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Restaurant Hospitality: Carolina Cooking

Restaurant Hospitality: Carolina CookingWith his Red Bone Alley Restaurant and Bar concept, restauranteur Dale Barth is setting out to win over families -- especially those headed by dual-income couples who are prone to dining out regularly.  But Barth says that unlike many family-friendly concepts characterized by uninspired menus, he wanted to create a restaurant that excited the whole family -- not just the kids.

How does an operation appeal to both parties -- kids and parents -- alike, when their tastes are so dichotomous?  Barth theorizes that a successful strategy requires a mixture of upper-end dining panache for the adults as well as plenty of entertainment to keep the children from getting restless.  Therefore, Barth's Red Bone Alley -- named for his daughter's coon hound -- combines kid-pleasing elements like playrooms and real ice cream trucks where children can get dessert, and for the adults, fresh and complex menu offerings, an extensive wine list, live music, and even games for grown-ups.

"We wanted it to be a place that truly appealed to both groups equally -- the whole family," explains Barth.  "It is a place they can agree on, Mom and Dad can have a bottle of wine and fresh fish and have the kids out of their hair for an hour or so."

So far, Barth has opened two units -- the first in Florence, SC, and the second in Columbia.  With a combined lunch and dinner check average of $11.50, each unit produces about $3 million in annual sales.  Each features 225 seats, with another 70 at the bar.  Each Red Bone Alley serves about 5,000 meals each week.

This summer, Barth will open his third location, this time in Sumter, SC.  Thereafter, he plans to launch one or two units a year for the next five years and at a faster pace thereafter.  Expansion will start with the Southeast, then tackle other regions of the US.  Barth is the company's sole proprietor.  He put himself through college working in restaurants, and bought a bankrupt restaurant in the early 1980s at the age of 23.  He morphed the fried chicken joint into an upscale fine dining establishment in Florence, where he enjoyed check averages of $35.  "We were lucky," says Barth, now 40, recounting the long lines and seats available on a reservation-only basis.  But by the mid-1990s, "I got antsy and wanted to do something else," he says.  That's when he got the idea to "bring fine dining and fresh food to the family."

The family-friendly restaurant evokes a "Southern setting," both in food and decor.  With an interior design that could easily be any back alley in historic Charleston -- his favorite city and the concept's inspiration -- Red Bone offers "outdoor dining inside."  Two-story facades of historic buildings flank the "street" and dining area and guests find themselves meandering down a narrow street which runs between townhouses and meandering around a fountain lit by the glow of street lamps.

Menu offerings are consistent with the space and the cuisine that Charleston is best known for.  The menu reflects a growing trend.  Southern cooking is a growing category, according to industry analysis, including the trend-trackers at Technomic, Inc., who call the Lowcountry/Cajun/US Southern category "an emerging cluster to watch."

This regions cuisine is influenced by the many immigrants who settled in the state, and therefore takes its cue from France, the Mediterranean, Africa, and the West Indies.  Red Bone Alley seeks to celebrates this melange, which Barth likes to describe as "New Southern Fusion."  For example, Red Bone Alley's menu includes an egg roll made with collard greens and fresh sausage.  Other menu items reflect classic southern cooking: Lowcountry shrimp and grits and Vidalia onion soup.

Aside from the menu's multi-ethnic orientation, contends Barth, Red Bone Alley's food is truly "South Carolinian" in its respect for freshness, relying on the region's bounty of fruit an vegetables like sweet Vidalia onions, long grain rice, and coastal seafood.  The company purchases its produce from local growers and will continue to do so as it expands, pledges Barth.  And therein lies, he says, his greatest challenge, especially as the company expands: Finding the best purveyors in each market.  "We try to find the best local contacts and use only them," he states.  For example, honey, used in many Red Bone sauces, comes only from members of the South Carolina Beekeepers Association.  Red Bone Alley also uses a local rice grower, and freshly caught seafood purchased by his staff each morning at coastal pack houses.

"Charleston chefs are the best in the country," Barth Says.  "We're trying to take that approach -- that commitment to freshness -- to a larger volume, family oriented restaurant," he says.  Indeed, it is not a new approach, but, it is unique for a restaurant that bills itself as a "family dining" establishment and serves 5 to 6,000 customers each week.  It is that volume that makes up for Red Bone Alley's food costs, which are higher than most of the casual dining segment -- about 36 percent.

Red Bone's first unit opened in a leased space in a mall in Florence, SC.  The second is a free-standing unit in Columbia, whose building and property the company owns.  The third will open in July and, like the first, occupy leased mall space.  The expanding portfolio of properties will continue to combine existing leased spaces (including enclosed malls and strip malls), and free-standing units the company itself builds.  All units will be around 8,500 square feet in size.

"We will open one to two a year over the next five years," says Barth, who adds that one of his current tasks is to put together a group of executives to operate the growing company.  Although current plans are to cover the Carolinas (Charlotte, NC will open next year) and Georgia, Barth says, "I actually want to grow it out of the South."

The units "will differ a bit depending on the real estate but regain basic core similarities," says Barth.  "It depends on each market and the specifics of the location." Each will feature enough volume to allow for double-level seating and the two-story townhouse facades that flank the street scene dining rooms.

Costs to open each new freestanding unit are about $2 million, including land for freestanding properties, and about $800,000 for converting an existing leased space.  Leased space, by the way, has been easy to come by since its Florence opening revitalizing a failing mall.

Barth is choosing markets using the criteria of 50,000 to 100,000 residents within a 20 minute drive -- what Barth calls a big fish in a small pond approach.  "We want to establish a base in smaller towns and in the residential communities the big chains haven't hit," he says.

Capital thus far has come from traditional banking, and Barth has enjoyed what he calls "aggressive" backing because "the cash flow is considerable so far." At four units, he says he envisions selling off a small portion -- 15 to 20% -- of the business to raise the capital to "take us from four units to ten."

"I think it can become very big," he says.  "Our approach -- serious food in a family environment, I think, is unique.  So the sky's the limit."