Christopher J. Artinian says he’s learned what makes Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill tick since becoming president and chief executive nearly a year ago.

The former Morton’s CEO said good food at a good price served in a fun and inviting atmosphere are key for the Orlando, Fla.-based casual-dining chain. Now, after tweaking menus and forming a strategic plan for the past year, the concept is ready for cautious expansion, Artinian said.

But Smokey Bones, which will stage another phase of its turnaround to growth this year, has faced difficulties. Darden Restaurants Inc. pulled the plug on it in 2007, when it said it would close 54 restaurants and sell the remaining 73 units. Sun Capital Partners Inc. purchased Smokey Bones in early 2008 and reduced the unit count further, to 66 locations.

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Since Darden’s sale, the brand has evolved significantly. For instance, its name was changed from Smokey Bones Barbecue & Grill to Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill to reflect its diverse menu offerings.

As it expands, Artinian said the company will hold onto its competitive differentiators, which include having a smoker at every location and offering compelling late-night and lunchtime menu items.

Smokey Bones still has 66 restaurants, but plans to open two to three locations by the end of 2013, five units in 2014 and six to eight locations every year thereafter, Artinian said.

“We’re starting small,” he said. “As we measure our success, we can get more aggressive.”

Artinian spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about Smokey Bones’ branding, menu and expansion plans.

What did you learn during your first year as CEO at Smokey Bones?

Smokey Bones was really an opportunity for this niche with food, drink and fun. It has become clear to me that this ‘come as you are’ atmosphere with great food, fun events and the beers we have on tap really speaks to a broad appeal. I think it’s really a niche that we’ve created with this really fun attitude, but with a real focus on guest satisfaction and food.

Growing Smokey Bones didn’t work out for Darden. Why will expansion work this time?

I can’t speak for what happened in years prior, but I can tell you, like everyone else in the restaurant industry, we went through some very difficult times in 2008 and 2009. Smokey Bones made it through by exercising prudent cost control and by exploring what customers really love about Smokey Bones.

What I often say is that the ones that made it through those years really have the foresight to know what to do next. We’ve learned a lot. We’re good at what we do, and we think we have the right culture, the right strategy and the right people to see this growth strategy through.

I think if you fast forward to today, we have a great foundation to expand on what we learned during those years. The strategy we have now is just so clear. The strategy is set, the culture is strong and we’re ready to start opening up new restaurants.

New markets and dayparts

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Have you had an influx of capital to spur growth this year?

Over the last couple of years we’ve spent a lot of time making sure that we were clear on what our strategy was. As the business has grown [in sales], it has given us the opportunity financially to look for future growth.

What are your target markets for expansion?

We’re going to stick with where we have infrastructure. Of course, we’re based in Florida, but we also have restaurants in the Atlanta area; Washington, D.C., and Virginia; the New York area; Boston area; Indiana and even parts of Illinois.

You have tried to expand Smokey Bones into other dayparts beyond dinner. How are those programs going?

We rolled out a new lunch menu back on March 18, driving items under $9.99. It has been incredibly well received, and we’ve continued to see lunch expand because of it.

What about late night?

It actually continues to be one of the fastest-growing parts of our business. We serve our full menu, with that quality of food, after 10 o’clock. That’s not something that everybody does. Our full beverage and food menu is available until 2 a.m.

Your menu offers a lot other than barbecue. How is it structured?

There are three major components of our menu. We’re the experts on smokehouse and barbecue — that’s really our roots. Also, we’re well known for our burger and our burger limited-time offers. We have three burgers on our current LTO. It drives one of the highest preferences in the menu, especially with our build-your-own burger. And then there’s the fire grill, which is our steaks and chops. Those three components really accentuate our barbecue roots, but also our credibility with having great food.

You recently hired a new culinary lead. How will Jason Gronlund change your culinary strategy?

The culinary strategy is really to be at the top of casual dining. Not a lot has changed, but I think we have evolved. It’s really working with our multi-pronged strategy for the Smokey Bones Bar & Grill. It’s about the food, pairing it with drinks and creating some differentiation to create a really great lineup with our distinct menu.

Jason has an exciting background. We’re looking to use creativity to continue to evolve our brand within those three core pieces of our menu.

Tell me a bit about the current Smokey Bones brand. What do you stand for?

We’re very proud of our barbecue roots. We’re a great smokehouse. There’s a smoker in every restaurant. With the burger piece, again, it’s about having fun. It’s about taking the all-American burger and giving it an edge. The fire grill is really about finding products that can continue to feature our quality items at a value price. The Smokey Bones concept is that we endeavor to be the best place for food, drink and fun.

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