Maggiano's President Looks Ahead On Chain's 20th Anniversary

Steve Provost, president of the 44-unit Maggiano's Little Italy, said the restaurant has come a long way since first opening its doors on Nov. 11, 1991.

For one thing, the banquet room where Provost and other officials from parent company Brinker International would celebrate Maggiano's 20th anniversary had to be added later, when demand for private parties overwhelmed the small dining room at Grand Avenue and Clark Street in Chicago.

Provost said the chain's family-style service wasn't initially offered either, but was added after Mark Tormey, the partner at Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises who opened and operated Maggiano's for years, made enough money serving unlimited portions for a reasonable per-person price that family-style service became part of the permanent menu, Provost said.

While "the guest led us to those first innovations," Provost said, Maggiano's came up with its popular current promotion, a buy-one-take-one-home offer of any Classic Pasta, in August 2009 in response to the recession. Overwhelming guest response made the offer part of the permanent menu for Dallas-based Maggiano's, which Lettuce Entertain You sold to Brinker in 1995.

Provost spoke with Nation's Restaurant News from the original Maggiano's in Chicago to discuss the chain's direction for the future.

Maggiano's started out as a family-style Italian restaurant, and 20 years later your most popular promotion is a buy-one-take-one-home offer for Classic Pastas. Was it hard to get to this price value point given your history?

Brands have to innovate, because the guest and the market are always changing. But you always have to innovate within your true compass. Our true compass, in a word, is abundance. What we've stood for since day one, when Rich [Melman of Lettuce Entertain You] opened the doors 20 years ago, is that this is a place where you'll have real traditional Italian classics and more than you could ever eat.

Fast forward to the Great Recession and "new normal" ... where even high-end dining is getting hurt, and so what do we do? The Classic Pastas idea was the most compelling, but to me what was brilliant was that it was in the north star of the tradition of what makes Maggiano's. It was a complete outgrowth of banquets and family style.

Continued from page 1

We put it on the menu, and the guests prevented us from ever going back. When it goes right away, not just to 10 percent of preference, but above 20 percent, you know the guests just love it. This took us out of the ditch to flat sales, and it's been behind our eight consecutive quarters of same-store sales growth. Normal people would say that this was nice and got us out of a tough time, now let's get back to business as usual. But does anybody think it's going to go back to business as usual?

We honestly don't think our competitors can copy it. ... The biggest problem we have is people don't believe it's permanent.

Chili's recently updated its popular $20 Dinner for 2 promotion by calling out the bold flavors of new items. Does Maggiano's have to make similar considerations to keep this offer fresh?

Compared to a mass marketer like Chili's, we have a significant disadvantage and an advantage. We don't have television to tell the world about this, and we don't really use radio. So part of the challenge is to get better using our direct and social media. The upside of that is, unlike a mass marketer, you can't say you've worn out the messaging. We still know the vast majority of people in our target demographic of affluent households haven't heard of Classic Pastas.

The first thing is continuing to innovate around the media, and in the direct and social world, it's all about targeting. Second, we'll do what the big boys do: We'll continue with new offerings and bring news to it. Third, we'll find ways to trade people up on it.

The one thing I've been able to bring to Maggiano's from QSR is that science of menu management, because when you do something like this, how do you do it in a way where you don't end up cratering your P&L and in two years have to take it away from the guest? Our biggest challenge is people love us, but they only think about us for anniversaries and birthdays. With Classic Pastas, people say that they could visit us on Tuesday night, because this is Tuesday and Thursday night's dinner, for $13.

Continued from page 2

Since special-occasion dining is still your core, what do you look for in the marketplace to determine whether that business is coming back?

We've got one huge barometer in that 20 percent of our business is our banquets. We think we've done 400,000 parties in 20 years, and there's no one else in the restaurant category close to us. We look at hotels, and Morton's and Ruth's Chris, and we've seen corporate spending come back there. Last year, 25 percent of American weddings took place offshore. We see a lot of that going on, and so we're applying a lot of resources to our banquet business, because we really have to now.

What went into the recent "refire" of your employee culture?

When Lettuce built the first few Maggiano's, they wanted to build them all in a row so that the first brand president Mark Tormey could bus every table. He's a true restaurateur and had created a culture, but it had never been written down. When you grow, especially when the founder leaves, how do you keep that alive? So Wyman Roberts [former Maggiano's president, now president of Chili's] got everyone together and he wrote this 30-page booklet called "The Maggiano's Way." This past September we took six weeks to go through the book and read it out loud, do quizzes and games, and recognize everybody for the jobs they were doing.

It makes a difference to the guest, because we believe your guest experience will never be better than your teammate experience, and your teammates have to feel like they own it. ... When they opened this restaurant 20 years ago, nobody had ever heard of polished casual. To me, what holds it together is the culture. Otherwise the wheels come off.

Contact Mark Brandau at
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN