“We start by calling our customers guests,” says Chris Doody, president. “We don’t ever use the ‘c’ word. In fact, we are fanatical about that.”
Standing out in the hypercompetitive restaurant industry is no easy task. It requires a unique concept with great food and service, all while avoiding the appearance of being another me-too restaurant chain.
Twelve years ago, Doody and his brother Rick created a concept for a new market segment called upscale casual. The vision was to create an environment where customers can eat high-quality food in a nicer-than-casual atmosphere, with top service. The brothers knew full well what it takes to be one of the best in the restaurant industry. Their mother, Sue Doody, owns Lindey’s Restaurant, which has been consistently voted one of the top eating establishments in Columbus. Sue Doody was an inspiration for the brothers’ vision.
“Clearly my mother had a big impact on me,” says Chris Doody. “She worked hard. She was a great cook and was passionate about great food. We saw all of her hard work and how important it was to her to treat everyone as a guest, not a customer.”
“We felt there was a market for a restaurant that was somewhere between casual and fine dining,” Doody says. “Lindey’s had a lot of Italian influences, and we knew the only successful Italian chain was Olive Garden. We wanted to take Lindey’s and ‘down market’ it. It was a good strategy. There was a market for better food and ambiance.”
With the concept fleshed out, Doody had made their ideas for excellent food a reality. He hired the best chef he could find to create innovative menu items. “We lucked out with our chef,” Doody says. “We hired Phil Andolino out of New York. He is a super guy and has been with us from Day One. Now he is our head corporate chef. He is very talented, and with help from Rick and me, he took our concept and ideas and developed signature recipes. Phil has been instrumental in our success.
“I knew we had to have better food than the chains. And we had to stay focused on the guests. A lot of chains get so big they can’t execute at a high quality level and that hurts them. It’s the food that has to be cutting-edge and more unique. That is very important.”
There’s a long list of restaurants with innovative concepts and great food, but every patron will tell you that service is what ultimately makes or breaks a restaurant. One of the biggest challenges the Doodys faced was how to execute the concept of great service within the usual pool of hourly workers in an industry plagued by astronomical turnover rates.
“In the early days, you don’t have a recruiting strategy,” Doody says. “At the beginning, it’s more about horsepower than technique. You just do all you can to hire the friendly, competent people. What I did early on was I was able to get ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”
He says those first employees were attracted to the company and enthusiastic about the work because it was a new concept. “We were able to hire high-quality servers, bartenders and managers because they were excited about being part of something new and from scratch,” he says.
As the company grew from its initial location to three different concepts Bravo, Brio Tuscan Grille and Bon Vie Bistro and Bar in 41 locations that employ 5,000, processes were institutionalized to attract and retain the best people possible.
“We didn’t even have a human resources department until we had our 10th store,” Doody says. “Now we have the department, a recruiting system and we use head hunters to hire corporate positions. We do background checks and it’s just a more sophisticated process today.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the company’s focus on promoting from within through a program called Rising Star. “We opened our first store on Bethel Road and everyone had an entrepreneurial spirit,” he says. “When we opened our second store in Indianapolis, everyone at the first store wanted to move there to be a part of it. We kept promoting our own employees because it was cheaper and made sense.
“Rising Star is a 12- to 15-week program. We train hourly employees on all the aspects of the front and back of the house [kitchen]. We give them the tools they need to become effective managers in the field. We expect 25 to 40 percent of our future managers will come from the Rising Star program.”
He and Rick Doody also developed an intense training system for newly hired managers.
“All of our store managers participate in a very extensive 14-week training system we call BDI University,” says Chris Doody. “The training is a very integral part of our success.” Doody says the training influences how the manager views both internal and external customers, and teaches them to be pros at what they do.
“We want to be the best Italian restaurants in America,” he says. “And we do that by trying to develop loyal guests each meal, every day.”
Servers are trained on the flavors of each dish so they can help the guests make choices that better suit their tastes.
Doody says the training emphasizes that each guest has many choices about where to eat. “We practice what we preach,” he says. “The competition is too fierce. Not one guest should leave dissatisfied.”
And he says hiring for all positions is easier now. “We obviously try to create an environment where people can function professionally, which enables them to make great money,” Doody says.
By promoting from within, the Doodys have created a core group of loyal employees who are familiar with every intricate detail of the restaurant and its food, allowing them to deliver consistent service and quality.
The vision has proven a success. Bravo has achieved some of the highest unit sales rates in the industry. The Brio concept, which focuses on steaks, chops and pasta dishes, was voted the “Hot Concepts” winner in 2002 by Nation’s Restaurant News. The company branched out into French-American cuisine with its Bon Vie concept.
Despite the company’s growth, Doody isn’t one to claim success. “The minute you feel like you ‘made it,’ someone else will come along and get your market share,” he says. “We look specifically at sales and whether our business is growing. That tells us whether we are performing the way we should. We are cognizant of what our competitors are doing when it comes to value and price and we react accordingly by being more innovative in the food we prepare.”
Doody is also happy with the company’s growth rate.
“Our goals are to open really great restaurants,” he says. “We want to do eight to 12 restaurants a year, but we’re flexible. We don’t want to do too many, too fast and water down the brand.”
All of the new restaurants will be company owned, although franchising is not out of the question in the future.
“Our goals are for straightforward, disciplined, controlled growth,” Doody says. “We are really good at what we do and we have lots of options. But our primary strategy is to deliver on our mission, and that will give us our opportunities for growth.”
The concept is not a simple one to duplicate, and Doody doesn’t want the restaurants to be cookie-cutter. But he says if they want to pick up the growth rate franchising is an option.
The Doody brothers haven’t left their mother out of their operations, either. The family members continue to help each other.
“My mother’s a class act, a great lady and an inspiration to Rick and me,” Doody says. “She’s a partner in our business, and we help her run Lindey’s. She’s tickled pink.”
And since Lindey’s appeals to a different market, the concepts don’t compete. That’s probably a good thing, given the success of BDI’s strategies, which boil down to one important element: “We just want everyone to leave happy,” says Doody. “When the food’s really good, it’s easy to be successful.”
HOW TO REACH: Bravo Development Inc., (800) 452-7286 or www.bravoitalian.com