September 14, 2009
Brad Blum is in the midst of trying to turn around a struggling Italian chain by tapping into Americans' penchant for the freshness and simplicity of authentic recipes.
Sound familiar? It should.
Blum made a name for himself at Darden Restaurants, where he was president of Olive Garden when it rolled out its hugely successful Tuscan-style makeover in 2000.
Now Blum is chief executive officer of Romano's Macaroni Grill, which was spun off by Dallas-based Brinker International late last year to a private equity group. Brinker retained a 20 percent ownership interest.
I caught up with Blum last week to ask him about his deja-vu-like job and how he plans to revive Mac Grill.
If Olive Garden zeroed in on Italy's inland Tuscany region, then "what we're doing is we're moving to the coast," he said, specifically Naples and the Amalfi Coast, famed for its beauty and fine food.
"We're going to completely transform the menu," he said. "Our desire is to have a completely transformed menu by late spring, early summer of 2010."
Already the chain has debuted some new items along with some tweaked entrees. The emphasis is on simplifying the ingredients and cutting down on calories and fat.
The scallops and spinach salad, for example, was featured on the Today Show for all the wrong reasons: it weighed in at 1,270 calories and 27 grams of saturated fat. The new version, which Blum assures me still has a bit of prosciutto, has just 390 calories and 4 grams of saturated fat.
Blum hired Bob Mock, former president of one-time Darden concept Smokey Bones, as chief operating officer. And Doug Doran is now head of a division office based in Orlando. Doran helped Darden develop Bahama Breeze and Seasons 52 and briefly worked with beleaguered MetroWest town center developer Kevin Azzouz before joining Emeril's.
The three are trying to navigate a turnaround job in a particularly tough economy.
Blum said he agrees with another former colleague, Darden Chief Executive Officer Clarence Otis, who has said the new financial landscape puts more emphasis on market share than growth.
"Brands that really put a lot of emphasis on quality and invest in their businesses, whether it be investing in the menu or people or investing in making sure the buildings are properly maintained, they're going to do really well," he said.
Blum, who has homes in Winter Park and New Smyrna, said he doesn't get back to Central Florida as much as he would like. And, for now, Macaroni Grill is likely to stay in Dallas after its agreement for office space and other services with Brinker runs out, he said.
A sports car endurance racing enthusiast, Blum does plan to be back in the area in November to race his Porsche on the track in Daytona. It's the one area of his life that breaks from his love of everything Italian.
"I've beaten Ferraris," he said.
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