Operations

How top independent restaurants are returning to normal

Operators of restaurants on the RB Top 100 Independents ranking are thriving once again as consumers splurge and celebrate.
Top 100 independents
Photo courtesy of Joe's Stone Crab Restaurant

Normal. It’s a word that many hesitate to use, but several of this year’s Top 100 operators happily report that 2022 was the first time that their businesses felt “more normal,” and they experienced “minimal Covid impact.”

The pandemic was a disaster no one will forget, forcing the closure of restaurants, shrinking dining rooms and causing a reduction in the labor force. After the dust settled, new challenges arose such as a sustained demand for delivery and outdoor seating, higher costs for labor and inventory, and rising inflation.

(Check out RB's Top 100 Independents ranking here.)

Adapting to new challenges

Operators on this year’s Top 100 list gradually met these new challenges by forging new and better relationships with vendors, scaling back menus, boosting employee training and retention programs, and exploring new locations.

“We’ve been developing new strategies to increase key employee retention and improving our presence in the employer landscape,” said Elba Machado, vice president of communications at Vida & Estilo Hospitality Group, which oversees five Café Americano concepts, including two 24-hour operations inside Caesars Palace (No. 18) and Paris Las Vegas (No. 51). “Menu reduction due to supply chain shortage has forced us to embrace new ingredients and sources, create smart menus through nonstop engineering and partner with our key vendors.”

A changing business landscape

America is teeming with great restaurants, in major metropolitan areas and smaller towns across the country. Chicago’s Quartino Ristorante & Wine Bar (No. 68), owned by Gibsons Restaurant Group, is back on the list this year. And, in a surprising move, the Italian eatery recently opened its first Texas-based outpost in the Dallas suburb The Colony, illustrating a migration from urban centers. Stephen J. Lombardo, III, CEO of Gibsons Restaurant Group said the group is looking at sites they never would have reviewed prior to the pandemic.

In another example, Sarah Nielsen, finance manager and director of marketing at Fleet Landing Restaurant & Bar (No. 94) in Charleston, S.C., said, “The Charleston area continues to grow both in population and popularity, and with every accolade this fine city is awarded, we are more thankful to be a part of the largest—and most fun—industry!”

And while the cost of food and competition will remain significant issues for operators, the good news is, restaurant dining in general is predicted to grow throughout 2023 and into the future, according to the 2023 State of the Restaurant Industry report  from the National Restaurant Association, which is projecting the industry could reach sales of $997 billion in 2023.

A positive outlook

Sales are indeed up across the U.S. This year’s No. 1 top-ranking restaurant, Joe’s Stone Crab Restaurant in Miami Beach, grossed $45,298,122.60 in 2022, over $4 million more than its 2021 reported numbers. In fact, most of the restaurants that also made the list the prior year grossed increased sales in 2022.

Savvy restaurateurs were prepared for the uptick in customers and sales post-pandemic.

“I was gambling back then, but I thought it would be busier after Covid,” said Tony Gemignani, owner of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana (No. 84) in San Francisco. An investment in a bakery and 100 outdoor seats helped grow the restaurant’s sales by $3 million.

“During Covid, I invested in a bakery and moved my dough production and a lot of my inventory over so I’d be able to do the volume if it did come—and it came,” he added. “We would have never done that volume if I didn’t make the move during Covid.”

Travel has likewise rebounded, helping restaurants in popular destinations such as Miami, Chicago, New York, and Las Vegas recoup previously lost revenue, and introducing favorite restaurants to a new set of diners. Conventions, shows, and events are back in full swing and business lunches and group dining have made a comeback, too.

It appears consumers are ready to splurge, choosing fine dining over casual options more often, according to the Yelp  State of the Industry Report, and continuing to show a growing interest in restaurants, nightlife and entertainment in general. With an increased focus on hospitality and guests clamoring for an experience, overall sales prove that consumers are willing to pay extra to have their heightened expectations met.

To meet customers where they are in 2023, a delicate balance of Consistency, Creativity, and Community brings them through the door and keeps them coming back.

Consistency

A solid foundation is set when a restaurant is consistent with its food quality, menus, service, pricing, ambiance, communication, and cleanliness. Customers can trust that their money will be well spent and they won’t be disappointed.

Every year, customers at Joe’s Stone Crab Restaurant (No. 1) look forward to the stone crab season that kicks off in mid-October, for example.

“There are a lot of great restaurants,” said owner Stephen Sawitz. “Joe’s is not the coolest, hippest, slickest, but we play to our strengths, and one is consistency.”

While the menu at Joe’s is relatively straightforward and simple, stone crabs are not, according to Sawitz. “Stone crabs are a specialty food, and we are completely vested in that world,” he said. “We have our own fisheries. We know our fishermen, and we know some of their families.”

At the end of the day,  Joe’s doesn’t try to be what it’s not and embraces what it is, he said.

At The Old Mill Restaurant (No. 61) in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., nearly 1 million meals are served from the kitchen each year. Manager Tim Fulton said the restaurant maintains consistency because 95% of the restaurant’s menu is made from scratch, requiring three truck deliveries per day.

“We track everything by guest count rather than by sales, and we generally know just from the data what guests are going to order,” said Fulton. “We’re preparing your meal before you’ve decided what to eat.”

The biggest sellers, according to Fulton, are fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, and country fried steak, in that order. “We sold like 77,000 portions of chicken fried steak last year,” he said.

In the busiest month of July, Fulton said the 325-seat restaurant will serve between 1,250 and 1,350 guests for dinner each day. “The goal is to turn the whole house 10 times in a day,” said Fulton.

Creativity

Consumers crave something unique and imaginative, so if an entrée can make them pull out their cell phone or a beverage makes them say, “Wow!” you’re on your way to winning their hearts. Creative menu items, clever plating and seasonal LTO specials are just a few of the ways to stand out.

Going through the list of Top 100 restaurants we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to creativity.

Tony’s Pizza Napoletana offers multiple regional styles of pizzas baked in various styles of ovens. Joe’s Stone Crab Restaurant features sustainable, seasonal, stone crab that attracts tourists and locals from far and wide. Maple & Ash (No.4 and No. 22) amazes guests with over-the-top tableside presentations.

Located in the heart of Miami’s artistic Wynwood neighborhood, Mayami (No. 35) is a 10,000-square-foot indoor and outdoor restaurant and lounge that transports guests to an ancient Mayan Civilization, according to owner Philippe Kalifa. Serving elevated cuisine, uniquely crafted cocktails, and a late-night party atmosphere with aerialists and fire dancers, Kalifa believes that offering an upscale venue where people can dine and dance under one roof fills a void in the market and creates an opportunity for locals and travelers to have a complete night out in one establishment.

Community

People enjoy being recognized and remembered, especially at their favorite local restaurant. Top-ranking restaurants have a knack for making customers feel special, recalling names, special occasions, and favorite menu items. Investing more time in getting to know customers goes a long way toward winning their admiration.

Tony’s Pizza Napoletana stayed open during the pandemic, according to Gemignani.

“There were neighbors who would walk and sit on the curb and eat a slice and go back home,” he said. “It was a dark time, but you’d go outside and take off your mask and socialize for a minute. We gained a lot of customers during that time.”

Sawitz at Joe's said his restaurant also has long maintained its family atmosphere.

“It’s a singular, family-run, owned and operated business with 400-plus employees that’s not your normal restaurant,” said Sawitz. “It’s over 100 years old. There’s family history, customer history, supplier history, and world history here.”

Sawitz recalled a longtime customer who recently passed away. “There's an emptiness there—a void—and you can feel it,” he said. “He spent almost 70 years eating here, and we don’t take that for granted.”

Even destination restaurants have customers who relish seeing familiar faces when they stop in.

“We have generational guests who know specific staff and request them,” said Fulton of The Old Mill. “We only see them annually; we have virtually no local traffic.”

The longest staff member at The Old Mill was a helper on the original construction crew of the restaurant and stayed on as a hostess when it opened. “She’s the day shift front-of-house supervisor and ‘retired’ this year when she decided to take off Saturdays,” said Fulton.

In addition to consistency, creativity and community, customers in 2023 demand a choice. This could be the choice between dining in, take out or delivery; the option to splurge or save on a meal; the ability to order online or via an automated kiosk; or menu selections that fit their eating habits.

The more ways a restaurant can satisfy its customers, the more times it will come out on top.

Check out the full ranking of the Top 100 Independent restaurants of 2023.


Methodology

RB’s Top 100 Independents ranking is a measure of the highest-grossing independent restaurants. Only restaurant concepts with no more than five locations are considered “independents” for the purpose of this list. Rankings are based on gross 2022 food and beverage sales. Information was gathered through surveys. When data wasn’t provided, sales were estimated based on public information, similar concepts and other factors.

Want your restaurant to be considered for next year’s Top 100 Independents list? Contact us here: jmaze@winsightmedia.com.

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