Star power Featured

8:00pm EDT April 27, 2006
In the movie “Forrest Gump,” the title character said, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.”

But when it comes to the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurants, developed from a concept in the “Forrest Gump” movie, customers always know what they’re going to get — “Hot food hot, cold food cold ... true care and concern,” says Scott Barnett, president and CEO of the company.

Since its inception in 1996, the company has grown to 15 domestic and five international locations. And with that growth, Barnett and his executives have worked hard to build a company culture that is consistent from location to location and, within each restaurant, consistent from day to day, ensuring that customers always have an exceptional experience with the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Restaurant & Market.

This, in turn, helps establish a correlation between the Bubba Gump brand and excellence in the minds of consumers, making the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. name synonymous with a great dining experience.

Birth of a brand
The development of the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. brand began in 1995, when Paramount Pictures was looking for a way to stretch the success of its 1994 movie Forrest Gump. Paramount approached Barnett, then-proprietor of The Rusty Pelican in Newport Beach, about a Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.-branded restaurant.

For Barnett, the timing couldn’t have been better.

“We were obliged under our lease to remodel the restaurant, and at the same time, we had made a strategic decision to get into mid-scale casual dining in terms of seafood, which we felt was an unexploited niche,” says Barnett. “Just in hearing the name, we felt that dovetailed well with our own strategic direction.”

Barnett and his executive team worked closely with Paramount to come up with a branding strategy and licensing deal.

“We had a vision in our mind about what this restaurant would feel like, about what it would look like, sound like and so on. (We asked ourselves), if Forrest Gump and (Bubba) had actually created a restaurant, what would it be like?”

Another important step in building the brand was ensuring that the idea was something that actually appealed to customers. Barnett and the Paramount executives had a feeling that the idea would be a success — “We felt that there would be a very strong name identification, in terms of the name and the notoriety attached to it from the movie,” says Barnett — but instinct and hunches don’t guarantee business success. And the fact that the concept worked on the big screen didn’t mean that it would work in real life.

So Barnett and his team did their homework.

“We did exit interviews (from the Rusty Pelican) and focus groups and what they call in the market research business nose counting, which means getting a relatively statistically significant sample, and then asking the same questions in as objective a format as possible, and then tabulating the results, cross-tabulating them and getting an understanding of the demographics, psychographics, makeup of the customer and their preference,” Barnett says.

The market research showed that the Bubba Gump name had the makings of a successful brand — there was a 92 percent unaided awareness of the name, meaning that people knew what Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. was and associated it with the movie, without any help from new advertising or marketing. In addition, says Barnett, there was an unforced translation between the movie and the restaurant concept.

“Now, if I told you I was going to make a restaurant and it was going to be based on a movie, let’s say it was going to be the Pink Panther Restaurant. Well, there’s no real unforced translation there, there’s no reason to assume there would be a restaurant associated with that movie. (There was the) Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in the movie, which was a shrimping company, and it makes sense that such a restaurant would exist.

“You’d be surprised to know how many people come into our restaurant saying, ‘Now, I never knew that you guys had a restaurant, too. I knew that you had the shrimp company ... ‘ They really do confuse the reality with the fiction.”

Based on the research, Barnett and Paramount were confident that the brand would make sense to consumers, and they knew they had a head start on name recognition. But while the close tie to the movie was a huge advantage, it also posed a significant challenge.

“We wanted to create a brand called Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant,” says Barnett. “We did not want to create the Forrest Gump Movie restaurant. ... The biggest branding challenge is to not be identified as anything other than a good casual dining restaurant and not to be pigeonholed as some sort of entertainment concept that doesn’t have credible food.”

To make that distinction, says Barnett, the restaurants had to focus on two goals. First, while the name and movie tie-in would bring customers in for a first visit, it would be the experience that would bring them back. To ensure that happened, the restaurants had to offer a superior dining experience.

The second goal was to establish the restaurant as a unique and individual brand, a separate entity from the “Forrest Gump” movie.

“The restaurant itself had to have a standalone brand and had to stand alone as a place where people could come and get hot food hot, cold food cold, service with a smile and pleasant, clean and authentic surroundings,” Barnett says. “Then you’ve established a brand that has legs of its own.”

But those brand elements are impossible to achieve without the right people.

People and culture
“In the end,” says Barnett, “it is the people that make the difference. We are a well-capitalized company, we work internationally, we have an array of sites that almost any restaurant company would give quite a lot to have.

“All that said, it doesn’t really mean much unless you have the right people in place to ensure that this — hot food hot, cold food cold, service with a smile — happens. People are the major and the most important challenge.”

In the restaurant industry, attracting employees isn’t the problem — keeping them is. So Barnett and his management team work to meet employees’ needs.

“There was a survey done a few years ago about what managers thought employees wanted from their job,” says Barnett. “Most managers think employees want a good paycheck and good benefits. When we asked employees what they wanted most out of their jobs, first of all, they wanted to believe that they had a fundamental impact on their career and on the organization in which they worked.

“We don’t pay lip service. We actually recognize and believe that people are our most important aspect. We listen to them.”

As CEO, Barnett ensures that he personally is paying attention to what his employees have to say. He holds annual roundtables with employees from all levels of the organization, which gives him the opportunity to ask questions and listen to employees’ comments and concerns.

In addition, Barnett holds regular meetings with the company’s managers and general managers to give them an opportunity to voice concerns and ideas, and to help them understand firsthand that they play an important role in the company. And one of the most vital roles that any Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. employee plays is in living and maintaining the company culture.

A company’s culture is not an object - it must be lived and breathed every day by a company’s employees in order to exist. Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.’s culture is one of success and profitability, says Barnett. And these key elements are maintained through the 2,700 employees’ consistent demonstration of care and concern, not only for customers but also for other employees.

The culture of care and concern doesn’t exist by accident — it is a calculated development. All new Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. employees, whether they join as waitstaff or managers, go through an intensive training program that not only covers many of the vocational aspects of the job but also the company culture, with a distinct emphasis on care and concern.

In fact, all Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. employees must memorize a top 10 list covering the top 10 beliefs of Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. And No. 1 on the list is this: “All employees will demonstrate care and concern for others, both guests and employees, at all times.” “What that means is that you treat people the way they’d like to be treated, whether they’re guests or employees,” says Barnett. “If our employees are having a good time and if our employees enjoy what they’re doing and they don’t feel rule-bound, then that will communicate itself to our guests, and the guests will have a good time and they’ll want to return.

“By putting an infrastructure in place that enables us to present a consistent experience time after time, in location after location, (our culture supports our brand). The experience has been consistent, and we have been able to exceed customers’ expectations on a regular basis, which is the key to success in this particular business. If we are able to exceed customers’ expectations, or at the very least meet them, then we will continue to build upon the brand’s integrity and the brand’s reputation.”

Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.’s brand integrity and positive reputation are supported by cold, hard facts. The company has had positive same-store sales growth for 27 of the past 28 quarters, and average annual unit volumes are near $8 million.

In addition, revenue is expected to increase from $125 million in 2005 to a projected $150 million in 2006.

“We have spent an inordinate amount of time and resources to develop the brand Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.,” says Barnett. “Everything — hot food hot, cold food cold, (the) casual family atmosphere, food is the hero - all those elements come together to create the cocktail called Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and thus the brand. And that has led us to extraordinary success. The customers are voting with their feet.”

HOW TO REACH: Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., 877-729-4867 or www.bubbagump.com