Bill Latham finds formula to grow restaurant concepts
by Martin Willoughby
Published: March 15,2013
In my work with growth-oriented companies, it is always a huge milestone when a business can go from successfully operating in one location to two.
When the owner is “hands on” in the business, this can be particularly challenging. I see this frequently in retail and restaurant businesses. Many just don’t have the foundations in place to scale. I find that it takes great people, processes, and technology to scale a business to more than one location. I always enjoy the opportunity to interview business owners who have “cracked the code” on operating multiple locations of their business. I recently interviewed Bill Latham, who, along with his partner, Al Roberts, has proven that they know the formula for operating a restaurant operation.
Latham learned the restaurant business from the inside. He started off as a waiter at T.G.I. Fridays and quickly was promoted to being an assistant in the company’s management training program. After working in a few other managerial roles for other restaurants, Latham had the opportunity to combine his passion and skills in the food business to own his own restaurant. At the age of 26, Latham purchased Scrooge’s Olde English Pub in Jackson from Billy Neville. Latham shared, “My wife, Betsy, and I were newlyweds and she joined me as we worked day and night to make this restaurant survive.” They thrived. In their first 10 months of operations, they doubled gross revenues. With his knack for the food business, Latham went on to create and/or acquire and eventually sell multiple restaurant concepts including the Webster’s in Greenwood and Sundancer Restaurant and Montague’s in Jackson.
Latham and Roberts went on to open the very successful Amerigo’s restaurant concept, which expanded to Nashville, Brentwood, Memphis and Atlanta. They also started CHAR Restaurant in Jackson, which proved very popular, as well. In 2006, they sold Amerigo and CHAR and Latham, being a serial restaurant entrepreneur, turned his attention to new ventures including opening Five Guys franchises in Mississippi as well as a new concept, Babalu, which they are currently expanding to new locations. As Latham has undoubtedly proven his ability to operate successful restaurants in multiple locations, I wanted to know the secret of his success.
Interestingly, while we often hear the mantra “location, location, location” for success in the restaurant business, Latham actually had his own version of this – “management, management, management.”
While he noted that location is certainly important, he believes the key to scaling a business is the quality of the management. He shared, “We spend a lot of money on training in our organizations.” Latham noted that he first learned back in the management program at T.G.I. Fridays the “business” of running a restaurant which includes managing food costs and delivering exceptional customer service. Many of their managers grow up in the business starting at various positions as they learn the business.
Latham believes in setting the standards of excellence for his team members and then staying out of the way to let them get the job done. He emphasizes to all of his employees the importance of customer service and empowers them to take the necessary actions to keep the customer satisfied. Interestingly, Latham noted how it truly takes a team to operate successfully. For example, he pointed out that the most important role on a busy Saturday night is the dish washer. If there are not clean dishes for the tables then everything grinds to a halt. He knows that all employees should always be treated with respect and be expected to do their best.
Latham, Roberts and their new partners certainly have ambitious plans for growth of their Babalu concept and expansion of the Five Guys’ franchises. If history is any guide, I anticipate we will see a lot more of the restaurants around the state and Southeast in the years to come.
Martin Willoughby, a business consultant in Jackson, is a regular contributing columnist for the Mississippi Business Journal. Willoughby can be reached at martin.willoughby@ butlersnow.com.
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