For the first time, the company behind Malone's, Sal's Chophouse, Harry's and Drake's is expanding one of its restaurants beyond Lexington — and even Kentucky — but it might not be the one you think.
Despite the fact that its Malone's restaurants constantly place near the top in nationwide rankings, Bluegrass Hospitality Group is expanding its newest concept, Drake's.
A Drake's opened April 21 in the Louisville suburb of St. Matthews — the first of three restaurants to open outside of Lexington. The next will be in Franklin, Tenn., outside of Nashville, and at The Summit in Louisville's East End.
But why Drake's and not Malone's or Harry's, a horse racing-themed bar that is featured at the three Lexington locations of the famed and long-lasting steakhouse?
BHG's operating owners, Brian McCarty and Bruce Drake, cited the economy.
"It's just played exceedingly well in this economy," McCarty said, "and we feel like it's struck a chord with folks just looking for high-quality pub food at reasonable prices, in an ambiance where they can come have a lot of fun."
He noted that 55 menu items are under $12 each.
The first Drake's opened two years ago when, McCarty said, BHG wanted to expand with a "burgers and beer" restaurant.
"We wanted to build a fun place that would play well with that demographic," he said. "Basically, it was perfect timing with the economy hitting the skids in October of '08 and us opening in May of '09 with our Drake's brand."
Drake's offers 24 craft beers on tap to complement what Bruce Drake calls "chef-driven, well-prepared, cooked-to-order" food.
Drake said the Lexington restaurant has seen sales increase, and McCarty said the Louisville restaurant is exceeding their initial projections. The two wouldn't discuss specifics on sales.
Besides its most well-known brands locally, the company also runs a Texas Roadhouse franchise and Regatta Seafood Grille.
"We've got a lot of different concepts that we've been very fortunate to be successful in," Drake said. "We've got small-, medium- and large-size engines — or small-, medium- and large-size stores — and Drake's just seems to be the one brand that just really hits on all cylinders and becomes really efficient for us."
Dennis Lombardi, an executive specializing in restaurants with design-development company WD Partners in Columbus, Ohio, said BHG's decision to expand Drake's, instead of the higher-end Malone's, makes sense. It's a matter of numbers, he said.
In the world of upscale steakhouses, one of the biggest chains, Morton's, has just about 80 locations "versus how many Olive Gardens," he said, referring to the more moderately priced Italian chain.
"When you're looking to expand a brand, especially outside of its heritage market, one of the things you want to do is make sure that brand has the legs or expandability," Lombardi said.
The additional restaurants will not vary much from the original Drake's, which is on Tates Creek Road in Lansdowne.
The St. Matthews restaurant is housed on the first floor of the Burdorf's Furnishing & Flooring building on Shelbyville Road, which Drake said they transformed into a restaurant scene.
"Louisville definitely has opened their arms to us," said Mark Thornburg, market partner with BHG and the person in charge of opening the expansions. And the new location has "really exceeded our expectations."
He said Drake's will add to the existing bar scene in the area.
"With our demographics, we attract 21-year-olds, as well as 70-year-olds," Thornburg said. "It just plays so well in that St. Matthews market."
McCarty calls St. Matthews a "hybrid market," where the major shopping malls and many national restaurants in Louisville are housed within 2 miles of Drake's.
The Summit's Drake's will open in the fourth quarter, he said, and is in a "completely different market" than St. Matthews'. That location — a former Max & Erma's that BHG has been looking at for years — is more akin to the group's restaurants in Hamburg.
Meanwhile, the Nashville-area restaurant, which is set to open July 14, is about 10 miles south of downtown in a development with many other restaurants and retail shops.
McCarty said the group chooses locations near existing restaurants to be surrounded by places where people are already going. "We don't want to be out on an island," he said.
On the subject of competition, the two said they welcomed the expected entry into Lexington of Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse, a regional chain with three locations — Louisville, Cincinnati and at the Belterra Casino in Indiana.
The competition will "make us even better operators as we plan on continued growth in Lexington for years to come," McCarty said.
BHG is always open to real estate opportunities, he said, but is not actively seeking to expand any other brands at this time.
"In terms of expansion, we have a full plate with these three stores opening this year," McCarty said. "You just have to stay focused and realize you're only as good as your last meal, and you've got to keep your customers happy."