Ignite Restaurant Group Inc. in March named John Gilbert president of its 203-unit Romano’s Macaroni Grill division.

The Houston-based parent to casual-dining chains Joe’s Crab Shack and Brick House Tavern + Tap tapped Gilbert, former chief executive of Minneapolis-based Famous Dave’s of America Inc., to lead Macaroni Grill, which it acquired in April 2013.

Macaroni Grill’s same-store sales results have recently dragged down Ignite’s earnings. In the Dec. 30-ended fourth quarter, same-store sales fell 9 percent at Macaroni Grill, while they rose 1.9 percent at Joe’s Crab Shack and increased 6.6 percent at Brick House.

But Gilbert told Nation’s Restaurant News in an interview earlier this month that he saw great potential in Macaroni Grill.

“It’s a great brand,” he said. “It’s an exciting time to be here.”

What attracted you to Macaroni Grill?

It’s always been one of my favorite brands. Right after my wife and I got married, we spent a lot of time going to the Mac Grill in Louisville, Ky. We fell in love with it. It’s such a combination of all the senses. It was such an experiential brand back then — the unit, the footprint, the space looked and felt different from everybody else. They had the deli cases with all the neat stuff in there that you could take home. They had the pasta hanging and drying and the sauté station was on fire — literally. I have a long experience with the brand but, like for many American consumers, that lapsed over time.

What aspects of Macaroni Grill are especially strong?

It ties back to Phil Romano and his vision as expressed in the original restaurants, which to me feels incredibly contemporary today, 25-plus years later. Mac Grill had the No. 1 atmosphere in Nation’s Restaurant News’ latest [Consumer Picks] survey and confirmed something that I believe is true of this brand. It was designed with an open dining room, a display kitchen, capacity for multiple lines of business (dine-in, to-go, catering). That was incredible foresight.

And the restaurants themselves?

The Mac Grill unit is timeless and ready for the next generation of consumers. That’s part of the dynamic, is the malleability or flexibility of the box. That doesn’t sound very restaurateur-ish, but it’s quite an alive space. That’s opposed to a lot of the casual-dining brands that were built 25 years ago or more and they feel that old. There’s something about the installed base of restaurants that is compelling. We also get great scores on food.

How do you view recent changes, such as added service staff?

Since Ignite took over the brand, and I can take no credit for this, the focus on operations has yielded some terrific improvements. The brand is incredibly vibrant. Sure, there is a lot of work for us to do, but I’m attracted to turnaround and opportunity situations. It’s been a hallmark of my career.