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The Brand Leading the Next Generation of Casual Dining

Chris Simms fell in love with the restaurant industry as an adolescent. But his father, Tom, one of the original owners of Mimi’s Cafe, didn’t push him in that direction. In fact, there was no pressure to go into the family business at all, Simms says.

When he turned 14, his father told him it was time to get a job. “He said … ‘You need to get a job this summer and I don’t care what you do—you can do anything you want, I just want you to be productive.’ That was the best thing he could have ever done because there was no pressure to be in the restaurant business.”

The 14-year-old Simms opted to work at a golf course, but he unsurprisingly ended up at the snack stand, where he says he fell in love with feeding people. “I was like, oh, my god, I get to make people happy by feeding them. And so, I would have to say that was the summer I realized I like this.”

Simms ended up in college for hospitality at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration. At Cornell, the San Fernando Valley native learned he wasn’t fond of New York winters, but still considered staying and went to investigate the life of his friends who were working on Wall Street.

“I spent a weekend with them and never saw them because they were sleeping at their desks—it sealed the deal; I wasn’t going to be in finance,” he says. “I needed to work with teams and feed people and create a celebratory environment for guests.”

So, after college, Simms came home to sunny Southern California, returning with ambitions to build his own restaurant family.

The Family You Love

At Lazy Dog—which Simms founded in 2003 with his father after a few years at P.F. Chang’s and a few years at the family’s restaurant, Mimi’s—the family you love is a guiding principle. For those working under The Lazy Dog Way, it means to simply treat others with trust and respect and to put the team and guest’s needs before your own.

The first person that Simms and his father brought into the Lazy Dog family was the company’s executive chef, Gabe Caliendo. Caliendo came to Lazy Dog from The Ritz-Carlton because Simms wanted someone who truly knew quality and had a vast knowledge of cuisine. The Lazy Dog menu started with all of Simms’ favorite foods, plus some “approachable innovation.” That innovation is part of what keeps Lazy Dog fresh—and growing—more than a decade later. Simms builds this part of the menu through his own experiences dining out, what he calls the R&D.

Passionate About Food

“We like going to those little, edgy places that most of the population never gets to,” he says of hip restaurants in the Silver Lake neighborhood of LA. “We find those great little ideas and we bring those back and craft our version with our guest in mind. That innovation is really big to the younger part of our clientele.”

He harkens back to a recent R&D trip to San Francisco where he experienced an American dim sum—American food rolled out in dim sum style, on carts throughout the meal.

“We came back and we started working on various options for our happy hour menu—some toasts, some little pancakes with really cool ingredients, neat finger food—so, we’re kind of pulling that inspiration into our happy hour menu.”

These out-of-the-box ideas that are folded into the Lazy Dog menu of otherwise comforting classics really help the restaurant brand connect with guests, Simms says. Casual dining spots that focus on efficiency and cost will fall to the wayside, while those that understand that their guests are passionate about food will succeed.

“The definition of the next generation of casual dining had to include hand-crafted food and beverage,” Simms says. “We really like to be able to share that passion—that’s what we’re all about, connecting with our guests on a deeper level by sharing common passions.”

Must Love Dogs

Food isn’t the only passion Lazy Dog uses to connect with its guests. One look at the name leads to an accurate conclusion—Lazy Dog guests, and founders, are passionate about their dogs.

Lazy Dog didn’t actually set out to be a dog-friendly restaurant. In the first location’s early days, a guest came in with a pet and wanted to have lunch on the patio. The guest happened to have arrived at the same time that the health department was dining inside the restaurant. Simms thought, why not just take the opportunity to ask. The department said the dog could dine on the patio, no problem.

“And that’s how it started,” Simms says. “If I’m looking at the shared passions with our guests, we’ve got a group of guests who are very passionate about their dogs. There’s definitely a shared passion there that is important—we want to honor that furry member of the family.”

Going forward, Simms sees the opportunity to make even more out of that passion, perhaps curated pet products.

Living The Lazy Dog Way

A major hallmark of Simms’ definition of casual dining 2.0 seems to be providing ways for his guests to live the Lazy Dog brand. Sharing passions goes beyond the ambiance and menu. Lazy Dog recently launched its first beer club. The restaurant partnered with a few of its favorite breweries to develop collaboration beers—a major trend in the full-service dining segment. At Lazy Dog, the custom collabs are only available in quarterly kits. The first kit rolled out in February and Simms called the response “off the charts.”

“We’ve really found the demand from our guests; they truly trust what we’re doing,” he says. “They want more of what we find and what we think is great quality or just interesting.”

If the beer kits continue to succeed, Simms envisions looking for a way to extend what he finds on his menu R&D trips into product lines that guests can purchase from. “I think we’ve seen some very good traction with that.”

When it comes to living the brand, however, no one is more of a Lazy Dog than Simms himself, and he says it has to be that way. If the brand wasn’t so authentic, guests wouldn’t be down for it. Today’s guest, as he so accurately pin points, can sniff out a disingenuous brand from a mile away. But Lazy Dog has always been 100 percent pure Chris Simms through and through.

“I just did what I loved, I don’t really have any other way to say it,” Simms says of the company’s beginnings. “Because the concept was truly created out of my passions, I think it resonated with people.”

The Jackson Hole Connection

Another part of what makes Lazy Dog so truly Simms is the inspiration it takes from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where Simms spent childhood summers with his family, and spends summers with his three daughters today.

The first nod comes with the architecture and décor of a Lazy Dog restaurant. Guests will notice upon entering that everything feels big. That’s intentional. Simms wanted guests to feel how the mountains in Jackson Hole can make a person feel small.

“It puts things in perspective,” he says. “There’s a warmth to the décor that I wanted people to feel so they felt very comfortable as they sat down and were able to relax.”

Guests are then treated to what Simms calls Jackson Hole hospitality—servers are encouraged to remember guests’ names and what they’ve ordered in the past, as well as what they don’t like, in order to anticipate all of their needs.

“It’s a very personalized form of hospitality,” Simms says. “It’s one of our founding components so that our guests can truly relax and enjoy time with friends and family.”

Everything at Lazy Dog seems to come back to the word family, and Simms has created a business through teamwork that allows him the work-life balance to spend time with his. His daughters are 14, 11, and 8 years old. He takes them up to Jackson Hole as much as he can, leaning on his team to hold down the fort while he’s gone.

“That’s the family you love—I say that to everyone in the company. I don’t want you to work 100 hours a week; I want you to have plenty of time with your family and friends,” he says. “We can’t encourage our guests to sit in our restaurant and reconnect if we’re not doing the same thing.”

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The Brand Leading the Next Generation of Casual Dining