
How many restaurants will open on an annual basis?
I think we'll do one in 2007, then desire to do two a year
in 2008 and thereafter. We hope based on our overall success to
open in most of the major markets around the country, but we
want to be focused on each restaurant from a foodservice
standpoint. We'll do two a year and do it well; where we go
from there, we'll have to see.
Will all seafood purchasing be done through Boutique
Seafood, Buckhead's wholesale seafood
Rick [Berman] is very good. He's extraordinarily adept at
sourcing great seafood purveyors in each market we'll go into.
We'll do a combination of Boutique Seafood involvement and
great local purveyors. The entire decision-making process is
driven by quality. We want the best quality in everything we
What makes this national expansion different from others
you've worked on?
The ones I've worked on have all been driven by quality. The
thing that makes this different is, at this stage in my career,
I just want to work with passionate, talented professionals. I
have in the past, but this is near and dear to me, because
anytime a restaurant company can bring something to the public
that is unique and offers an upside and is fun and takes dining
to another level, I get very excited. We did that at P.F.
We'll be taking two concepts and marrying them together and
bringing them out as one. No one has actually done it to the
level we'll be doing it. I love that our group is
We need to keep asking ourselves: What can we do to improve
the industry? We're doing that with Chops.
Who, or what, do you turn to for inspiration on a project
I am a kind of manager who asks a lot of questions of a lot
of people. I believe in a very interactive decision-making
process. I like a lot of input. But when a decision has to be
made, I'm not afraid to make it.
At BLRG we sit and talk and ask each other questions and
really offer input. I'm a firm believer that a lot of smart
people will ultimately drive the decision instead of one
What do you enjoy most
about your job?
Growing new businesses is probably the purest form of
restaurateuring out there today. I love going into the existing
businesses and the interaction I have with the field teams. I'm
continually energized by sharing great concepts with the dining
The thrill of bringing great concepts to the masses and
letting them flourish gets me going every day.
Would you change anything about the overall restaurant-
I don't think so. The basics are pretty well established.
Expanding a concept has to do with believing it's the best
vehicle you have. Secondly, it's making sure you're
extraordinarily well organized around the vehicle. You have to
have your ducks in line - you don't want to look like a new
Siting, believing and executing, and the last part is
continued follow-up to make sure everyone is focused and
energized. Those steps will never change, and you can open up
everything from fast food to high end with those consistent
Editor Fiona Robinson can be