You may not be familiar with restaurant company Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, but you’ve likely dined at one of its restaurants. The company is behind 60 restaurant brands, from M Burger and Wow Bao to RPM Italian and Intro. Since its founding in 1971, it has grown to own, manage or license more than 120 locations across the country. And the man charged with the company’s day-to-day operation, CEO Kevin Brown, says that’s just the beginning. Its newest restaurant, Ema, opened this month in the city’s River North neighborhood.
Brown discussed some of the secrets behind the company’s success and its plans for expansion in a recent interview with the Tribune. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What’s a typical day for you?
A: I have a lot of meetings — there’s finance, HR, marketing. And that’s usually in the morning. And then I try to get into the restaurants either at lunchtime or in the afternoon and into the evening. With a job like this, you’re never really off the clock. I always tell my family, when we go away, I never turn the volume off. Sometimes I’ll turn it down a little, but I’ll never turn it off. You have a responsibility.
Q: How is the company structured?
A: The divisions are not necessarily set up as you might think. We’re not set up individually by geography. It’s more by who was involved in the concept. I have one partner, Scott (Barton), who has high-end restaurants, yet he has M Burger and Wow Bao also. You’ve got to be ambidextrous in our organization.
And I like to try to keep the senior leadership together, and then they run their divisions. They all have ownership in their divisions, but I want them all to understand that we have this mother ship called Lettuce Entertain You that we’re all responsible to maintain.
Q: What’s the expectation for growth?
A: We’ve been growing pretty steadily, 8 to 10 percent, for the past 10, 12 years. We don’t walk around in meetings saying, “let’s be bigger.” Sometimes the real estate comes to us, and we say, “let’s come up with an idea for that” or we have an idea and we say, “OK, let’s go find the real estate for that.” It’s very open. We’re not a very rigid organization. As the company grows, you need more control-ability, but I never want that to override our flexibility.
Q: Many Lettuce restaurants feel independent or family-run. Is that purposeful?
A: That’s good, that’s our intent. Once you get to a second restaurant you can be considered a chain, so we don’t ever worry about that. But what we do worry about is we want every restaurant to have its own individual touch, and a lot of that is driven not only by the concept but by the people who work there, and the partners who run it.
Q: How does development play out?
A: There are always a lot of balls in the air. Our test kitchen’s going pretty much around-the-clock, it seems. It all starts with food. That’s where the ideas germinate from, then we push them out from there. Then you start to formulate the feel, the look, the menu, you put the numbers behind it, and you start to develop all the team and the planning behind it, and build its soul. It’s very exciting.
Q; How long does it take to go from making the very first dish in the test kitchen to opening night?
A: A new idea takes at least a year. It depends if there’s travel involved, research, how much tasting is going on. Sometimes we’re limited by the construction space. Those things just come along as they come along.
We have in-house designers and architects, so as the kitchen’s rolling, the floor plan’s rolling, the menu’s rolling. But really a lot of the time, you have to wait for permits, construction schedules — all that stuff is limiting. We can’t control all of that.
Q: Are you a go-with-the-flow guy in your own life?
A: I think you have to be. In this organization, if I don’t go with the flow, I think I’m probably out of the flow.
I think we have a healthy balance. Creatively, we’re very liberal, but operationally, financially, we’re very conservative. That’s why we’ve succeeded for so long, not just survived.
Eighty-five to 90 percent of our success is determined before we open the door. And what I think people don’t see is how quickly we react once the door is open. And I mean in the middle of the shift, or between lunch and dinner, one day to the next, changing menus, moving floor plans around, changing recipes, just moving things. You have to be listening to your guests and listening to what’s going on.
I have a lot of discipline in how we run the organization, but I know there are certain things I have to have a lot of flexibility on, because it’s a creative business. I have that balance personally, I always have. I think that’s why I enjoy what I do so much because I get to exercise both sides of the brain.
Q: What happens when a concept just doesn’t catch on?
A: We’ve made a lot of mistakes in our history, so we can see some of the potholes coming. It isn’t always perfect coming out of the box, but you just have to be relentless about staying on top of it. If there’s one thing this organization is, it’s relentless. So you have to keep working with it. You may see something, do it, and if it’s not right, you don’t beat yourself up about it. You say, “let’s change it, and let’s try this now.” Eventually we’re going to get to where we think is going to be right.
We’re running a business that employs over 7,000 people, and we have a responsibility to them. Yet at the same time, we never want to lose what got us here: the creativity, the food focus, taking care of our employees. We don’t grow without making sure all of that’s in place.
Q: Are you open to expanding in other places that you don’t currently have restaurants?
A: We’re definitely looking at other markets, and — I’m really not joking — we’re hoping they’re warm markets because we really don’t need to go anywhere else in the winter. We’re thinking Texas looks good, Florida looks good. And we’re looking at other markets that are growing, like any other business would, where there are opportunities. And, anywhere we would go, we would need to do more than one restaurant in that market.