The backstory: Lazy Dog’s founder and CEO Chris Simms started the concept 16 years ago in Huntington Beach, Calif., with the goal of creating the “next generation of casual dining,” focusing on housemade, craveable dishes and a culture of respect. Last October, Lazy Dog started a beer club (similar to the well-known wine club run by Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants), and it now has more than 6,000 members. Units are typically 8,000 square feet inside with 2,000 square feet of patio space.
Why it’s worth watching: Simms comes from a restaurant family. His father, Tom, founded Mimi’s Cafe (now Mimi’s Bistro & Bakery), and Simms’ grandfather started The Kettle Restaurant in Manhattan Beach. Simms’ brother runs several other concepts. Lazy Dog’s beer club is attracting notice (and providing a sales bump), and the chain just started testing a members-only club for dogs that just might offer a nonalcoholic beer designed specifically for dogs. Lazy Dog has plans to grow in Washington, D.C., Virginia and Florida. The chain’s sales grew 26.8% year over year in 2018, according to Technomic data.
HERE ARE FIVE GROWTH-MINDED QUESTIONS WITH CHRIS SIMMS:
- With so many casual-dining chains struggling, and most everyone pivoting to off premise, how is Lazy Dog finding success with its dine-in business?
We’ve actually reinvested in the in-restaurant experience. I believe that people sill need a place to go out and spend time reconnecting with their friends and family. A big piece of our concept is about nourishing those connections with friends and family. We’ve spent more money on interiors. I don’t believe that off-premise is going to be the saving grace for casual dining in the future. It’s a great component.
- Did you always plan on welcoming dogs and offering a separate menu for them at Lazy Dog?
It was pure luck. In our first week of operation, a lady comes in with a dog and says, “Can I sit on the patio?” Just by chance, the health department had come in for an office lunch. I go over and say, “Is it possible for this lady to have her dog on the patio while she eats lunch?” … We stepped back and were like, “This makes perfect sense!” There’s a nice little piece of our clientele who come to the Lazy Dog because they can bring their dog. … We’ve had to work with the health departments and help them understand how this is safe.
- You mentioned that treating employees well is at the core of your operation. How does that play out day to day?
I was fortunate enough to learn from my dad, who was also in the business. He had this crazy idea that if you treat your teammates and managers and people with trust and respect, they, in turn, will enjoy their work environment and will treat their guests in a similar fashion. … When it comes to recruiting, we don’t have to do a ton of heavy recruiting because we have that reputation. … We have our core values very clearly defined. We hire to those core values. We do cultural fit interviewing to make sure every person we bring into the company has that same ethical fabric. We do our reviews based on our core values on a regular basis. We’ve invested a lot into leadership development. The first reason a person leaves their company is because of their boss. We have a very solid leadership training program.
- How did the beer club come to be?
I’m a retired home brewer. My original partner is still a home brewer, and we’ve had this love for the craft. In the beginning, we shared that love with our guests—we were bringing in cool beers. We’ve graduated that now to a beer club. That beer club has been our extension of sharing that passion of sharing craft beer with our guests. Every quarter, there are four new beers we package up for our membership; they’re products of our relationships with breweries all over the country. We have them create special beers just for us. And they fit within a theme. Then we have special events for our members and have special releases throughout the year. … Now, we had guests that said, “I don’t drink beer, are you going to do anything for dogs?” We’re testing a new club with a similar type of membership. We’ve curated a great selection of dog toys and treats for the furry members of our families. We’ll test it in a few restaurants. We’re working on a dog beer—basically an unfermented beer with nice sweet oats and barley.
- You’re not turning Lazy Dog’s focus to delivery and takeout. But you’re not ignoring it, either. What are you doing to move the restaurant experience out of the four walls?
We’re trying to innovate that couch experience. I want to make sure we are available to our guests wherever they want us. We’re working on some different formats for family catering. We’ve worked on takeout packaging so it’s the highest quality food experience possible. We’re working on delivering wine and beer. We are doing it where it’s legal, and we’re definitely seeing some traction there.
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