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.

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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.

What lies ahead

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Do you plan to continue the three-course tasting menu at $15?

There are two dynamics there. You have price-value equation, which we attempted to address with the $15 price. That’s probably not a permanent installation. It’s not a big discount, so it’s not a huge P&L [profit and loss] haircut at the restaurant level, but it is a sign of the times.

What are the positive aspects of that promotion?

The more permanent components are the dishes contained in that initiative. They are bringing back successful and popular products from years gone by that were, for one reason or another, taken off the menu. That’s something you may see more of.

Robin Ahearn has left Ignite as chief marketing officer. What does that mean for Macaroni Grill?

It’s a natural evolution of the growth of Ignite. When Ignite was a one-brand dominant enterprise with Joe’s, Ray [Blanchette] is running Joe’s. When you add Mac Grill, a brand roughly the size of Joe’s, essentially what you end up doing is replicating that structure by having the individual brands fully accountable for their performance. It’s a natural progression. Robin is starting her own business, and she is incredibly excited about that. I’m coming in as president of Mac Grill. We both believe that this is the right way to approach this. It’s not a surprise. It’s not an attempt to shed G&A. It’s a natural evolution of the strategy of having the brand accountability rest with the president of the brands.

Wine has been an integral part of Macaroni Grill’s offerings. What do you see for the future there?

Wine is obviously a big part of our DNA and our heritage. The two components that nestle nicely within that are Mezzo Prezzo [half price bottles of wine on Thursday in most states], which is not particularly new, and obviously the honor-system table wines. Those are both pieces of what I would call a longer-term expression of the identity of Mac Grill. It also is part of the conviviality that is a hallmark of the brand.

What are you most looking forward to?

This is a young company. It feels like a startup. Ignite has only existed for 18 months. It has that vibe. The brand itself is a classic brand turnaround. Everything works. This brand is wired for success. It has a terrific heritage and terrific foundation. My job is to simplify the business in order to amplify some of the core equities, while being mindful that we are dealing with an emerging consumer who has different needs and tastes than their parents and grandparents. In the end, I think it comes down to food equities and service equities. And we’ve got both in spades.

Contact Ron Ruggless at ronald.ruggless@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless