Ray Blanchette, chief executive of Ignite Restaurant Group Inc., parent of Joe’s Crab Shack, was named Operator of the Year Monday night during the MUFSO Industry Awards Gala.

Selected by Nation’s Restaurant News readers, Blanchette joins a strong lineup of previous winners going back to 1971, including last year’s honoree John Cooper, then president of Bonefish Grill; Buffalo Wild Wings chief executive Sally Smith; and Firehouse Subs chief executive Don Fox.

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Blanchette was selected from an esteemed group of restaurant executives who were chosen as 2013 Golden Chain winners, each of whom were honored for leading brands to success in a competitive restaurant industry. This year’s honorees were: Kelly C. Baltes, chair and chief executive of Cheddar’s Casual Café; Peter Cancro, chief executive of Jersey Mike’s Franchise System; Dan Cathy, president and chief operating officer of Chick-fil-A; and Michael Hislop, chief executive of Corner Bakery.

“I expected to come in fifth in this five-horse race,” said Blanchette as he accepted the award Monday. “I cannot wait to get back and celebrate this award with the people who deserve it the most.”

Earlier in the ceremony, as he accepted the award for Golden Chain, Blanchette said the honors of the evening should really go to “the folks in the trenches who really make things happen at the store level.”

Blanchette was named CEO of Joe’s Crab Shack in May 2007, a year after the struggling full-service, seafood-based brand was cut loose from Landry’s Restaurants Inc. and sold to then JCS Holdings Inc., which morphed into Ignite Restaurant Group. At the time, Joe’s was closing underperforming locations.

In a short amount of time Blanchette and his team launched a rebranding initiative that emphasized crab on the menu, upgraded service and fine-tuned marketing. Blanchette said Joe’s Crab Shack has recorded same-store sales growth for 21 out of the last 22 quarters, and, he added, “I’m looking forward to the next 22.”

Joe’s Crab Shack ended fiscal 2012 with 129 units and more than $413 million in U.S. systemwide sales. Before the end of fiscal 2013, the company expects to open 11 Joe’s Crab Shack locations.

The chain is owned by Ignite Restaurant Group, based in Houston, which went public last year. Ignite also operates the Brick House Tavern + Tap chain and Romano’s Macaroni Grill.

The MUFSO Industry Awards Gala was sponsored by SurveyMini by SMG, Avocados from Mexico, Ocean Spray Foodservice, Ovention and Phillips Seafood.

Contact Lisa Jennings at lisa.jennings@penton.com.
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout