Lazy Dog Leads the Pack of Next-Generation Casual Chains
Fifteen years ago, Chris Simms had an epiphany. Casual dining, as it stood for decades, wasn’t going to last into the 21st century. As millennials matured and rushed into the consumer pool, you could wave goodbye to the bargaining chip known as nostalgia. Been around since the 1960s? Today’s guest can forget as quickly as their parents could remember. That’s why Simms chose to build his brand on values, innovation, and authenticity, and the notion that imperfect is the real perfect when it comes the next generation of casual dining. Simms and his father tossed aside the pre-prepared and microwaved past of chain brands and debuted Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar in Huntington Beach, California, in 2003.
Since then, Lazy Dog has expanded its Rocky Mountain-inspired vibe to 26 locations throughout California, Colorado, Nevada, and Texas, with more are on the way. The concept was No. 7 on Fishbowl’s annual list of emerging chains this year.
The company revealed to FSR on May 15 its immediate plans—four new stores set to open later this year: the Chicago suburb of Vernon Hills, Illinois; Fresno and Newark, California; and Arlington, Texas.
The Chicago-area location will be in the new upscale Mellody Farm mixed-use retail center at 1111 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Vernon Hills. The Fresno restaurant will be open in the Villagio Shopping Center at 7965 N. Blackstone Ave., and the Newark restaurant will be located just outside the NewPark Mall at 3100 Newpark Mall, Fresno. The Arlington, Texas, unit will be in the Arlington Highlands shopping center at 241 E. Interstate 20 Highway. Each restaurant will hire about 200 employees
Like usual, the 8,000-square-foot spaces will feature sizable dog-friendly patios complete with outdoor fire pits and lounge areas.
Simms took some time to chat with FSR about Lazy Dog’s expansion plans, and what separates the emerging chain from the pack.
What’s the elevator pitch of how Lazy Dog came to be?
We started the concept about 15 years ago. The first restaurant was in Huntington Beach, California. What I saw at the time was that casual dining was becoming much more profit focused. And with that came changes to the menu, changes to the way food was prepared. Where a lot of stuff was being pre-prepared and microwaved to order. I just felt like casual dining was headed in that direction, but the guest was headed in the opposite direction. All of sudden we started seeing cooking shows become popular. The Food Network became huge. Whole Foods. Trader Joe’s. And so, I looked at my dad, who is my partner and was helping me come up with the concept, and I said, ‘You know, there is going to come a time where the millennial population is going to come into their casual dining years.’ And while at the same time, I feel like the Baby Boomers are going to become more interested in where their food is coming from and how it’s being prepared. So we created Lazy Dog on the premise that we really felt like there needed to be a next generation of casual dining.
What does this next generation of casual dining look like?
That next generation of casual dining is all about scratch cooking, making food in-house, by hand. Responsibly sourced and carefully sourced products. And then offering a menu that is not only based in recognizable, comfortable cuisine, but also has bold innovations. When we look at the popularity of our items, in each category there’s one of those craveable classics that I call a comfort food that you just can’t get enough of, that you’ve grown up with, but we do it really well. At the same point, in each category we have this bold innovation that people really can’t find anywhere else. Flavor profiles like Vietnamese. Interesting combinations. All kinds of good stuff. We based the concept on that, and then packaged it up in this warm, yet edgy Rocky Mountain theme.
Where does that inspiration stem from?
I spent a lot of my childhood up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. When it came time to pick what we wanted the décor to look like, I said we’ve got to do something close to the heart and genuine. Jackson Hole became a natural choice to base the décor off. And then on top of that we serve it up with small-town hospitality. Very customized. Very caring. Very warm. Very gracious. We really enable our teams to do what feels best. We treat people like there a guest in their home.
Talk about the growth plans.
We’ve been growing at about 20 percent per year over the last few years. We ventured into Dallas. We ventured into Denver. We ventured into Sacramento. Northern California. Las Vegas. And we’ve been extremely happy with the results. One of the scariest things for a restaurateur when you take your baby to a new state is whether that new state is going to accept your baby or not. I’ve been so happy to see the responses that we’ve gotten from the neighborhoods that we’ve gone into as we’ve ventured into these markets. I’m very excited to get into some new markets moving forward. We’re kind of dipping our toe into Chicago. We’re looking at D.C. We’re looking at Atlanta. We’re looking at Florida. We’re really, really looking to take our concept across the nation and offer our experience to people all over the U.S.
What sells you on a new location?
We definitely like to find places where there’s a lot of energy, a lot of traffic, a lot of people moving around. Typically the causes for that, the drivers of that traffic, are places to work. You have offices and office complexes. There are definitely always some retail component to it. There’s always some entertainment involved. I find when those three pieces come together, matched with great residential, it really is a perfect recipe for our restaurants.
Paint a picture of the next five years for Lazy Dog.
I think the biggest thing, the rule that I live by—is that the only way that we’re able to continue growing the number of restaurants in our company is if the guest experience we offer in the existing restaurants continues to grow, continues to improve. And so I have our teams very much focused on improving that guest experience and continuing to do so, so that I can constantly move the company forward and grow the number of restaurants into new markets. I’ve seen many concepts grow too fast, and then the existing restaurants pay the price. I really want to stay away from falling into that trap. I want to make sure that we grow wisely and prudently. And then we do it in a way that existing guest gets to experience a better and better experience every year. By the end of this year we should have about 30 restaurants. Then we’ll continue growing at a 20 percent pace as we move into the new markets.
What are some of the challenges and roadblocks ahead?
I think the biggest challenge that I see is being able to grow the company while keeping the culture of the company alive and well. I think as you bring people from other restaurant companies into the fold to work, you run the risk of having them bring other habits and other cultures into Lazy Dog. I spend a lot of my time focused on how to make sure we are able to maintain the culture of our company, keep it strong, and even strengthen it moving forward so that we can deliver on the guest experience that our guests have come to expect. That’s one of my primary focuses as we move forward. I find that if we can keep that culture strong and healthy, everything else falls into place. Whether that’s guest experience or strong sales, great profitability, or happy investors. I find that a good, strong culture based on our founding principles really leads to success across the board.
Let’s return to the menu at Lazy Dog. You mentioned the idea of innovation paired with comfort favorites. How do you accomplish that?
I think the greatest inspiration for us was the fact that that’s what I loved about dining. We describe ourselves as hand-crafted American food. But when it comes down to it, it is amazing how diverse the American palate has become, and the diverse cuisine that’s available. What has become the norm these days is amazing. (Check out Lazy Dog's spring menu). As we looked at creating this current American selection for our menu, it was very apparent that we needed to have all kinds of flavors. When you go to Jackson Hole, I’ll tell you, there are probably more Thai restaurants then there are barbecue spots. The mountain communities are very diverse. It’s very interesting. A lot of those cuisines tend to be a little bit healthier. Living in the mountains and being in the outdoors you’re looking for something that’s maybe a little lighter and healthier. That also went into our overall menu as well.
Explain this mountain vibe.
We wanted to blow people away with it. We wanted to take them into the spirit of the mountains. As we look at our dishes, we want to make sure that we are representing that lifestyle. Typically what you will see is a lot of our presentations are rustic. We use iron skillets and rustic bowls. Therefore, you’re going to see a very handcrafted feel to everything that we do. One of those ideas is that perfect is imperfect. We want things to look like they’re hand-cut because they are hand-cut. We want things to look like they’ve been hand-tossed or hand-mixed. And it’s funny, for some reason a lot of the restaurants have really gotten into pre-processed, pre-cut vegetables. We want our stuff to be imperfect. We want it to be rustic. We want it to be made by hand. That’s a very common theme as you look through all of our items.
What makes Lazy Dog stand out as a restaurant company?
I think it’s the people-first culture that we have and when I say people first I mean both guests and employees, and even vendors and investors. We don’t allow the bottom line to drive all of our decisions but instead we stay very focused on the guest and the teammate. The result is an experience in our restaurants that is richer, deeper, more customized. It’s definitely a very different experience than what people can get for roughly the same amount of money in a lot of our competition. That’s what we’re seeing. People can’t believe what they’re getting for the money when they come in. I think that’s the difference. I think there is an authenticity that is incredibly important today, far more than it’s ever been. Lazy Dog is a very authentic concept with a real story, a real team, and a real family that serves real food with real hospitality. And I think that’s the real differentiator when it comes to the other choices our guests have.