How Ted Turner expands his brand with Ted’s Montana Grill

Ted’s Montana Grill, a new chain of restaurants in the Atlanta area and select locations around the country, serves up burgers and steaks made of a meat not seen on most menus — bison.

While that may seem unusual to the average diner, once people learn the identity of the restaurant owner, it doesn’t seem odd at all.

The “Ted” of Ted’s Montana Grill is Atlanta’s own media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner, an entrepreneur and personality that few people would consider ordinary. The food service venture is a first for Turner, but not for his business partner, restaurant entrepreneur George McKerrow Jr., who founded LongHorn Steakhouse Inc.

What’s curious, though, is that the chain of restaurants owned by these two Atlanta men began operations with its first location not in their hometown, but in Columbus — that’s Columbus, Ohio. Both Turner and McKerrow are familiar with the Ohio market — Turner was born and spent part of his childhood in Cincinnati; McKerrow is an Ohio native and graduated from The Ohio State University.

And while the restaurant business may appear to be outside Turner’s realm of expertise, he says the opposite is true.

“It’s all about happy customers,” says Turner. “That’s what television viewers and restaurant customers have in common. If they’re not happy, they won’t tune in or come back.”

So far, customers and critics alike are happy.

“The food is good, the fine detailing great, and the crowds leave happy,” wrote Journal-Constitution food critic John Kessler.

Ted’s Montana Grill was also named Best New Concept for 2003 by Nation’s Restaurant News, and sales are brisk.

The restaurant business is a good fit for Turner’s business portfolio because it allows him to sell the 32,000 head of bison he raises on his Montana ranch, “Bar None.”

“Turner’s ranch is one of the largest commercial bison ranches in the world,” says McKerrow.

Bison figures prominently on the restaurant’s menu, and with recent health scares concerning the nation’s beef industry, that might not be a bad thing.

New beginnings

Why not restaurants?

A look at Turner’s history shows that he is a man who is not afraid of trying new things. In January 1980, he created CNN, the first live, in-depth, round-the-clock news television network. A second all-news service, Headline News, began operation in January 1982, offering updated newscasts every half hour.

Turner then originated the Goodwill Games in 1985 as an international, quadrennial, multisport competition.

From news and sports, he turned to entertainment, and continued to build his cable empire. In March 1986, Tuner Broadcasting Station acquired the MGM library of film and television properties for a reported $1.5 billion. This library formed the initial programming cornerstone of TNT, launched in October 1988.

In December 1991, Time magazine’s then-“Man of the Year,” acquired the rights, library and production facilities of Hanna-Barbera Cartoons. The Cartoon Network launched in October 1992.

Turner attributes his voracious work ethic to his experience growing up working for his father’s company.

“I worked for him when I was going to school,” Turner says. “I started working for him when I was 12 years old, and in the summer I worked at his billboard business in every area. I was a full-time employee. He paid me 20 cents an hour under minimum wage. I learned a lot. By the time I was 21, 22, I knew the billboard business inside and out, every facet of it.”

Turner’s empire took its largest jump in October 1996, when he became vice chairman of Time Warner with the merger of Time Warner Inc. and Turner Broadcasting System Inc. He oversaw Time Warner’s Cable Networks division, which included the assets of Turner Broadcasting System Inc., the CNN Newsgroup, HBO, Cinemax and the company’s interests in Comedy Central and Court TV. At the time, Turner’s net worth was estimated at $9.1 billion.

Outside of his business ventures, Turner has made his mark as one of America’s most influential philanthropists. In September 1997, Turner announced his historic pledge of up to $1 billion to the United Nations Foundation. To date, he has awarded more than $575 million to the United Nations.

Turner also teamed with former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn to launch the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a foundation dedicated to reducing the threat of nuclear weapons. The Turner Endangered Species Fund works to save animals threatened by extinction, including the black-footed ferret, condors and desert bighorn sheep.

During all this, Turner, in January 2002, managed to find time to launch Ted’s Montana Grill.

“Businesses have an awful lot in common,” Turner says. “Basically, it’s the same philosophy: Customers come first, work hard, provide a great service at a competitive price, and then service the daylights out of your customers so they’re always happy that they’re getting great service. That’s the only way you can be successful over time.”

Where the bison roam

Turner knows business, but a restaurant expert he wasn’t. That’s where his partner McKerrow, who introduced Turner to the restaurant’s concept, comes in.

McKerrow has 30 years of experience in the restaurant business. Nation’s Restaurant News credits him with giving “birth to an entire casual-dining segment” when he founded LongHorn Steakhouse Inc. more than 20 years ago.

McKerrow opened LongHorn Steakhouse as a neighborhood restaurant in 1981, at a time when Atlanta had few choices in casual dining. He successfully evolved that single Atlanta location into RARE Hospitality International, a nationwide casual dining group with 190 locations that includes the Bugaboo Creek and Capital Grille chains.

Recently McKerrow, along with other partners, opened a new restaurant in the Buckhead area called Blais, named after its chef and creator Richard Blais.

So far, the Ted’s Montana Grill chain is a hit in all of its 15 locations. Each restaurant generates $2 million to $2.5 million in sales a year, according to company estimates.

“The one that’s grossing the most is in Littleton, Colo., by a little bit,” Turner says. “They’re all doing well, but Littleton has been the most successful. Denver is where the National Bison Association is headquartered. It’s been historically the center of the bison industry. It’s right out there in the middle of the Rocky Mountain time zone where the bison are most prevalent.”

But Turner isn’t ignoring his hometown. There are eight restaurants in the Metro Atlanta area, with two more coming soon. The duo plans to open 24 locations this year and double the number of openings every year, with the ultimate goal of 500 restaurants.

“We’re learning, as a lot of other restaurants have, that the suburbs are generally a more fertile area for casual dining business than an industrial business area downtown, which is, to a large extent, vacant at night when people go home,” Turner says. “But we’re still successful, even in those locations. It’s just that the grosses aren’t quite as high as when you’re closer to where people live.

“It’s a lot easier for them to jump in the car and drive a couple of blocks instead of a couple of miles.”

Food for thought

The key to the chain’s success, though, is not only in choosing the right location, but in its employee education strategy.

“We started a centralized training facility in Atlanta,” McKerrow says. “It’s university style training … Typically, restaurants offer in-store training, with the new teaching the new. With our approach, we hope our people will grow into a culture of success — with high standards. We want to be leaders in the industry and to have a place where people can have fun and know they are respected. At the training facility, Ted can be there and I can be there more regularly and inspire these people.

“We hope our people will feel good about what they’re doing, work harder and be more successful. We’ve made a big investment in that university.”

The men recognize, however, that competition for your food dollar is a major factor. Restaurants are expected to generate $440.1 billion in sales this year — $1.2 billion a day — according to the National Restaurant Association’s industry forecast.

“Every restaurant is a competitor,” Turner says. “But no one has the niche that we do. We’ve got the authentic Old West motif, and we feature bison. We have all the other stuff, too. But we’ve got a niche and we’re all fresh. There are others that use fresh ingredients, but they’re all chef-driven and very expensive. At our price point, we’re the only restaurant I know of.”

After all, being unique, launching innovative products, is what has made Ted Turner a success since he introduced then-unheard-of around-the-clock news in 1980.

“At the end of the day, it’s this — we did try to create a niche,” says McKerrow. “That’s what I did with LongHorn Steakhouse. Just like what Ted did at CNN. It wasn’t that news wasn’t being broadcast, he just did it a different way.

“That’s what we’re doing here. We’re trying to do it a different way, and we’re trying to do it better than anyone else. That’s what we have in common. We both like to win, and we like to do things better than anyone else, and we’re driven to get that done.”

HOW TO REACH: Ted’s Montana Grill, (404) 266-1344 or www.tedsmontanagrill.com