The company: Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill owns and operates a chain of 66 casual dining restaurants in 16 states. The company, which recently moved its corporate headquarters from Orlando to Aventura, is investing tens of millions of dollars in opening new locations and modernizing existing restaurants.
Its plans currently call for opening a flagship restaurant in Miami-Dade, plus other locations in the Midwest and along the East Coast. The chain opened a new restaurant in Georgia in August, and plans another in Kentucky in October.
Since taking over Smokey Bones Barbecue and Grill nine years ago, the restaurant division of Boca Raton-based Sun Capital Partners (Barbecue Integrated) changed its name to Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill to underscore a new, expanded menu, attract new customers and move the chain away from its former image as a barbecue restaurant with a log cabin décor.
“We are aggressively reinvesting in our locations to modernize our look, but still are making it a comfortable place for families and singles to eat and drink for any occasion,” said Ryan Esko, who took over as Smokey Bones’ president and CEO in August 2015.
“BBQ and smoked food are still key to our expanded menu and we take pride that we have two smokers firing up at all times making fresh food,” he said. Smokey Bones has a varied menu that includes barbecued ribs and other barbecue dishes; grilled steaks, fish and chicken; soups, sandwiches, tacos, salads, signature cocktails and over 50 types of beer.
Smokey Bones decided to choose Aventura for its corporate headquarters as part of its plan “to meet our future growth goals,” said Esko, who has more than 20 years of experience in consumer and retail management and previously served as interim CEO of Smokey Bones. Key factors driving the decision were “Miami’s talent pool, culture, infrastructure and proximity to its investors” [Sun Capital in Boca Raton], he said.
Smokey Bones currently has about 1,000 employees in Florida out of 4,000 overall. In South Florida, it has four locations (Fort Lauderdale, Plantation, Boca Raton and Wellington) and 10 more in other parts of the state. The company’s new headquarters in Aventura employs over 25.
Getting started: The first Smokey Bones was opened in Orlando in 1999 by its original owners, Darden Restaurants. By 2007, Darden had closed some Smokey Bones and sold the remainder of the barbecue chain to the restaurant division of Sun Capital.
The difference: “Our goal is to separate ourselves from the rest by our signature food — slow-smoked or grilled — and our friendly, lively atmosphere with TVs all around the restaurant to catch sporting events” Esko said. “We start out with the best products and take our time preparing them. Our customers tell us that our bar also helps us stand out from other casual restaurants, with our own cocktails and selection of 50-plus beers.”
Moreover, Smokey Bones is convenient for customers who want to arrive anywhere from lunch to a late dinner, he said, with its full kitchen operating and full menu served from 11 a.m. until 2 a.m.
Sales: Technomic Inc., a research and consulting firm specializing in the food industry, reported that Smokey Bones had revenues of $182.2 million in 2015, up from $178.2 million in 2014 for the same number of stores.
On average, a meal costs less than $20 per person, and alcohol is generally less than 30 percent of the entire check, Esko said.
The restaurant division of Sun Capital owns several other brands, including Boston Market and Friendly’s. Its stores have 2,000 locations and reported sales of about $2 billion last year.
Competitors: Esko sees Chili’s, Outback Steakhouse and T.G.I. Friday’s as competitors, but said, “We also compete with any local place that offers customers good food and a good time.” There is also some competition with Boston Market.
Analyst: “Smokey Bones is doing a terrific job with their remodeling, and it’s really turned out to be a good move,” said Andrew Graiser, co-president of A&G Realty Partners, a real estate, consulting and investment group that works with large commercial clients. “Consumer habits have shifted and more people are going to restaurants,” he said. “Smokey Bones has gotten ahead of this change. The company is working in a good segment … it has done well before and will have an even bigger growth story in the future.”
What customers say: Sandee Jewell, a professional photographer who lives in Pompano Beach, is a big fan of the Smokey Bones on North Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale. “I’ve been coming here since it opened, always for lunch and sometimes at night for soup or a drink,” she said.
Among her favorites are grilled salmon, tacos and Brunswick stew, one of their signature soups made with smoked barbecue, sweet corn and tomatoes. “The salmon is remarkably fabulous and their corn bread with walnut butter is drop-dead fabulous,” said Jewell, who often dines at the restaurant with her husband.
While Jewell sometimes eats at Bonefish Grill or Outback, she prefers Smokey Bones. “I love their food and they have extremely fair prices. The staff are always very kind and accommodating, they bring you extras when asked at no charge and you get free refills [on non-alcoholic beverages],” she said. “They’re just nice — and they have coupons.”
Les Cooper, who lives in Mobile, Alabama, was visiting Fort Lauderdale on business, and ordered a mixed plate of baby back ribs and smoked St. Louis ribs at the same Smokey Bones on North Federal Highway. “They were very good … I like the prices and the service,” said Cooper, who works on heavy cranes. “It’s my second time,” he said. He first tried a Smokey Bones in Tampa, enjoyed it and decided to come back.
He also liked the Ziosk ordering tablet at each table, which allows customers to order and pay their bills quickly when in a hurry.
Challenges: Smokey Bones already has a good mix of young people, singles and families, and believes its wide-ranging menu and redesigned locations will appeal to even more.
Outlook: “We’re having a record financial year in 2016, and will have 67 locations in October,” Esko said. But the company’s goal is not just to grow the financial numbers, he said. “We have a strong focus on increasing guest and employee satisfaction.”
Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill
Business: Smokey Bones is a privately held casual dining restaurant chain with 66 locations in 16 states, including four in South Florida and 10 more in other parts of the state. Its ample menu includes barbecued ribs and other barbecue dishes; grilled steaks, fish and chicken; soups, sandwiches, tacos, salads and over 50 types of beer. Founded by Darden Restaurants, the chain was purchased in 2007 by a subsidiary of Boca Raton-based Sun Capital Partners Inc., an international private equity company managing over $9.2 billion in capital. In addition to Smokey Bones, Sun Capital’s restaurant division owns Boston Market, Friendly’s, Johnny Rockets, Bar Louie and other restaurant brands with about 2,000 locations.
Headquarters: 2999 NE 191st St., Aventura.
Founded: In Orlando in 1999 by Darden.
Leadership: Ryan J. Esko, president and CEO.
Employees: More than 25 in Aventura and about 1,000 in Florida, out of nearly 4,000 nationwide.
Ownership: Owned by an affiliate of Boca Raton-based Sun Capital Partners.
Source: Smokey Bones