Grilling up success Featured

5:43am EDT May 17, 2006
John Cooper has found the perfect way to ensure his employees care about his company: He offers them a piece of ownership.

Cooper is president of Bonefish Grill, a fresh fish restaurant chain owned by Outback Steakhouse Inc. In 15 years, he opened 13 Outback Steakhouses in Florida as a joint venture partner, and now he offers that same partnership opportunity to others at Bonefish Grill.

The first Bonefish Grill opened in 2000 in St. Petersburg, and six years later, the company has grown to more than 100 restaurants , using joint venture partners to open between 28 and 35 new restaurants a year.

This is his second fish-style restaurant under the Outback Steakhouse umbrella. Previously, he opened Zazarac, which featured southern Louisiana cuisine. He later added a second, but with more viable fine dining restaurants within the OSI family, both were forced to close. Now he’s back with another “polished casual” dining restaurant that is booming.

Smart Business spoke with Cooper about how he’s grown Bonefish Grill so quickly in a highly competitive marketplace.

How have you grown Bonefish grown so quickly?
We’ve been able to do it through a very decentralized approach through joint venture partners in various markets. Joint venture partners run a very entrepreneurial structure. They develop those markets. The joint venture partners handle the human resource side, handle the management team, do real estate work and oversee operations.

They work in a very decentralized fashion. They hire managers and markets they’re doing business in, which helps to establish a great sense of stability. They also have ownership as being a joint venture partner. The managing partners have ownership, as well. And the managing partners are the ones that run the day-to-day business of the restaurant.

They’re the general managers, only they have equity. So we’re able to get some of the best. Through all of that, hiring the best and hiring people from markets where they live and building close relationships with the joint venture partners, we’re able to form strong cultures with them as markets.

How do you attract the best managers to grow the company?
They sign an employment agreement and they live in the markets they’re doing business in, so they’re able to grow the business in a very entrepreneurial, community-oriented way.

We opened 35 restaurants this year. With 19 joint venture partners, each one opens one or two restaurants a year. That’s manageable. You hire great people to manage those markets.

They can hire people locally rather than a recruiter from Dallas hiring for a restaurant in South Florida, shipping them from New York to South Florida and transplanting their families. That’s the way we used to do it. Over time, the quality of life became an issue, so it helps to stabilize management teams, and the people generally are much happier.

How do you find quality partners?
When we talk about a strong culture, we talk about honesty, respect for people, putting people first, we talk about self responsibility and you look for people, particularly partners, with extensive previous experience and track records that display those qualities.

A lot of the those who we try to access are people we either know or know through other people or others refer to us. We don’t do a lot of recruiting through a lot of normal avenues. If I’m a joint venture partner, I’m going to go through the people that I know to try and network possible candidates. So we have a sense of what they’re about rather than just from a resume.

But they certainly have to come to us with past experience and a track record that gives us indicators of their record of success.

How do you maintain quality when the company is growing so quickly?
If I’m a joint venture partner in a market and I’ve developed, over the course of two years, four restaurants, and I open another two, I still am able to be in those restaurants to oversee the quality and operations. I’d be remiss not to say the training and development is important, as well as selecting great people.

The constant training with a lot of redundancy of the same basics of the business is very important. You hit on the same basics over and over again, and then you do it again. Getting great people, focusing on the training and development and having constant training over the same basics have really helped.

How do you compete in such a crowded marketplace?
There’s a lot of capital out there, and people are spending to build restaurants and they do a great job with the quality and service. That’s where it gets tougher.

What’s difficult for us is the fact there are a lot of people out there and a lot of companies that do it well. They’ve come on strong over the past 10 years. You can’t just take care of the basics anymore. You have to push toward going beyond the basics and expectations. They want convenience, quality and value associated with that and rolled up in a service package that goes beyond feeding your belly.

How to reach: Bonefish Grill,