Lazy Dog Café Grows From Family Base

Many in the upscale casual-dining segment have struggled in recent years with value and accessibility as consumers have cut spending.

Chris Simms, chief executive of the Lazy Dog Café chain, however, appears to be striking the right notes. Founded in 2003, the ninth Lazy Dog unit opened recently in West Covina, Calif., and two more restaurants are planned for 2012.

Family may be a factor in the chain's success. Chris's father and partner is Tom Simms, who founded and later sold the Mimi's Café chain. Tom's brother Scott Simms is the primary partner behind The Kettle, a 38-year-old family-dining concept in Manhattan Beach, Calif., that was founded by their father, the late Arthur Simms. Earlier this year, the family sold the French Quarter, another venue founded by Arthur that was in the family for many years.

In 2009, Chris's brother Mike Simms opened the Tin Roof Bistro, as well as Simmzy's, both in Manhattan Beach. A second Simmzy's unit is scheduled to open in Long Beach, Calif., early next year, and a third is also in the works.

Most recently, the Simms family has backed the first restaurant of David LeFevre, former executive chef of Water Grill in Los Angeles, who in April opened M.B. Post, which has been earning rave reviews.

Chris Simms spoke with Nation's Restaurant News about his family's ventures.

You all are partners in each other's concepts, but are you still operating separately?

We're still operating separately, but with vendors and bankers we are referring to ourselves as Simms Restaurant Group. Legally, we will always keep Lazy Dog separate, just so at no point is there any confusion about what's for sale and not for sale.

You may sell Lazy Dog?

Possibly down the road, maybe 10 or 15 years from now. Like my father did with Mimi's, there will probably be, at some point, an event, and we want to keep them separate.

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How many Mimi's Café units did you father have when he sold that chain?

Eighty six. So we have a ways to go.

Why did the family sell the French Quarter?

My dad and his brothers and sister all owned the French Quarter and The Kettle. They owned the property for the French Quarter and the family wanted to free up some cash. Dad decided it was prudent to sell it. It was bittersweet.

But my uncle Scott runs The Kettle and we're definitely going to keep that one. We just signed another 30-year lease.

How did you get involved with M.B. Post, bringing a non-family member into the fold?

In addition to creating opportunities for my brother and I, my Dad really is a fan of creating opportunities for other potential great restaurateurs. M.B. Post is one of those opportunities.

David was one of our friends — really a friend before he was a partner. He came to us a little over a year ago and asked us to be his partner in a new restaurant he wanted to create. He had been with Charlie Trotter for 10 years and with Water Grill for six, and he was very successful. He felt he was ready to do his own restaurant.

It's definitely David's venture and we're really there to support him. We are majority partners, but he has a substantial piece of the business.

How is business going?

It's going very well. We're exceeding expectations on all levels. Sales started off strong and remained strong. Reviews are coming in positive. David has done a fabulous job with Mike and internal management in making the restaurant profitable as well.

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Your father used to talk about the importance of hitting the right note on value, which has been a problem for many casual-dining restaurants. How is Lazy Dog accomplishing that?

The companies that are doing well now are those that have invested in the entire dining experience. That gives them the ability to offer the guest additional value above and beyond what other concepts offer. It gives them the ability to raise prices a little to cover higher commodity costs.

Our value is very high with the quality and richness of our build-out, the level of hospitality and service, and the quality of our food. We have invested a lot of value in our concept and we're continuing to invest in that value every day.

What is the restaurant's average check?

Our average check is roughly $16. It has stabilized. We saw a little erosion through the recession, but things have perked up the last six months.

And Lazy Dog Café doesn't do any discounting, promotions or advertising?

We do a happy hour, but no couponing or discounting. No two-for-$20 deals. We have taken funds that would normally go for promotions and ad space and instead re-invested it in the restaurants, keeping existing units fresh and updated, or investing in better plateware or food quality.

My Dad at Mimi's believed that if you spend that money within your four walls, that was the most effective way to spend marketing dollars. For now, for the foreseeable future, I definitely will stick with that philosophy.

Many casual-dining concepts are opening fast-casual variations. Do you have any plans to do that?

We haven't ventured there. Lazy Dog, being as successful as it's been, we really believe there is a bright future for premium casual dining. Who knows, maybe there is an opportunity down the road for a quick-service concept we like, but we're really just sticking to what we've got right now.

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