Owning and operating a single successful restaurant for more than 10 years is quite an accomplishment these days, with the threat of an oversaturated market and staffing challenges.
But how about an owner/operator with eight restaurants representing a variety of concepts, spread across Columbia, Greenville, and North Carolina; a catering operation; and an events venue, the first of which opened 20 years ago? That’s a legitimate success story.
Such is the story of Larkin’s Restaurants. The first restaurant from food and beverage industry veterans Larkin and Mark Hammond, Larkin’s on the Lake, opened in 1998 in Lake Lure, North Carolina. It also includes a downstairs concept called Bayfront Bar & Grill. In 2005, the group expanded to Greenville and opened Larkin’s on the River. Then came three Grill Marks burger joint locations; the Carolina Grill in Columbus, North Carolina; the Italian concept Limoncello; and the full catering and event operations segment. They’ve also signed a lease for a new space in the Camperdown development that is under construction.
It’s no accident they’ve remained successful and competitive in a restaurant market that has seen the number of participants double in the last 10 years.
Bruce Wise, vice president of restaurant operations for Larkin’s, recently shared his insights into the group’s continued success a day after the executive team met to discuss successes, failures, and goals.
Q: In those executive meetings, what are you discussing?
A: “We’re not just talking about financials. We’re discussing what’s most important to us in the course of the year, and things that we look at really closely now is staffing, and so what are we doing as far as acknowledgement for our staff, for staff retention, and just creating an environment where we’re the employer of choice. That’s really important to us.”
Q: How are employees given creative freedom within their roles?
A: “It’s encouraged, and not just from management, but from anyone that’s in our company that has an idea. We listen to the people that work for us, and I think that that’s something that makes us appealing as an employer because everyone’s voice gets heard.”
Q: What about failures or opportunities to grow?
A: “Sometime you feel like your list of failures can become longer that your list of successes, but when you look at it, and during our discussion yesterday, it becomes really apparent, that anything that’s a failure is also a positive, because it’s something that you look at and say, ‘Well, I’ll never make that mistake again.’ In looking at your failures it can actually help you grow your business.”
Q: How does the executive team plan for the next year?
A: “We do a corporate retreat every year based down in Sanibel [Florida] where Mark and Larkin have a home and we go down there for a week. And that’s a week of really clearing our minds, getting together, planning, a recap, but also more of a planning event. We start off with what our plan’s going to be. We also mix in a good bit of fun with that. There’s a little wine, and boating, and a lot of cooking, which is really great. One of the cool things that we get together and do is we’ll go out to some dinners because we like to observe and we like to look at other companies and see what they’re doing well, but also, the time that’s really most valuable to us is that we’ll get together, and sometimes we’ll team off and sometimes we’ll make it a little bit of a competition kinda within the kitchen, but working together with someone in our team, we’ll prepare these meals that are just amazing for ourselves, so it makes you look at things from a slightly different perspective.”
Q: What’s a main foundation of a successful business?
A: “A really important part of the conversation of running a successful business is looking at the numbers. That’s something that we spend a lot of time doing – analyzing where we’re being successful [such as] food costs, and menu construction. There’s a good focus on that, because if you don’t do that, you aren’t going to be around. And it’s a constantly changing scene as different costs rise or fall, to make adjustments to growth and new demographics that are coming in, and what’s interesting to the food scene in downtown Greenville.”
Q: How does Larkin’s adapt to a changing market?
A: “You make changes to things that perhaps historically have been standard practices. The restaurants have to shift with changing challenges. … I think change has become a constant, so if you don’t change, you don’t stay competitive. In downtown Greenville, the number of choices that people have to dine in your segment — there are far more places to have a steak now than there were 10 years ago downtown Greenville. But the way that we approach it is that we focus on ourselves. We don’t focus on others. So if a new restaurant opens up, we look at what we do and make sure we’re staying true to our beliefs, staying true to our service standards and our food quality, and if we do that we know that we’re going to be fine.”
Q: What’s the key to Larkin’s success?
A: “The key to our success has been maintaining the strong team that we have that stays hands-on, including the owners. Restaurants that I’ve seen fail, and it can occur for many reasons, so often it occurs from people losing focus on what their core values are, so we often remind ourselves and remind our staff why we do what we do, which is to create an amazing experience for people that come to our establishments. Our values started years ago, and that’s part of the conversation that we have when we get together as a group. The basis of what’s important to us doesn’t change. How we get to where we want to go changes slightly. There’s no substitute for hands-on, being there, working with your people. If you get away from that you start to not understand what’s important, both to your staff and to the guests who are coming in. Creating relationships is huge in a successful business.”