By TED CARTER
Call them the four Amerigos.
A partnership formed at Amerigo years ago has led David Conn, Doug Hogrefe, Ben Brock and Paul Schramkowski to create a casual dining enterprise on track to reach sales of $30 million annually, pay off its debt and open two additional restaurants in the fall.
They seek simplicity over complex market analyses, preferring to rely on their own instincts in selecting restaurant concepts and finding attractive locations. They’ve had all winners so far, the partners say, and have doubled company revenues since taking over the Italian-themed Amerigo restaurants in Jackson, Memphis and Nashville and the Char steakhouse in Jackson.
“In general, we open restaurants we like to eat at,” said Hogrefe, who works in Nashville, where the partnership has put in two Amerigo restaurants, the high-end restaurant Etch and a soon-to-open concept restaurant to be called Truss.
Their restaurants reflect “a pretty broad set of tastes” among the four partners, Hogrefe said.
“We have a range from casual Mexican (Sombra Mexican Kitchen in Ridgeland) to the extreme fine dining Etch in Nashville,” Hogrefe said. “We kind of run the gamut from $15 checkouts to $70 checkouts.”
The partners got their start in the restaurant business a couple decades or so ago at Ridgeland’s Amerigo as a busser (Conn), servers (Brock and Hogrefe) and chef (Schramkowski).
Today, they own four Amerigo restaurants – the one in Ridgeland, one in Memphis and two in Nashville. In November, the partners will open the fifth of the Italian cuisine restaurants in Flowood.
“With our brand recognition, we ought to do quite well,” Conn said of the 250-seat Amerigo the partners are preparing to open in the Market Street Center at Lakeland Drive and Old Fannin Road, a location that gets 50,000 vehicles a day.
Expansions beyond this fall are likely to come with new Amerigo locations in Nashville and Char restaurants in Memphis and Nashville, Conn said.
“Char and Etch are our revenue drivers, followed right behind by Amerigo.”
The emphasis on further expansion comes from expectations new restaurants can achieve the annual double-digit sales growth of the current restaurants – numbers “well above national averages,” especially in the high-end casual dining category, Conn added.
The Amerigo restaurants and Char mark the early part of the group’s history. Along the way, the lineup has expanded to include Sombra and the French-American cuisine Anjour Restaurant in Ridgeland.
More recently, the partners have backed Chef Jessie Houston’s oyster bar Saltine in Fondren.
Jackson’s Conn is the longest serving of the restaurateurs, having started at Amerigo as a waiter while in college and rising to general manager by 1987. It was there that Conn met his future partners.
By the late 1990s, Brock and Hogrefe had joined Conn as Amerigo general managers. Brock ran the Memphis location and Hogrefe one in Nashville.
In the meantime, Conn branched out on his own to take ownership of Country Fisherman restaurants in Mendenhall and Prentiss. Selling them both at a moment that he says came as “perfect timing,” Conn joined Brock, Hogrefe and Schramkowski – by then a Char chef – in acquiring the corporately owned Amerigo restaurants and Char, both of which were in receivership.
The partners refinanced the Amerigo and Char debt with Pinnacle Bank of Nashville and today are getting ever closer to erasing that debt and have made a habit of avoiding new debt, Conn said in a recent interview.
“Being as conservative as we are, we have used a lot of our own cash,” he said.
Cash has equaled flexibility for the partnership, according to Hogrefe. Unlike their corporate-owned counterparts, the four partners don’t have to endure share-price pressures that can force decisions ill-suited for the long term, he said.
“When you work for a big company, you work with stock price and basis points. We work with cash. We understand cash.”
Some of that cash culture, Conn said, involves leasing their properties rather than owning them. “We put a lot of emphasis on structuring lease deals,” he said.
The co-owners also spend a lot of time in their various restaurants. “I am usually in the restaurants three or four times a week,” Conn said. “I’m not an office guy,” he added in an interview that began as he left the Ridgeland Amerigo after the lunch rush for Char in Jackson.
“We’re all hands on. We’re all working owners,” he said.
The work involves tracking income and costs at all of the restaurants weekly. From full-blown profit-and-loss statements, “we pretty much know where we are at the end of each week on food and beverage,” Conn said. “We pretty much reconcile within $100. We run things very, very tight.”
The partners put a huge emphasis on hiring staff that fits the culture of the independent restaurant group. From there, a lot of effort goes into training and retention, Conn said.
“You have to do a little work on searching them out,” he said. “We focus on the high schools and colleges and word-of-mouth from our existing employees.
“Our goal is a happy staff. That makes for happy customers.”
Conn said he’d like to double the company’s restaurants over the next five years from the 11 that it will have at the end of this year.
He’s pleased about where the company is now, Conn said. “We are on track to do $30 million” this year, he said. “That’s not bad for a group of guys” who started at a single restaurant.
Hogrefe, meanwhile, is not looking too far down the field. “One of the things I like about being an entrepreneur is that I don’t really have a 5-year plan,” he said.
“Anjou, Sombra, Etch were all things where we ran into somebody or a space became available. Then all of a sudden the wheels started turning.”
All were done with minimal risk – a strategy the company has followed from inception five years ago, Hogrefe said.
“The one thing we wanted to make sure of when we took the other companies over is that that never happens to us,” he said of the foreclosure sales by which the partnership acquired Char and the Amerigo restaurants.
“We’re in pretty good financial shape,” he said. “We have to be able to do these new projects with very little risk” on the debt side.
Hogrefe said the partners would never have added the newer restaurants if the openings jeopardized the job security of workers at the existing restaurants. ‘“Work with us’ is an important phrase,” he said. “It means they aren’t employees; they are people.”
For Conn, the beauty of the restaurant business is that “it is one of the few industries where people are walking in to spend their money. Our job,” he said, “is to make them happy.”
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