“Rock n’ roll” Kerry Simon said Thursday he’s considering a move into the chain restaurant world with the possible expansion of his casual KGB brand, a burger and vodka concept developed for Harrah’s in Las Vegas.
Simon was a keynote speaker at a restaurant industry conference in Seattle hosted by law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, which has a large hospitality clientele.
The annual event this year drew more than 300 foodservice professionals, suppliers and financiers who spent the day immersed in topics ranging from access to capital for emerging brands to international development and food safety.
This year’s theme was “Food Times at Restaurant High,” a play on the movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” The conference even included a visit from the movie’s star Judge Reinhold, who shared stories of his one day of work at Hamburger Hamlet when he first came to Hollywood as a youth.
Simon was dubbed the “Rock n’ Roll chef” by Rolling Stone magazine in the early 1990s. At the time, he served as executive chef of the Trump Plaza Hotel, where his kitchen became notorious for music industry parties.
Currently, his restaurants include Simon LA and L.A. Market in Los Angeles, as well as Simon Prime Steakhouse and Martini Bar in Atlantic City, N.J., and KGB, which stands for Kerry’s Gourmet Burgers, in Las Vegas.
The chef said he has also been asked by comic actor Bill Murray – the two worked at a Little Caesar’s Pizza together as teenagers – to help grow a nontraditional version of the golf-themed restaurant Caddyshack, which opened in St. Augustine, Fla., about a decade ago. It is run by Murray’s five brothers and was inspired by the 1980 movie by the same name.
In addition, he told the conference crowd, “I have this Simon Says concept in my head,” which might be pizza focused.
Also sharing their stories were restaurateur/chefs David Myers and Ivan Orkin, both of who operate restaurants in Japan, as well as Craig Stoll of the restaurants Delfina and Locanda in San Francisco.
Myers, whose restaurant group in the U.S. operates the Comme Ça concept in Los Angeles and Las Vegas and Pizzeria Ortica in Costa Mesa, Calif., expressed his frustration with the food truck movement.
“They pull up in front of restaurants and take their business,” he said. “I believe in the free market, but it’s tough out there.”
Orkin, who operates two ramen shops in Tokyo, is frustrated by customers who ask for condiments.
“I spent six months getting a dish right and they want to ruin it in five minutes,” he said.
Stoll spoke of turning his frustration with Yelp reviews into something positive.
“We took our three worst Yelp reviews and put them on tee shirts” for servers to wear on the job, he said. “It was fun. It turned the table and it took the steam out of it.”
Other topics discussed at the conference included:
--Sam Goldfinger, chief financial officer of The One Group, based in Los Angeles, parent to the STK and Coco de Ville brands, warned young restaurant companies considering their financing options that “just because they’re friends and family doesn’t mean they stay friends and family. It is a business.”
Goldfinger added that “debt is not a dirty word” and banks are lending again. But, he noted, “The right time to borrow is when you don’t need it. The time to get it is when things are good.”
--Jon Owsley, a partner in private equity firm Catterton Partners, said there’s a reason why some in the restaurant world are wary of bringing on private equity partners. “The restaurant space is like a church,” he said. “Many people go there but few really understand it.”
--To emerging restaurant chains thinking about seeking private equity funding, M. Laird Koldyke, managing partner of Winona Capital Management, said, “Claw your way to 10 units. You’re not ready for prime time unless you get 10.”
--Hugh Hilton, chief executive of Alvarez & Marsal Capital RE and former chief executive of Prandium Inc., once parent to the Chi-Chi’s restaurant brand, shared his behind-the-scenes experiences through the largest Hepatitis A outbreak in U.S. history in 2003.
Hilton’s dramatic account included examples of botched investigations, government cover-ups, an endless media onslaught and a national trade embargo that resulted.
In the end, the source of the outbreak was green onions from Mexico but, under rules of strict liability, restaurants are held accountable and the media attention essentially killed the brand, he said.