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Yellow Rocket Partners Aim to Build Restaurant Brands

6 min read

Yet another day of wintry mix has resulted in one interview cancellation and an interview relocation, and the partners of Yellow Rocket Concepts, the Little Rock restaurant group, look tired, even the ebullient Scott McGehee. They’ve had to wake even earlier than usual to warm up four-wheel-drive vehicles and make plans to transport ice-bound employees to work.

Their restaurants may open late, but once they do and once the roads are passable, their hungry, cabin-fevered customers will be headed to Big Orange Midtown, Big Orange West, Local Lime, ZaZa (Little Rock and Conway) or Lost Forty Brewing. And despite the weather, these successful businesses must stay on their game because, in partner Russ McDonough’s words, “It all matters.”

“All” includes food, service, location, décor, glassware, the typography of the menus — everything.

And though he didn’t say it, it all matters all the time because when you’re building a brand, and that’s exactly what Yellow Rocket is doing, consistency is key. Consistently providing high-quality food in a casually hip atmosphere, Yellow Rocket’s five restaurants last year brought in $10.8 million in food sales alone, almost $1 million more if mixed-drink sales are added.

That total is on pace to rise with the opening of the Lost Forty Tap Room in December and the planned opening of Heights Taco & Tamale in April. And that, of course, doesn’t include sales of beer manufactured by Lost Forty, which began selling its brews in the fall.

“We do about the same companywide as two Chick-fil-As,” a laughing McGehee says self-deprecatingly. “If people think we’re trying to just own the market, that’s not the case.”

He’s right to note the dominance of the national brands, though Chick-fil-A didn’t do quite the business McGehee gave the company credit for. The top two in Little Rock rang up about $8.5 million in food sales in 2014.

But the success of Yellow Rocket is real and marked. Big Orange Midtown, for example, sits comfortably at No. 16 on the list of top-selling Little Rock restaurants, flanked by a global chain, McDonald’s, and a regional chain, Cantina Laredo. Once Heights Taco is fully staffed, the company will employ 400 people.

The Plan

The Yellow Rocket partnership of McGehee, McDonough and John Beachboard has a five-year plan and it doesn’t necessarily include franchising.

“I think ideally we would like to open two to three restaurants a year for the next five years,” McDonough says. “The brewery may slow that down some because it’s fairly capital-intensive, and we think we have a good opportunity to grow there as well.

“I think we would like to own rather than franchise,” he said. “I think we would much prefer to own 20 restaurants than have 100 franchises just because we’re very hands-on and we like to control the whole experience.”

Next location for a Yellow Rocket restaurant? Northwest Arkansas and/or Tulsa, the partners say, though they decline to share a schedule. And after all, that two or three restaurants a year timeline may be a little optimistic, particularly when “it all matters.”

As McGehee notes after joining Beachboard and McDonough at a table on the patio of Local Lime, “There’s also — just putting it out there — there’s a full-time job just every day in the restaurant business making everything more exceptional, which is something that we’re going to spend 75 percent of our time on forever.”

And McDonough relents a little: “If that means opening one restaurant a year or one every other year, we’ll do that. Our focus is first and foremost on the restaurants we already have.”

So quality first?

Absolutely, the three say in unison.

“We are chef-driven,” McDonough says. “You know, I think that’s the most unique part of our restaurant group. It all matters. The customer service matters, the location, the décor. But I think we’re chef-driven first and foremost, so our food quality is our calling card.”

(Also see: Yellow Rocket Concepts Combine Partnerships)

The Look

The partners credit Amber Brewer with the look and ambiance of the Yellow Rocket enterprises. As brand manager, she’s responsible for “creating all visual elements you see associated with our store brands,” as her resume notes. It’s a key role in a company bent on building a brand.

Brewer, who is married to Beachboard, has worked as an art director and graphic designer with stints at CJRW and Arkansas Business Publishing Group.

Brewer says she bases the look of a restaurant on the food that will be served and on understanding the core concept of the menu and the “tastes and desires of our anticipated guests.”

In addition, she says, the “flow of food, drink and guests is also a big consideration. How food exits the kitchen, how it enters the building; how drinks leave the bar and dishes get to the dishwasher; how guests get to the bathroom from any seat.” It all comes under her scrutiny.

And Brewer understands that how a restaurant and its food photographs is an essential consideration in these days of social media and smartphones with cameras. “It’s really important to select colors and finishes that look great with the food but that also complement the people filling the space.

“We also handle all of our social media in-house — it’s a huge group effort. That means that all of our food is photographed onsite, so having areas set up to facilitate that with good light and finishes is critical.”

What’s Next?

The partners don’t have a definite answer to the “what comes after Heights Taco?” question. Beachboard says they’re mulling a number of concepts, all different and not in the ZaZa, Big Orange or Local Lime genre.

“When I came on board, I thought the idea was to take your best one or two restaurants and build 50 of them,” McDonough says. “And what John and Scott, I think, have convinced me of is that we do best fitting concepts to the location. We stay energized and creative by doing new things. And there are some other restaurant groups out there in the country that rather than having 50 of one restaurant, they may have 15 different concepts. And I get it.”

There are several restaurant groups the three admire, among them Fox Restaurant Concepts of Phoenix, a chain with more than a dozen concepts across 40 restaurants. Also Buckhead Life Restaurant Group of Atlanta and Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises of Chicago, which has more than 100 restaurants.

McGehee likes in particular Zingerman’s Community of Businesses of Ann Arbor, Michigan, a restaurant group that includes a deli, restaurant, bakery, catering, coffee, candy, mail-order and more. The New York Times last year put the company’s combined annual sales at $50 million.

The Yellow Rocket partners don’t have a firm annual revenue goal. McDonough says, “As long as we’re profitable and we’re enjoying it, I think we’ll keep growing.”

As for McGehee:

“I want to have the ability to be creative and have fun, but also be a part of the community, a part not only of the greater community but also the restaurant community. We don’t want to take over the world. We don’t want to put people out of business. We want to have a few great restaurants in the market and be a part of the community.”

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