Lowell Petrie is reveling in his return to the Mexican segment; he started as a bartender at El Torito and went on to spend five years in management for the concept before moving on to Garcia’s for another 11 years. After stints with Daphne’s Greek Café, Mimi’s Café, Ruby’s Diner and Famous Restaurants in recent years, Real Mex Restaurants’ CEO and chairman Dick Rivera tapped Petri to serve as senior vice president/chief marketing officer for the Cypress, Calif.-based company in July. To further Rivera’s agenda of returning the flagship Real Mex brands — El Torito (70 units) and Chevys Fresh Mex (66 company-owned, 24 franchised) — to a position of industry leadership, and further define El Torito Grill (nine units), Petrie hit the ground running with a plan to revive the concepts’ bar programs.
VIBE caught up with Petrie for some insights into what he’s mixing up behind the bar at El Torito and Chevys these days.
VIBE: What was the beverage program situation when you landed at Real Mex this summer?
Petrie: What had happened here was same as other companies — no one was really working on the bar. Ralph Ortiz had been doing it but had been moved into purchasing. As a result, there was a void. The individual brands were kind of rehashing old drinks and promotions. But we’ve got these big old restaurants with these big old bars that need bodies in them to get the energy level we want in the restaurants. So, there was a great opportunity to energize the concepts and to get the brands back to the position they once held as innovators — doing interesting things with great garnishes, glassware, prices and so on.
We’re in a really good area — both the Margarita and tequila have lots of excitement and growth these days. When I left the Mexican segment years ago, there were 10-12 tequilas; now there’s just so many. We probably have 70-80 tequilas, and I’m looking to bring in more. It’s fun; I’m a fan of tequila and probably never really got it out of my system. There’s lots of opportunity to revitalize the bar at all concepts, and tequila will play a role.
VIBE: What’s the overall goal?
Petrie: It’s two-fold. One is to create excitement and sales in the bar, and two is to increase our liquor sales in the dining room. We do quarterly specials in the dining room with menu inserts, and in the past there was a little tiny bit of real estate catering to the drinks. Now, we will have a half-page dedicated to new Margaritas and flights at El Torito and El Torito Grill; the others will have new Margarita and new non-Margarita drinks highlighted.
VIBE: What’s the beverage plan for each concept?
Petrie: We’ve done major research with all our customers and understand that each brand needs different messaging, different price points and different drinks. One size will not fit all.
El Torito Grill is a higher-end concept with a higher check average. We’re working on expanding the wine list and doing a high-end happy hour, and we’ll also roll out high-end tequila pairings and dinner events. We’re also developing fun mixology-driven drinks, matching our demos with herbs, flavorings and exotic fruits with an esoteric approach. We’re using inside talent and also outside — we’re tapping into spirits suppliers’ resources heavily, both new partners and existing ones.
Both Chevys and El Torito have strong beverage programs, so we’re building on a great foundation. At El Torito, we’re working on the bar environment where needed, upgrading the AV package with widescreen TVs and upgraded sound systems, as well as some furniture packages with things like stand-up tables to make it conducive to today’s guest and for added capacity.
A whole new series of quarterly promos is in the works for 2010 at El Torito, featuring new Margaritas and non-Margarita drinks and tequila flights. Despite the brand’s long history with tequila, flights are not something that’s been done here before, so we’re bringing it up a notch. Also, we’re working on a new bar food menu; in fact, I’m testing 11 items online today with 5,000 customers to determine which will go on the menu. A new happy hour program went into test this past weekend that involves lower price points on Margaritas, draft beer and well drinks as well as food and special nights with featured promos. We’re doing quite a lot to drive traffic — we have room in our cantinas, so driving people in is really important.
Chevys already does a great happy hour — the concept went to a $3 happy hour program 18 months ago — so we’re working with vendors on a signature Margarita that will roll out in the second quarter. It’s a deep program with different components; for instance, it will roll with a food special in the entire restaurant. We’re also rolling a new drink program with a new Margarita and one to two drinks each quarter. The traditional emphasis here has been Margaritas, but we’ll be putting emphasis on other drinks equally and getting into other categories.
VIBE: Any operational changes behind the bars?
Petrie: Chevys’ overall focus is fresh — we’re doing as much fresh as we can, including using available seasonal fruit like watermelon or mango, and we use fresh lime mix. Beyond that, we’re working on making all ingredients as fresh as possible. At El Torito, we’ll be taking mixology to new level, adding muddling and shaking to the technique tool box.
VIBE: Big goals and ambitious initiatives. How will Real Mex support them to ensure success?
Petrie: Two ways. We will be applying strong training program — we’re working on some new approaches to training — and a lot of promotional muscle. There will be a lot of in-store promotional pieces at all concepts, although less so at El Torito Grill, which is more upscale and therefore more subtle. But you’ll see vertical banners, outdoor banners, buttons, table tents and other materials at El Torito and Chevys. Also, those three concepts will get new bar uniforms. We’re going toward a more employee-friendly, more contemporary look, which is already started to roll.