Foodfight expands its Southern Wisconsin battleground

Foodfight expands its Southern Wisconsin battlegroundMADISON, WIS. -- With eight dining operations up and running and a ninth in development, multiunit restaurateur Foodfight Inc. is battling for an increasingly larger share of the dining pie around this capital city.

Through the new project local consumers also are likely to enjoy a larger share of pie--literally--as Foodfight chairman Peder Moren, president Monty Schiro and vice president Pare Grimmer plan to combine their latest concept, Market Street Diner in Sun Prairie, Wis., with a wholesale bakery and drive-thru service. The company has slated an October debut for that 120-seat restaurant and bakery, said Schiro.

What began 15 years ago as Monty's Blue Plate Diner, a 70-seat gas station conversion, will produce approximately $12 million in revenues in 2005 from eight restaurants, with per-person check averages ranging from $8 to $51, Schiro said. In addition, two years ago Foodfight acquired its purchasing group, Buy Right Purchasing, and now negotiates pricing on foodstuffs, small wares and other foodservice items for approximately 44 restaurants in Southern Wisconsin, Moren noted.

Following a model set years ago by organizations like Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Foodfight has built a portfolio of restaurant concepts that to the casual observer does not appear to be a chain. Each restaurant is a separate limited-liability corporation with a distinct concept and mix of investment partners, some of whom are operators in the restaurant.

As Moren explained, the company's driving philosophy is to "decentralize authority as much as you can and put it in the hands of the operator." Moren, Schiro and three other partners--Joe Krupp, Diana Grove and Connie Maxwell--own shares in all of the restaurants. Moren divides his time between Food-fight and M & M Real Estate Investments, a development company with offices adjoining those of Foodfight. Krupp, Grove and Maxwell sit on the board and participate in monthly strategic-planning sessions but are not involved in day-to-day operations, Schiro said.

Among the group's 350 employees, 20 have ownership interest in the restaurants. But, Schiro observed, "there is no real formula for managers who want to invest." Like the restaurant concepts themselves, which have evolved for a variety of reasons that range from tapping a talented staff member's creativity to filling a dining void in the local market, restaurant ownership has unfolded in a number of ways, Schiro said.

"Sometimes [the employees] pay, sometimes they earn units through sweat equity --literally helping with the build-out," he explained. "In the case of chef-managers, sometimes they earn units through menu development."

The siblings to Monty's Blue Plate Diner in the Foodfight collection are Italian dinnerhouse Luna Caffd; casual, eclectic Bluephies: Asian-fusion concept Firefly; steakhouse Johnny Delmonico's; Southwestern-spiced Eldorado Grill; seafood specialist Ocean Grill: and pie-centric Hubbard Avenue Diner.

Many of the restaurants prominently feature desserts and pastries, a nod to Schiro's affiliation with the seminal 1970s and 1980s Madison bakery-cafe chain Ovens of Brittany, which also launched the careers of former UEtoile owner Odessa Piper and others. Several of Schiro's coworkers followed him to Foodfight, says Madison-based cookbook author and columnist Terese Allen, who calls Schiro's company "the next generation" of the Ovens family.

But Allen was quick to point out that Foodfight has not expanded by reproducing one successful concept. "Foodfight has the best of both worlds," she noted. "It can benefit from centralized [services], like accounting and staffing, but each place is different. They've been very smart about making each one individual."

The company intends to continue its pace of growth, adding a new unit every 18 to 24 months, Grimmer said. However, Schiro countered, "I wouldn't want to pick up [the growth rate], but I don't know if we can help it. It's hard not to have ideas."

Still, the two recalled the growing pains the company experienced in late 2003 when it had two relatively young restaurants --year-old Ocean Grill and month-old Firefly--making their ways at the same time the partners chose to reconcept the former Pasta Per Tutti into Luna Caffe. "At this point, we have to be judicious," Schiro affirmed.

As the company has grown, officials also have walked away from projects, such as their Blue Plate Catering company, which was sold to an employee. In addition, the assets for Luigi's, an Italian concept that opened in the city center in 1997, were spun off in 2004, although Foodfight retained the name and concept, Grimmer noted. And a foray into the art-framing business also was abandoned, Moren said.

The members of Foodfight's creative team may not be innovators at the national level, but they have brought new ideas and concepts to Madison, Allen explained. "Whoever is doing it--and I think Monty is behind most of these--knows food and loves food," he said. "They watch the scene; they're on the scene, Monty and his folks have their fingers on what's working nation ally and can translate it to Madison," Allen explained.

The partners agree they will have challenges with their next venue as they attempt to use a drive-thru service for orders placed via phone or fax to the restaurant. But they underscore the need to innovate in order to stay ahead of the competition.

"I'm wondering how [the market] will shake out," Moren pondered out loud. "In 2004, on a per capita basis, there were in the range of 2.5 times as many restaurants as there had been in 1990. Something has to give."