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UTAHN FINDS NICHE AS A RESTAURATEUR

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Norman R. Slaymaker's mid-life crisis came right on cue back in the 1970s. At age 44, a veteran of 25 years in the insurance business (life and pension plans), Norm asked himself the classic question: "Is this how I want to spend the rest of my life?"

Maybe not, he decided. But if not insurance, then what?It's a crossroads many of us face in our lives, but Norm was luckier than most. As a Utah Air National Guard aviator, he was able to shed his business suit on occasion, don his uniform and get out of town on military cargo planes. One of his frequent destinations was Alaska, a sure cure for the Lower-48 blues.

It was 1977 and Norm's brother was, coincidentally, a real estate developer in the 49th state. Also, Norm had a friend in Salt Lake City who - perhaps having a mid-life crisis of his own - wanted to migrate north to America's last frontier. Was there something going on here?

Norm decided he could solve his friend's problem and maybe his own as well. Like many people, Norm had long harbored a desire to be a restaurateur and he decided it was now or never. Franchising made more sense than starting from scratch, he reasoned, and he learned that the Sizzler chain was not yet in Alaska. Bingo.

Sixteen years later, Salt Lake City-based Slaymaker Restaurant Group Inc. has nine Sizzlers in Alaska and Wyoming, seven Tony Roma's in Utah, Alaska and Arizona, two TGI Friday's in Utah and one under construction in Boise. Norm's son Scott is president of SRG and his son Eric is director of marketing. The company has 800 employees and SRG's sales are expected to top $27 million this year.

Clearly, some midlife crises turn out better than others and the changes that Norm set in motion back in the '70s continue. Growth is not a luxury, he asserts, in the restaurant business it may be the key to survival. Scott agrees.

"This is a high-concept business," said Scott. "You have to grow or you get eaten up by the larger players. Also, you have to have a career path for your employees to follow and you can't provide that if you don't grow."

In other words, don't expect the Slaymakers to rest on their laurels anytime soon.

The SRG story is not an unbroken tale of success. Want to buy a restaurant? They will be happy to sell you their Sizzler in Soldotna, Alaska, south of Anchorage. Built when financing was easy to obtain, Scott admits the Soldotna Sizzler has not sizzled. "It's been a tremendous, but costly, education for us," he said.

Still, one foul ball out of 20 is not a bad batting average.

The Slaymakers are often asked for advice on how to get started in the restaurant business. Their counsel goes something like this: Do your homework, have lots of money and prepare yourself to be married to the business.

Even then, the odds are against you. National figures indicate that three of four restaurants fail by their second year in business.

"Many try, few succeed," said Eric Slaymaker, director of marketing. "It's a very tough business.

We think we have succeeded because we have good concepts and our timing has been good."

Most restaurants fail, believes Norm, because they start out undercapitalized. It's just too easy toget a mom-and-pop operation going. A national franchise, however, is a different story.

For example, said Norm, their Friday's restaurant at the Cottonwood Mall represents a $2 million investment, a figure few can raise on their own. Most of the SRG properties are financed through limited partnership syndications.

Hiring and keeping good employees is a challenge, said Scott, who terms it a "cutthroat business" in that respect. And inventory control is also a huge problem because of the small profit margins on which restaurants operate. SRG inventories all of its restaurants' supplies every week.

Success in the restaurant business also can depend on good timing. In the early '80s, SRG developed the first Chi Chi's Mexican restaurants in Utah and they were quite successful, said Norm. Later in the decade SRG sold its Chi Chi's at a profit. The new owners, though, converted them to Garcia's restaurants, which later went into bankruptcy.

"Our timing was good getting in and getting out of that one," said Norm.

SRG's growth in the early years took place outside of Utah as the company built Sizzlers across Alaska and Wyoming. After three years in Alaska, Scott took over the Wyoming franchises and then later returned to Utah to head up the multi-state operation.

He said the restaurant business is constantly evolving as customer expectations change - a theme or concept that brought people in in 1989 might not work in 1993. Thus, the decor and menu items must be continually updated.

The Slaymakers agree that buying a franchise does not guarantee success, but it does provide investors proof that the concept has been successful elsewhere. SRG pays more than $1 million a year in franchise fees but considers the money well spent.

Not that franchising is the only secret to success. Norm points to the Gastronomy Inc. group of locally owned restaurants that includes Market Street Grill, Cafe Pierpont and the new China Star, as a strong example. "They do a tremendous job," said Norm. "We eat there ourselves."

Franchising can also be a hindrance to those who want to move ahead more quickly than the parent company allows. "They dictate your growth," said Scott. "If you want to grow at your own speed, you have to strike out on your own."

SRG is taking steps to do just that. Construction of a new, non-franchise restaurant called Winger's (see sidebar) is under way and the Good Times Spaghetti eatery in Ogden is a non-franchise SRG operation.

"We are looking for growth in the mid-to-small markets," said Scott. "The large markets are saturated now and the growth is in the secondary markets."

For a market its size, the Slaymakers agree that Salt Lake City has a tremendous diversity of quality restaurants. They also agree it is a mature market now, and success will likely come to niche players. "In the '70s you could open anything," said Scott. "But not now."

He believes that successful restaurateurs today must recognize that they are selling more than just food.

"We are in the entertainment business. People's time is limited so they want a very positive experience when they eat out. That's what we work to give them."