Oh, give me a home

In January 2002, Ted Turner, former Time Warner-AOL vice chairman, partnered with restaurant entrepreneur George McKerrow to launch Ted’s Montana Grill.

The chain of eight restaurants began operations with its first location in Columbus. That’s not surprising when you consider that both Turner and McKerrow are familiar with the Ohio market — Turner grew up in Cincinnati, and McKerrow graduated from The Ohio State University.

And while the restaurant business may appear to be outside Turner’s realm of expertise, he says the opposite is true.

“It’s all about happy customers,” says Turner. “That’s what television viewers and restaurant customers have in common. If they’re not happy, they won’t tune in or come back.”

So far, customers and critics alike are happy. Ted’s Montana Grill was named Best New Concept for 2003 by Nation’s Restaurant News, and sales are brisk. And there are plans in the works to open an additional Columbus location at Polaris, and possibly in the Easton area and at Tuttle Crossing.

Then Turner and McKerrow will consider opening a Ted’s Montana Grill in Cincinnati. They plan to double the number of locations every year, opening six in the first year, 12 this year, 24 next year, and so on.

The restaurant business is a good fit for Turner’s business portfolio because it allows him to sell the bison he raises on his Montana ranch.

“Turner’s ranch is one of the largest commercial bison ranches in the world,” says McKerrow — and bison figures prominently on the restaurant’s menu.

Smart Business sat down with Turner and McKerrow to discuss the restaurant chain and their plans for its growth.

Of all the restaurant locations, which is doing the best, and why?

Turner: I think the one that’s grossing the most is in Littleton, Colo., by a little bit. They’re all doing well, but Littleton has been the most successful.

Denver is where the National Bison Association is headquartered. It’s been historically the center of the bison industry. It’s right out there in the middle of the Rocky Mountain time zone where the bison are most prevalent.

McKerrow: The No. 1 consumption of bison in the country has been in Denver for some time and continues to be. We happened to hit on a great location in an upscale lifestyle center. People have been coming since the day we opened.

In our business, we try to guess which locations will work. Sometimes a location is less busy than you expect, others are super busy. Ted had a party there with all his cable buddies, and that started the location off right.

How does Columbus fit in to the picture?

McKerrow: Columbus does well as our first location downtown. It’s sporadic; all of our downtown locations are. We’re in downtown Denver, and we’ll be in downtown Atlanta shortly.

It’s an event-driven restaurant down there. When there are events — like when the Dixie Chicks were in town — we had hundreds of people waiting out the door and around the corner. And then we do routine casual business at night. Lunch is very consistent.

This restaurant’s brand new. We never told anyone we were here. Unfortunately, the city wasn’t very cooperative with signage, so we don’t have a lot of street visibility.

We’re hoping people continue to find us.

We are growing sales here every day. Columbus is right on target — it’s not exceeding, but it’s not under target. And the downtown location is busier than it was last year.

Turner: We’re learning, as a lot of other restaurants have, that the suburbs are generally a more fertile area for casual dining business than an industrial business area downtown, which is, to a large extent, vacant at night when people go home.

But we’re still successful, even in those locations. It’s just that the grosses aren’t quite as high as when you’re closer to where people live. It’s a lot easier for them to jump in the car and drive a couple of blocks instead of a couple of miles.

Are there plans to expand in Columbus?

McKerrow: We are opening a new location at Polaris, and we’re looking actively in the Easton area and Tuttle Crossing. After that, we’ll look at Cincinnati. Over time, I suspect, we’ll have six to eight restaurants in the Columbus area — over time.

You have plans to grow very quickly. What are the risks associated with such fast growth?

Turner: Acquiring and training people properly, which is true of just about any business that is expanding.

McKerrow: We started a centralized training facility in Atlanta. It’s university style training … Typically, restaurants offer in-store training, with the new teaching the new.

With our approach, we hope our people will grow into a culture of success — with high standards. We want to be leaders in the industry and to have a place where people can have fun and know they are respected. At the training facility, Ted can be there and I can be there more regularly and inspire these people.

We hope our people will feel good about what they’re doing, work harder and be more successful. We’ve made a big investment in that university.

Who was your mentor?

Turner: My Dad. I worked for him when I was going to school. I started working for him when I was 12 years old, and in the summer I worked at his billboard business in every area. I was a full-time employee.

He paid me 20 cents an hour under minimum wage. I learned a lot. By the time I was 21, 22, I knew the billboard business inside and out, every facet of it.

Businesses have an awful lot in common. Basically it’s the same philosophy: Customers come first, work hard, provide a great service at a competitive price, and then service the daylights out of your customers so they’re always happy that they’re getting great service.

That’s the only way you can be successful over time.

McKerrow: It’s not much different here. The only difference for us is we order, receive, manufacture, produce and collect for our product all in one day. Other than that, we follow the same principles as any other business.

Turner: The common thing is happy customers. That’s something that television viewers and restaurant customers have in common. If they’re not happy, they won’t turn you on and they won’t be back.

Who are your closest competitors?

Turner: Nobody and everybody. Because every restaurant is a competitor. But no one has the niche that we do. We’ve got the authentic Old West motif, and we feature bison.

We have all the other stuff too. But we’ve got a niche and we’re all fresh. There are others that use fresh ingredients, but they’re all chef-driven and very expensive. At our price point, we’re the only restaurant I know of.

McKerrow: At the end of the day it’s this — we did try to create a niche. That’s what I did with LongHorn Steakhouse. Just like what Ted did at CNN. It wasn’t that news wasn’t being broadcast, he just did it a different way.

That’s what we’re doing here. We’re trying to do it a different way, and we’re trying to do it better than anyone else. That’s what we have in common. We both like to win, and we like to do things better than anyone else, and we’re driven to get that done.

Turner: Here, here! I couldn’t have said it better myself.