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When big-time chain execs go back to their roots

However well hidden, it's a pretty safe bet that even the happiest big-shot CEO has occasional dreams of ditching it all—giving up the fat pay check, the company jet, the multi-million dollar budgets and with them the stress, stomach-churning investor relations and constant travel. Here are five former masters of the corporate chain restaurant universe who, by choice, chance or corporate circumstance, did just that. They've downsized, to say the least, and have never looked back.

However well hidden, it's a pretty safe bet that even the happiest big-shot CEO has occasional dreams of ditching it all—giving up the fat pay check, the company jet, the multi-million dollar budgets and with them the stress, stomach-churning investor relations and constant travel. Here are five former masters of the corporate chain restaurant universe who, by choice, chance or corporate circumstance, did just that. They've downsized, to say the least, and have never looked back.

Wally Doolin
Chairman, President & CEO
Buca, Inc.
Minneapolis

Doolin, 59, former CEO of powerhouse Carlson Restaurants Worldwide (900 units in 55 countries and $34.4 billion in sales) is now turning around the downtrodden 104-unit, $239 million Italian chain.

Doolin exited Carlson five years ago for the top spot at Le Madeline, another turnaround scenario at a chain even smaller than Buca. In November 2004, he joined the Italian casual-dining chain. Buca, a public company suffering the aftershocks of crash-and-burn growth and financial shenanigans, is entering year two of Doolin's three-year turnaround plan.

"Comp sales had been down for three years, but I knew there was a good company here and that the brand had possibilities," he says. "I don't often think about what I have or don't have here that's different from at Carlson. One difference I'm enjoying, however, is that in running an organization the size of Carlson you become so far removed from the actual restaurant business. It was an incredibly fun ride, but I was ready to get back to focusing on something smaller. At the end of the day, it moves beyond money and more toward doing what you enjoy."

Doolin's strategy at Buca so far has involved installing a new senior management team and redefining company values and principles. Operationally, he's put focus on driving top-line guest counts and sales, realigning compensation plans, stepping up new product R&D and analyzing the brand.

"Part of my aspiration is to have Buca viewed as a company with gold standards in corporate governance for our principles and values, which leads to great company performance and, ultimately, a place that people feel great about working at."

Kerry Kramp
CEO
Let's Dish!
Minneapolis

Kramp, 50, was CEO of Buffets, Inc., parent of HomeTown Buffet, Old Country Buffet and Tahoe Joe's, when the company topped $1 billion in sales. Now he's steering the growth of upstart Let's Dish!, with just 19 units.

It wasn't for the perks that Kramp left the top spot at Buffets, Inc., to become a franchisee of some hot concepts (including Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers) and ultimately to sign on as CEO of the fledgling Let's Dish!, a player in the new make, take and bake segment. Quite the contrary. "You could say that this is the opposite of perk-laden," he laughs.

"I left Buffets in November of 2004, feeling I'd taken it as far as I could. I founded Level 5 Ventures to develop and franchise foodservice concepts. Let's Dish! opened its first unit a mile from my house. I checked it out as a consumer and loved it."

Now steering a staff of less than 20, Kramp is back in a place that he finds most gratifying, a place that closely connects him to the business and to each employee in it. "The downside [of working at Buffets] was that it got so big. I ended up spending more time on the road, dealing with issues like Sarbanes-Oxley and addressing investors than I did interacting with the restaurants and the people running them. Bigness took me away from what I loved about the restaurant business in the first place."

The very smallness of Let's Dish!, as well as the core concept, appealed to him. "It's a small team of incredibly passionate, talented people. Everyone comes early and stays late and we all wear a lot of hats. I do all my own typing these days."

Let's Dish! is gearing up for fast growth, expecting 13 additional stores by year's end. "We've had strong capital investment and are lining up franchisees," Kramp says. "The category is new and growing fast. There are many players getting into it, but it's much harder than it looks. There will be shakeout, and I anticipate a lot of acquisition opportunities.

"The funny thing is," he adds, "that if we're successful, I'll end up back where I was before—running a big company. We're eager to get there, but I'm a journey person. If you don't enjoy the journey, you've missed the whole reason for the trip."

William Prather
CEO, President
El Paso Bar-B-Que
Scottsdale, Arizona

Prather, 59, left the COO spot at Hardee's in 1991. En route to interview for another exec job, he had an epiphany, called from the car to decline the offer and decided to open a new chapter. He soon fell hard for a small barbecue concept.

"I was strongly considering a couple of major corporate offers after Hardee's, but decided I'd already climbed that mountain," says Prather, now co-owner of El Paso Bar-B-Que, a seven-unit casual dining group with combined sales of $25 million.

Coming down off that mountain, however, was like coming off a drug, he says. "The corporate arena is very addictive, high-energy and stimulating. Bankers and purveyors are always happy to see you, and you interact with people from all walks of life. When you start your own office in your bedroom, you get up in the morning and it's just you and your wife, it's a little lonely. Then there are the myriad issues that confront a new entrepreneur, including refining the business and financing growth without all the resources that you're used to having at your disposal."

Prior to Hardee's, Prather worked his way up the ladder at Burger King, ultimately running worldwide operations. After, he got involved with bond holders who held the debt on Bishop's Cafeterias. "My charge was to evaluate the business and determine its viability," he says. "Along the way I joined as their CEO. They were converting underperforming cafeterias to other concepts, one of which was El Paso Bar-B-Que. Ultimately, it was determined that non-core businesses had to go and I said, 'If you're selling El Paso, I'm buying.'"

Now settled in modest offices outside of Phoenix, Prather targets a growth rate of four units per year. His corporate staff includes his wife, Marna, who handles marketing, a receptionist, and a four-person catering team. Prather, the self-described "fanatic at the helm," is actively involved with the restaurants every day. "You can't be a romantic capitalist in this business," he says. "That's something I learned from fast food. But I love it, and I feel great about where we're headed."

Michael Kaufman
Founder and Proprietor
ESSENTIAL Restaurant Holdings
Vienna, Virginia

Former president of Metromedia Restaurant Group, the $1 billion-plus parent of Bennigan's, Steak and Ale and others, Kaufman, 53, is now growing the three-unit Harry's Tap Room and single-unit Harry's Essential Grill concepts.

Alawyer by training, Kaufman was hired in the mid-'80s by Metromedia Restaurant Group to assist with acquisitions. By 1993 he was president, overseeing its family-restaurant power brands, Bennigan's, Steak and Ale, Bonanza and Ponderosa. In the fall of 2003, after 16 years at MRG, which had grown to nearly 800 units worldwide and annual sales of more than $1 billion, he left to form his own company, Pond Hill Ventures.

"It was to be my vehicle for participating in different kinds of business ventures, consulting with start-up companies, evaluating companies for clients looking to make acquisitions," he says. "I ended up partnering with two friends, both industry veterans, with whom I'd talked about doing something for a long time. It's definitely a contrast to what I had been doing."

Kaufman's new venture, under the umbrella of Essential Restaurant Holdings, takes him smack into the realm of the independent operator. The company operates Harry's Tap Room, a casually upscale bar and grill with three units and single-unit Harry's Essential Grill, a casual-dining spin-off. Kaufman works from his home in New York, where his wife is a doctor, and makes the short commute (usually weekly) to Vienna, where the partners have offices in the back-of-the-house at Harry's Essential Grill.

As a small independent, he says, "there's a lot less room for speculation. You have to make it happen every day, and you focus a lot harder on dollars and pennies. Most of the decisions you make have a direct and immediate impact. It's very nice to be an owner and to make decisions as an owner. It's not always fun, because the buck ultimately stops here, but it's exciting because it's yours and it's a clean slate."

Don Doyle
President
ZT of Louisville (Qdoba Mexican Grill franchisee)
Louisville, Kentucky

After being CEO of KFC and Carl's Jr., getting fired from the top spot at Hardee's, and leading Rally's until a merger left him without a chair when the music stopped, Doyle bowed out. At 59, he's now a franchisee with 17 units and a lot less stress.

In many respects, I wish I would have had this experience first," Doyle says of his current life as an independent Qdoba franchisee. "I think I would have been a better corporate executive. You understand the business much more clearly when you're in it at ground level every day. And you very quickly get a full appreciation of the difference between requesting capital from a corporate structure and signing a personal guarantee for bank loans. Now, I'm involved in everything from identifying the site, to developing the architectural plans, hiring a contractor and helping direct all of the hundreds of pieces that go into getting the restaurant open. It takes a lot of personal blood, sweat and tears, and it's hugely rewarding."

Doyle's also enjoying the rush that comes from creating his own destiny with a concept that's fresh and growing fast. "All of my previous experiences were with restaurant concepts that could be characterized as mature. It was much more about growing market share, taking business from competitors and being happy with three percent same-store sales growth. Qdoba is really exciting and the economics are outstanding. We've never had a restaurant open that hasn't seen double-digit same-store sales growth the second year it was open."

Doyle says he's easily working as many hours as when he wore a CEO's hat, and he occasionally reminisces about the days of company jets and multi-million dollar marketing budgets. But, with 17 stores open and an agreement to develop up to 36, he's never seriously looked back. "Our business is very strong and life is good," he says. "I'm enjoying what I'm doing immensely."

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