A little over a year ago, the legendary Brennan family, owners of Commander’s Palace in New Orleans and other fine-dining landmarks, made its first foray into casual dining when it partnered with Bruce Reginelli and Bruce Erhardt, owners of casual-dining chain Reginelli’s Pizzeria.

The Brennans partnered with the owners of Reginelli’s last year, opening their first Reginelli’s restaurant together in Baton Rouge, La., in May 2012. They added a Reginelli’s location in Houston a few months ago, and plan to add several more units there.

Alex Brennan-Martin, who represents the Brennan family’s side of the partnership, discussed the new venture with Nation’s Restaurant News.

How is business in Houston?

It’s good to be in Texas. It’s better to be in Houston.

Why is that?

The economy’s doing very, very, very well. Since 2008 we got hit like everyone else [by the recession], but we’re still in the sixes and sevens [percentage rate of unemployment]. I’m chairman of our Convention & Visitors Bureau and there’s a tremendous amount going on in the city. We just landed the Super Bowl for 2017, and we have something called the World Petroleum Congress, and we’re down to the final three in that selection process. Businesswise, we’re working on a regional chain called Reginelli’s.

How’s that going?

We opened the first one in Houston [about four months ago in the Memorial City area] and No. 2 and No. 3 are about to go on paper. The goal is to get eight or nine, see how it’s received and kind of take it from there.

It’s sort of the antitheses of what we’ve traditionally done — less than $1 million in investment versus $8 to $10 million — but we have a lot in common in how we run our business.

Darrell [Reginelli] was talking about coming to Houston and we [said,] ‘Why not with us?’

What I’ve learned about the pizza business: Pizza is exactly like gumbo. The version that everyone was raised with, they’re passionate about it. If you’re a Chicago deep dish or a New York Neapolitan charred crust. …Reginelli’s is more middle of the road.

Are you using one of those fast conveyor ovens that are so popular in fast-casual pizza?

It’s actually a slow conveyor oven that gives it a crusty feel. It takes about 11 to 12 minutes to cook a pizza.

What do you think the original Reginelli’s owners have learned from you?

Since we’ve partnered with Darrell we’ve convinced him that better wine is better. He’s realized that if you have better wine, people will drink it, so some of what we’re doing he’s taking back into the original restaurants.

It’s really kind of refreshing to be a partner in a business in which my sister or I don’t have to be the drivers with the chefs. It’s a well-respected little business.

How is the partnership set up?

It’s a 50/50 partnership. It was truly a handshake. Their business philosophy is very similar to ours, so it’s been very easy.

How is the first location doing?

It’s doing great. There are so many New Orleanians in Houston with the oil business that we had a great little jumpstart. That made it easier as we started up.

How much investment is required per unit?

About $600,000–$700,000 all-in. It’s just 2,500-3,000 square feet and it’s running about 50 percent takeout, which is very nice.

What’s new at Brennan’s of Houston?

Crab cakes are still our No. 1 best seller, but we now have executive types who are eating primarily vegetables two to three times a week. The same people who come in for a lot of our traditional food also come in and say ‘vegetable me.’

[Chef] Danny Trace is doing a red fish court-bouillon in a black iron skillet. It bakes in the oven. It’s sort of what en papillote used to be. It’s a super light dish. We bought five or 10 [skillets for it], and we had to order like 50 more. It’s amazing to me how well that is selling.

That’s really the amazing thing to me: that our customers are really evolving. It was really only in the last year or two years that we’ve had enough demand on the menu [for lighter, vegetable-based items]. And goodness gracious it’s amazing how it’s grown. And it’s the same guy that will come in and order a rack of lamb and he’ll come in for a business lunch on Tuesday and go for the [vegetarian] menu.

Contact Bret Thorn at bret.thorn@penton.com.
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