Ignite Restaurant Group Inc., casual-dining parent to Joe’s Crab Shack and Brick House Tavern + Tap, has added to its divisional teams as it continues to digest last April’s acquisition of the Romano’s Macaroni Grill brand.

The Houston-based company named John Gilbert, former chief executive of Minneapolis-based Famous Dave’s of America Inc., president of 203-unit Macaroni Grill. Gilbert succeeds David Catalano, who moved to president of 20-unit Brick House and succeeded Jim Kunz there.

Ignite chief executive Ray Blanchette, in remarks after the release of the company’s fourth-quarter earnings on Tuesday, said Gilbert will add “brand-building skills” to Macaroni Grill derived from his marketing background at such companies as Dunkin’ Donuts, TGI Fridays and Yum! Brands Inc.

“I expect that John’s knowledge, skills and experience would be an excellent resource to all of the Ignite brands,” Blanchette said. “We believe that his proven marketing strength and determined focus on driving profitability will serve our shareholders as well.”

Blanchette said that as Ignite nears the April 9 first-year anniversary of acquiring the Macaroni Grill chain, it appears positioned for revenue and margin growth. In the Dec. 30-ended fourth quarter, same-store sales fell 9 percent at Macaroni Grill, rose 1.9 percent at Joe’s Crab Shack and increased 6.6 percent at Brick House.

Ignite reported a net loss of $4.4 million, or 17 cents per share, in the most recent 13-week fourth quarter, compared with a net loss of $7.6 million, or 30 cents per share, in the 16-week period a year earlier. Revenue rose 65.9 percent, to $186.9 million, compared with $112.6 million in the prior year. The company adjusted its fiscal quarters in the past year.

Blanchette said that the impact of Macaroni Grill’s “aggressive discounting prior to our stewardship” is waning. He added, “We believe we’re better positioned to reap the benefits of the increasing sales.”

Blanchette said Catalano is well suited for his move from Macaroni Grill to Brick House.

“David [Catalano] has been a steady force for Macaroni Grill during the brand’s critical transition phase to Ignite,” Blanchette said in a statement earlier this week. “With his background expanding margins and improving operations, we are confident that he is the perfect fit for our growing Brick House Tavern + Tap brand.”

Catalano has also worked in operations leadership roles at Apple Gold Group, an Applebee’s franchisee, Hard Rock Café and Rave Cinemas.

“Brick House was initially developed as a real estate management option and clearly grown into something much more powerful than that,” Blanchette said, “but it continues to excel at its original mission and turning underperforming restaurant sites into strong cash generators.”

In the fourth quarter, Ignite opened four new Brick House units, two of which were converted from the Macaroni Grill brand and one from the Joe’s brand.

“In 2014, Brick House will be exclusively focused on optimizing the real estate we already control,” Blanchette said, adding that the two Macaroni Grill conversions saw an average weekly sales increase of more than 100 percent under the Brick House banner. “We will continue to capitalize on these opportunities as cash flow allows.”

Michael Dixon, Ignite’s chief financial officer, said the company plans to open as many as five Brick House units this year, and they’ll all be conversions of existing Macaroni Grill locations. Ignite hopes to convert one Macaroni Grill to a Joe’s Crab Shack, he added, and to add three new Joe’s units in the Northeast, most likely in third quarter.

Ignite has closed seven underperforming Macaroni Grill units since it acquired the chain, according to Dixon.

“As we continue to maximize the real estate portfolio we expect to close or sell the lease rights to several more locations in 2014,” he said.

Contact Ron Ruggless at ronald.ruggless@penton.com.
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