What do you get when you combine the nearly inexhaustible drive of a pair of young brothers, numerous awards, and a 95-year history that made a remarkable impact on the restaurant industry in America?
You get Regas Restaurant, which was the oldest and one of the most award-winning restaurants in Tennessee — and its former owner, industry veteran Bill Regas.
Regas Restaurant not only triumphed over nearly a century, but it and its partner restaurant Grady’s also mentored industry greats such as Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s; Mike Connor, President & CEO of Connor Concepts; and Richard L. Federico, CEO of P.F. Chang’s. To learn the secrets to the Regas Restaurant legacy’s success, we spoke with Regas about what it takes to make it in the restaurant industry, how to keep your business relevant, and when it’s the right time to make a change.
How a Restaurant Icon Is Created
Although it started out looking very different from the place Tennesseans came to know as the location for a romantic dinner or celebration, the original Regas Restaurant began with its own amazing story: one about a young Greek immigrant who came to America and started from scratch.
“When [my father, Regas co-founder Frank Regas] was 14 years old, he was a little mischievous,” said Regas. “His dad asked him, ‘What would it take for you to be a good boy?’ And [Frank] said, ‘Well, loan me enough money to go to the States.’”
Convinced, the elder Regas loaned his son $100 for the transport from Greece to New York. Shortly after he arrived, Frank Regas started working in the restaurant industry, handling everything from dishwashing to serving tables, and eventually opening a successful diner in Knoxville with his brother, Gus.
This story of moving from dishwasher to owner is one that many in the restaurant industry are familiar with — but it’s what the Regas family did with these beginnings that created a true legacy in Tennessee and beyond.
One of the most important of these decisions came about 40 years after the restaurant’s founding, when the younger Regas took over for his father and uncle. It had become clear that the diner was no longer meeting the level of business the family expected, necessitating a new direction.
“We would do a big lunch business, but at night we didn’t do enough,” said Regas. “So we got [the restaurant] remodeled in flat paint and put candles on the tables. We didn’t want an expensive reputation, so we called it ‘upscale,’ what you’d call ‘upscale casual’ now. We wanted it to be warm and romantic, not stiff and formal. That was our market.”
It was the success of this and many other renovations — and his father’s concentration on always keeping abreast of the direction industry was headed — that inspired Regas’s number one rule of maintaining a successful restaurant: always be willing to change.
Below, we detail more of Regas’s advice for how to make your restaurant last 95 years — or even longer.
The Regas Rules for Restaurants
1. Renovate at Least Every 8 to 10 Years
According to Regas, every restaurant — even those that have been successful in their area for decades — needs to update themselves “at least every 8 to 10 years.”
“My dad would go to the restaurant shows about every 2 or 3 years and see the latest equipment and the latest philosophy of operating restaurants,” said Regas. “He always wanted to be sort of on the cutting edge … [and] that’s what we tried to do.”
Although you do want to capitalize on restaurant trends, Regas warns that it can be all too easy to fall into the trap of a short-lived craze.
“You know, a lot of people go out of business on a fad,” said Regas. Instead, he advises to “see what’s happening around you. See what’s happening nationally, [but remember] where you’re located and what you’re trying to do. ”
2. Change Can Be Bad, If Done for the Wrong Reasons
Although change is a necessary part of staying relevant, some changes can prove devastating for your restaurant. Regas recalled when his own Grady’s chain, founded with partner Mike Connor, fell into just such a situation.
The original concept was a restaurant that, despite being in the casual dining niche, distinguished itself from typical chain restaurants, said Regas. “[Grady’s] was not just a regular box type of building. It had a lot of character to it, with stone and a lot of woods. We wanted people to feel it was upscale from the mass casual service.”
When combined with fresh, high-quality food and Regas’s signature, friendly staff, this concept proved very popular. But after being purchased, expanded to 50 locations, and changed to increase profit margins, the restaurant’s brand lost what made it initially successful.
“They made so many changes and they tried to use a concept that was easier and less costly, and it caused the popularity to go down.”
The lesson learned? Always consider the customer’s entire experience, from the hostess stand to the final bill. According to Regas, the best way to do so is to build an entire company culture around just that principle.
3. Concentrate on Authenticity, Culture, and the Customer
When asked to identify the one reason so many successful restaurateurs came from his legacy, Regas didn’t even hesitate: for his companies, culture is king.
“Running a business is a lot like sports,” said Regas. “You have different cultures with different philosophies on how to make the best team. So many times you get some CEO or stern leader who makes it more like the military — ‘Don’t ask any questions, just do what I say’ — [but] that doesn’t work too well.”
Instead, Regas concentrated on building a family within his company and making work fun. He cites another famous restaurateur who followed this same example, and built a dynasty doing so: S. Truett Cathy.
“[Some] young people really liked working at [Chick-Fil-A] because of [founder Truett Cathy’s] respect for people,” Regas said. “When you ask for something a little unusual and you say, ‘Thank you for getting that for me,’ they say, ‘It’s my pleasure.’ You’d think you’re at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. At some drive-ins, you just maybe get a grunt.”
It’s the combination of that level of care and enthusiasm with great offerings that creates an extra-special experience for everyone who visits, he said.
“If the food is good, and the service is great, and the evening is fun, and the team members are friendly, and you get called by your name — and the servers even know what your favorite food is or your favorite drink is — it really makes a difference,” said Regas.
4. There’s No Such Thing as Failure
Part of creating the culture at his own restaurants was creating a new language to be used by both Regas and his team. In addition to calling his employees team members and his customers guests — “because we wanted to treat them like guests in our own home” — they developed an acronym system that perfectly characterized their culture.
The most important message in their acronym language? Failure is just life experience in disguise.
“We wanted to be B&D, which is ‘better and different,’” said Regas. “C&O is ‘common and ordinary.’ You don’t want to be that. And there’s not such a thing as failure, it’s a CBE: a ‘character building experience.’ [There are] no failures around here, just CBEs.”
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