Wednesday, January 20, 2010

My pick for Best Turnaround Story

If Kona Grill’s past year had been recorded in 3-D, people would be bailing out of “Avatar” to catch the more engrossing tale.

The story could’ve been lifted from a Hollywood western: A frontier boss decides he’s going to make his own rules, public be damned. In this case, that includes selling a million shares of stock to his father at a sweetheart price to raise working capital after cutting the staff. Meanwhile, the easterners on Wall Street worry about how this range lord is running the ranch they’ve staked. Shots are exchanged, albeit verbally, when they ask for an accounting during a routine phone chat with management. You could almost hear the derringers being cocked.

Enter our hero, his white hat almost glistening. Marc Buehler, best known as the marketing sure-shot who deftly used his spurs at Applebee’s, is brought in as the new honcho to fix the muck-up that the 24-unit chain had become.

He starts assembling a posse to run off the fusion concept’s problems. Because bar business is essential to Kona, Buehler recruits Rachel Phillips-Luther, a former hand at the Chammps and Fox & Hounds sports-bar chains, to serve as vice president of marketing and brand innovation.

The appointment came after one of the last key figures from the last regime, an operations specialist, had been sent galloping into the sunset.

If you want to go get a refill on the popcorn, I’ll wait.

Yesterday, Buehler showed what kind of firepower he intends to put behind Kona, a concept old enough to need some updating. This time his lariat fell on Larry Ryback, president and chief operating officer of Dean Vlahos’ Redstone American Grill, one of the most popular and admired concepts at the high end of casual dining. Ryback is serving Kona, characterized by Buehler as “polished casual,” as senior vice president of operations.

Now comes the hard work of proving the viability of Kona, a decidedly quirky fusion concept. Its signatures include a sushi bar, a 2,000-gallon aquarium, a hopping bar, a menu that stretches from pizza to noodle dishes, and 40 made-from-scratch sauces. “We have a saucier in every restaurant,” Buehler recently boasted to investors.

Buehler has suggested that those idiosyncrasies will serve Kona well by differentiating the brand from other casual concepts, or what he calls “a sea of sameness” featuring “a lot of brown food on plates.”

Yet he also notes that Kona is popular with consumers aged 21 to 35, hardly the older, more affluent customers sought by other upscale concepts like Seasons 52. Checks average $24, and units are typically running “north of $4 million” in annual sales, says Buehler.

With only 24 restaurants, the chain also lacks the marketing wherewithal of competitors. Those stores are also scatter-gunned across 15 states, so even pocket marketing is a challenge.

Instead, Buehler says he’ll rely on social media and word-of-mouth. His revised team is in the process of forming a new loyalty marketing program, a club for “Konavores.”

He also plans to blaze new opportunities for Kona in catering, delivery and takeout, while opening only one restaurant in 2010.

The job has to be a daunting one. But the dramas leading into it have made this one of my favorite turnaround efforts to watch.

After all, would the Na’vi dare to combine sushi with calamari, meatloaf and a swimming-pool sized aquarium?

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