Building an Empire – Multiple Concept Restaurants

A Look at Multiple Concept Restaurants


By Taryn Sauer

For those whose entrepreneurial hunger cannot be satiated with a single unit, multiple restaurant concepts can be a very rewarding endeavor. With such a condensed market within the OC restaurant scene, opening several brands under a single corporation can have its advantages.

For the past two years, California has led the nation in restaurant growth and in 2015, we saw 2,025 new openings across the state. That’s one of the reasons why Alicia Whitney,
MCO (Multiple Concept Owner) and head of Prjkt Restaurant Group, began to stake her claim.

“When I had an opportunity to preview a new building that was being built in the same
shopping center as our existing restaurant, SeaLegs Wine Bar,” Whitney said, “I realized that if I didn’t take the location, my competition would.”

In addition to the financial benefits of operating multiple concepts, MCOs are able to create several unique dining experiences that cater to different communities and demographics all within the invisible umbrella of a single company—just a few reasons why some of OC’s restaurateurs have jumped into the game, salting the food scene with their expertise.

Chef Jeffrey Chon, who owns and operates The Alley Restaurant & Bar in Newport Beach, has been able to expand his passion in multiple concepts. His extended portfolio includes several  restaurants: Tabu Shabu Restaurant (opening soon in Huntington Beach), The Wayfarer and Oak & Coal.

“Being able to try new concepts and new cuisines for people is what gives me inspiration to
stay in the business,” he said. “Even if I can’t work on the line and create new dishes every day, I hope to create establishments that allow me to have that creative outlet.”

Whitney shares Chon’s creative drive and owns and operates seven concepts stretching from her landmark restaurant, SeaLegs Wine Bar, in Huntington Beach, to concessions in Bolsa Chica, and even to LAX.

Like Whitney, Russell Bendel of RB Squared Inc. found success along the California Coast,
with Vine Restaurant & Bar in San Clemente and Ironwood, Cellar. Craft. Cook. in Laguna Hills. These restaurateurs are able to source from the same purveyors across each concept though the menus differ.

“This helps us maintain consistency, because we know exactly what we are going to get,”
Bendel said.

But let’s be clear, being a MCO is no gluttonous venture. In fact, it can often make you
feel like you’re running a marathon.

David Wilhelm, former MCO and founder of Jimmy’s Famous American Tavern (JFAT), said
that a variety of factors influence a successful business path.

“At this point in my career I want to focus on developing and growing a single brand that has long term legs and very broad appeal,” he said. “To me, this is just as challenging as creating multiple concepts.”

For those with an appetite for more, each restaurateur has some solid advice:

“I think, especially in California, that it’s an increasingly competitive market, so I would
advise anyone interested in developing multiple concepts to stick with just 2 that somehow relate to each other, but perhaps on different price levels”- David Wilhelm

“Take it one step at a time. Have a great plan that aligns with your vision and passion, and
surround yourself with people who want the same” – Russel Bendel

“Let your passion drive you. If you can see it, feel it and touch it and you want it that bad, you can make it happen” – Alicia Whitney

It’s clear: creating multiple concepts takes an adept mind; operating multiple concepts takes a strong belly.


Alicia Whitney -Building an EmpireALICIA WHITNEY
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO CREATE MULTIPLE CONCEPTS OVER A SINGLE BRAND? When I had an opportunity to preview a new building that was being built in the same shopping center as our existing restaurant, SeaLegs Wine Bar, I realized that if I didn’t take the location, my competition would. I then created a strategy for a concept that would be the opposite of SeaLegs WB, and would complement our dining scene in HB.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS AND CHALLENGES TO HAVING MULTIPLE CONCEPTS? It’s awesome because you can leverage buying power but it’s really busy. We joke that it feels like a game of whack-a-mole as we go from one restaurant to another to put out fires.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS/CHALLENGES TO HAVING A RESTAURANT IN THE AIRPORT? Getting in and out of the airport is difficult, getting purveyors into the locations in order to source unique products to stay consistent with our menu is also challenging. The benefits, however, are awesome. I think the biggest benefit is having an international footprint for our brand. People trying SeaLegs LAX as they travel internationally, offers tremendous opportunity for visibility and growth.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS/CHALLENGES TO HAVING CONCESSIONS ON THE BEACH? We are writing a playbook that has never been written before. I can’t call someone and ask how their beach club restaurant, RV Park and four-mile beachfront property did last year to help us craft our plan. The hardest part has been getting through the first year as we learn about the location. Initially, we were invited to a presentation by California State Parks about the Bolsa Chica State Beach opportunity. When we heard Kevin Pearsall from CA State Parks share plans for the beach, we were floored at the opportunity and decided to go after it.The benefits are tremendous, we see great vision for Bolsa Chica State Beach and are thrilled to be working hand-and-hand with California State Parks to revitalize this beach. We’re focused on making Bolsa Chica a Southern California destination. It’s the most challenging, but I know this will be the most fulfilling as our legacy project.
DESCRIBE THE BRANDING PROCESS FOR EACH OF THE RESTAURANTS/CONCESSIONS. HOW DO THEY DIFFER IN COMPANY CULTURE AND/OR STAFFING PATTERNS? SeaLegs Wine Bar is our landmark location, otherwise known as my home. I keep this one as close to my heart as possible and you can still almost always find me here. The shared plates menu has won multiple awards and the wine list is vast, including many limited selection wines. The Hamptons inspired décor is the perfect setting for brunch, dinner or drinks with friends.

I am obsessed with SeaSalt Woodfire Grill – it is so cool, I am so proud of that restaurant. SeaSalt is a Santa Maria steakhouse with slow-grilled meats and hearty breakfasts – a cool vibe with a big firepit on the patio and a rustic feel. I love hopping back and forth between SeaLegs and SeaSalt…they are both so cool and offer totally unique experiences.
For the Bolsa Chica State Beach Concessions:
• SeaLegs at the Beach is a one-acre beach club, a beachside version of SeaLegs Wine
Bar where people can toast the sunset
• SeaSalt Beachside Burger is a bona fide beach burger shack with awesome shakes
• Beach City Provisions is a curated provisional store and sandwich shop that offers nightly dinners and entertainment to RV guests during peak season
• Pacific Kitchen is a Baja-inspired surf menu with acai bowls, Kean coffee and sustainable seafood                                                                                                                   SeaLegs LAX serves up California cuisine and has a killer wine bar comparable to the one in Huntington Beach.
HOW DO YOU AND YOUR MANAGEMENT PARTNERS MAINTAIN CONSISTENCY ACROSS ALL OF THE RESTAURANTS? We just never take our feet off the gas pedal. It’s not easy, but we are committed to maintaining quality, consistency and building a brand that offers unique, outside the-box concepts.
ARE YOU ABLE TO WORK WITH THE SAME PURVEYORS ACROSS THE BOARD? Yes, we do work with most of our purveyors across the restaurants, with the exception of specialty items.
ARE THERE PLANS FOR MORE CONCEPTS IN THE FUTURE? Yes, we do have plans for future concepts and are working on a few right now under Prjkt Restaurant Group but our international outpost is on hold right now. Stay tuned!
WHAT WAS THE HARDEST LESSON LEARNED? Don’t trust everyone, and build a strong team.
ADVICE FOR THOSE INTERESTED IN OPENING AND OPERATING MULTIPLE CONCEPTS? People in this business have a sickness – they are addicted to hospitality and can’t get enough of the game. If you want to be in this business, you better love it, because if you don’t love it – and I mean REALLY love it – this industry will chew you up and spit  you out. If you have the vision and passion, then jump in with two feet!
WHAT IS YOUR NEXT BIG GOAL? I plan on building the PRJKT Restaurant Group with a superior hospitality team that works on management contracts as well as building our own concepts.


Russel Bendel -Building an EmpireWHAT INSPIRED YOU TO CREATE MULTIPLE CONCEPTS OVER A SINGLE BRAND? We wanted to allow each restaurant location to have its own personality and cater specifically to that neighborhoods’ demographic.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS AND CHALLENGES TO HAVING MULTIPLE CONCEPTS? The benefit is we are not limited to doing one specific menu or culinary concept and we are flexible to cater to the guests that frequent each location. The challenge is, it’s more work and not a one size fits all, but that is the way we want it. I think our
guests appreciate this and are also excited to visit our other concepts after hearing about the relationship.
DESCRIBE THE BRANDING PROCESS FOR EACH OF THE RESTAURANTS. HOW DO THEY DIFFER IN COMPANY CULTURE AND/OR STAFFING PATTERNS? Our brand is very important and we like to consider quality and value as our main focus. We consider each location to be Wine Country inspired. There are a lot of similarities to both Vine and Ironwood, especially our culture. We employ people that are just as excited about our brand as we have been from the start.
HOW DO YOU, CHEF JARED AND YOUR MANAGEMENT PARTNERS MAINTAIN CONSISTENCY ACROSS THE TWO RESTAURANTS? It all starts with us and we try to instill an eye for detail in our people every day. We look at every shift as an opportunity to teach and learn, and to find ways for improving at all levels.
ARE YOU ABLE TO WORK WITH THE SAME PURVEYORS ACROSS THE TWO RESTAURANTS?   Yes, we use all the same purveyors at each location. This helps us maintain consistency because we know exactly what we are going to get.
WHAT ARE THE DETAILS IN YOUR PLAN TO OPEN A THIRD CONCEPT? We have not officially created a third concept but are looking forward to this sometime in the very near future. We want to learn from what people love about both locations and continue to use that as our foundation.
DO YOU FORESEE ANY OF THE ABOVE CIRCUMSTANCES CHANGING? We strive for self-improvement in all areas and are always open to change when it makes sense.
FLEMING’S IN SEARCH OF YOUR OWN PATH? I had to make the decision to re-sign a new partner contract at the end of 2012 or move on so I decided to create my own venture.
WHAT WAS THE HARDEST LESSON LEARNED? You can’t save your way to success. You have to continue investing in the people and business to stay relevant and exceed the guests ever changing expectations.
WOULD YOU EVER ADD A FAST-CASUAL CONCEPT? We are open to doing any type of
concept as long as it makes good business sense. We definitely do not limit ourselves to only one style or segment.
WHAT IS YOUR NEXT BIG GOAL? Opening a third successful and admired restaurant in an area that is in need of a great place to dine.


David Wilhelm - Building an EmpireWHAT SPARKED YOUR INTEREST IN CREATING MULTIPLE CONCEPTS IN THE PAST? I found the process of creating new concepts very satisfying and I enjoyed the challenge that creating each new brand presented. Most of the restaurants were geographically close to each other so the notion of duplicating concepts in the same area didn’t make sense from a business point of view.
WHAT WERE THE BENEFITS AND CHALLENGES OF OPERATING MULTIPLE CONCEPTS? The benefits were that you could have several locations close to each other in one trade area without them cannibalizing each other. The challenge in operating them wasn’t that difficult in that once recipes and service protocols are put into place the management teams simply have to execute.
WHY ARE YOU CHOOSING TO GO THE SINGLE CONCEPT ROUTE NOW? I think at different points in your life you are motivated by different factors in determining what business path you choose to take. At this point in my career I want to focus on developing and growing a single brand that has long term legs and very broad appeal. To me, this is just as challenging as creating multiple concepts.
WILL YOU EVER CONSIDER CREATING MULTIPLE CONCEPTS AGAIN? At this point my entire focus is on the JFAT brand but at some point in the future I’m sure I’ll end up developing something different and fun that would be close to home and allow me to tinker
with it. I would see it as a small place with an eclectic menu that would serve as a place to
hang out with friends.

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