John Cooper, president of Bonefish Grill, was named Operator of the Year Monday night during the MUFSO Industry Awards Gala.
Winning the distinction, based on votes from Nation’s Restaurant News readers, places Cooper in the company of previous winners such as Firehouse Subs chief executive Don Fox and Buffalo Wild Wings chief executive Sally Smith, as well as Warren Rosenthal of Jerrico’s, who was named the inaugural Operator of the Year at MUFSO in 1971.
Cooper was chosen for the honor from among five other executives who earned 2012 Golden Chain Award recognition for leading their brands to success in a competitive restaurant industry. Winners included Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen chief executive Cheryl Bachelder; Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches founder and chief executive Jimmy John Liautaud; Papa John’s Pizza founder and chief executive John Schnatter; Sheetz chief executive Stan Sheetz; and Caribou Coffee chief executive Mike Tattersfield.
“Working at Steak and Ale, I got my first glimpse of the grueling hours that managers worked — some 14 hours a day, six days a week, giving up holidays, birthdays and family occasions — and boy, those were the days,” Cooper said during his acceptance speech. “Seeing that, I swore I would never give my life up to a career in the restaurant industry. Oddly enough, could you imagine? So tonight, this political-science major who came from a family of lawyers and judges stands humbly before you accepting this prestigious award.”
Cooper became president of Tampa, Fla.-based Bonefish Grill in 2001, following a 15-year career in area development for Outback Steakhouse, one of Bonefish’s sibling brands in the portfolio of Bloomin’ Brands. Bonefish has since become a major growth vehicle for its parent company.
As president, Cooper has already taken the concept from a handful of units in the St. Petersburg, Fla., area to 158 locations throughout the Southeast and Northeast with further plans to expand the chain across the United States.
Bonefish reported a 2.1-percent increase in same-store sales for its June-30-ended second quarter, which officials attributed to modest price hikes and increased traffic.
According to NRN’s Top 100 Special Report, Bonefish ranked fifth among casual-dining chains in systemwide-sales percentage growth, and the brand rang up an estimated $459 million in fiscal 2011.
“As it turns out, I’ve always been an operator at heart, keeping my head down to compete in a challenging but rewarding industry," Cooper said. "I’ve had the opportunity to pay it forward, to mentor others and to share the knowledge that others took the time to share with me.”
The evening was sponsored by American Express, Avocados from Mexico, Ocean Spray Cranberries, Reinhart Foodservice, Saputo Cheese and Tree Top Foodservice.