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One on One: Greg Carey

President and COO, Buckhead Life Restaurant Group

Greg Carey, President and COO, Buckhead Life
    Restaurant Group, Atlanta
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 expansion effort.

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 process.


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 level.


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 with here.


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 steaks.


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 market.


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 do.


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. Chang's.

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 trendsetting.

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 like this?

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 person.


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 pubic.

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-

expansion process?

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 restaurant.

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 steps.


Editor Fiona Robinson can be 
e-mailed at frobinson@divcom.com


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