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Outback thrives on buzz, details

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist
Published April 23, 2004

TAMPA - What do cookie maven Debbi Fields, Key West singer Jimmy Buffett, celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi and legendary NFL broadcaster John Madden have to do with making Tampa's Outback Steakhouse Inc. a restaurant company that runs on all cylinders?

This odd-fellows quartet is a key part of a management and marketing culture at Outback that's big on hard work, creative intensity, sheer buzz and some serious attention to detail. That became apparent earlier this week at Outback's annual shareholders meeting.

Now most corporate annual meetings are snoozers, where insincere or arrogant CEOs stand up, say as little as possible, and act like they are eager to leave for a root canal.

Not so at Outback. Led by Outback CEO Chris Sullivan, top executives explain in detail what the company is doing. Each Outback director and senior manager is introduced, and the entire corporate board and staff stand like a chorus line facing the audience of Outback's shareholders and employees.

Amid orchestrated jokes, there is plenty of good-natured ribbing. Imagine that - Outback folks actually seem to like what they do.

Then the managers of each of Outback's growing array of restaurant chains tell how their piece of the business is doing. For the record, after 17 years in the business, Outback owns or co-owns and operates eight chains: Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba's Italian Grill, Bonefish Grill, Lee Roy Selmon's, Roy's, Fleming's, Cheeseburger in Paradise, and the latest, Paul Lee's Chinese Kitchen.

If some of these restaurant names are not familiar, they will be. Within the Tampa Bay area, a third Lee Roy Selmon's (a barbecue place being repositioned as a family sports-theme restaurant) will appear later this year in Palm Harbor, and soon after in either St. Petersburg or Bradenton. And the area's first Paul Lee's is planned for Citrus Park.

At this annual meeting, shareholders get a good corporate education. They also get a good feel for the company's internal energy.

Here are the top five tidbits from Outback's annual meeting you won't read anywhere else:

5. Among the 723 Outback Steakhouse joints in the United States, which is the biggest money maker? Try the one in Oldbridge, N.J., whose manager was rewarded with a trip to (where else?) Australia.

4. Outback went to Afghanistan and served its steaks to 13,000 U.S. troops. But that was a warm-up for its more recent trip in January, when it brought its steak dinners to 21,000 troops in three cities in Iraq.

3. The smallest details mentioned? New carpeting is coming to the Outback Steakhouse chain. And pizzas are out, while a new quesadilla is in, on the menu at Lee Roy Selmon's.

2. CEO Sullivan introduced board member Tom James, chief of Raymond James Financial, as a director who "even has a stadium named after him." Sullivan, known for playful zingers, quipped to fellow director Lee Roy Selmon: "That's even better than an expressway" named in Selmon's honor.

1. Americans may be getting bigger, but some restaurants run by Outback are getting smaller. To shave costs, Outback is shrinking the size of Carrabba's (test site: Melbourne, Fla.), Fleming's (test site: Tulsa, Okla.), and Lee Roy Selmon's.

Which brings us back to Outback's unusual foursome.

Debbi Fields stands out in several ways on the Outback board of directors. She is the founder in 1977 of Mrs. Fields Cookies, a franchiser and operator of retail dessert stores, and served as her company's chairwoman from 1992 to 1996. Her skills as an entrepreneur in the retail food business are obviously valuable to Outback.

Fields also happens to be the only woman on Outback's board. And at 47, she is also the youngest on a board populated by men who, at Outback's annual meeting, came typically dressed in dark suits, traditional blue blazers or the occasional khaki plants.

When the well-coiffed Fields was called up to the stage, she wore a tapered suit in electric green. Last year, if my memory serves me, she wore neon purple. There's a tradition in the making here.

Jimmy Buffett, successful musician and a restaurant entrepreneur, partnered with Outback to create the young chain called Cheeseburger in Paradise. The first opened several years ago in suburban Indianapolis, and now there are three more locations in Illinois, Wisconsin and Virginia, with another coming to Omaha, Neb. Distant cousin and billionaire investor Warren Buffett promised to buy the first burger - if the restaurant came to Omaha.

None of those sites is "paradise" and that is the point. Outback chose locations that have plenty of cold weather to introduce a Key West-style restaurant meant to offer, in Outback's words, a "feeling of escapism."

Roy Yamaguchi - the upscale Roy's chain is named for him - is a big-name chef in Hawaii for his Hawaiian fusion cuisine who is gaining celebrity status. His PBS series, Hawaii Cooks, aired last year for a sixth season, and he recently paired up in the kitchen with Kevin Costner at some Aspen, Colo., food-and-wine event. Now the branding-minded Yamaguchi is introducing a line of kitchen wares, and some Roy's are trying out "Yamaguchi Sushi."

Football broadcaster John Madden, one of America's "biggest" pitchmen for everything from Ace Hardware to Tinactin foot powder, also helps endorse Outback Steakhouse. The Madden Cruiser, the bus the airplane-leery Madden uses for travel, is sponsored by Outback. And you might remember the TV ads in which broadcaster Madden comments on an injury on the football field when someone delivers an Outback takeout dish to the poor player. The aroma alone revives the player.

Among Outback's few complaints? The cost of butter, which has increased significantly.

Earlier this week, Smith Barney analyst Mark Kalinowski asked Outback: Can you control your costs by using less butter? The answer: No.

It seems Outback Steakhouse tried a few years ago to save on butter by brushing it directly on its steaks, rather than on the grill, while cooking the beef. That little difference changed how the steaks seared - and tasted.

Outback's response: Cutting the butter is not an option.

Now that's watching the details.

- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or 727893-8405.

[Last modified April 23, 2004, 01:20:38]


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