DC Management, the Louisville restaurant group, is like that shark that has to keep moving.
Since Michael and Steven Ton leveraged their great success at Basa into other concepts — 732 Social in The Green Building (which fell apart for the Tons before it fell apart in general), Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse & Raw Bar on Whiskey Row, and La Coop in the very same East Market Street spot vacated by 732 Social — they haven’t stopped looking and developing new ventures.
Their newest venture, Union Common, which Steven Ton describes to Insider Louisville as a “social concept steakhouse” — a shared-plate concept, with steaks — opened a couple of months ago in midtown Nashville, near Vanderbilt University.
The group (the Tons, attorney Chip Hamm, master sommelier Brett Davis and Chef Bobby Benjamin) is next preparing a concept for the River Road condo development, River Park Place. And, Ton tells me, they have their eye on another very high-profile location in Louisville, but he’s not yet ready to reveal.
So it’s full-speed ahead. Well, actually, half-speed. Expansion is very tricky in this business, and it’s making Ton cautious.
“As with any restaurant group, you become susceptible as you grow,” he says. “Our concepts may be great, but restaurants themselves are only as good as the operators, and if your local operators aren’t on top of their game, you’ll slip.”
Part of the confidence of going into Nashville was that Chef Benjamin was there before he came to Louisville (to work for Jim Gerhardt at The Oak Room at the Seelbach), so he knew the market.
“It’s nice to know the market before you step in,” Ton says. “Also, you have to have the systems in place, and the concept has to be fairly streamlined. It can’t, for example, require a full-blown chef.”
That’s why the Tons never opened a Basa Deux. “Basa is very chef-driven,” Ton says, referring to his brother, a Culinary Institute of America grad. “It’s not a concept you can replicate.”
He does think Doc Crow’s has the workable formula, though. So should we expect to see a Doc Crow East, Doc Crow West, Doc Crow Oldham and Doc Crow on the River? Not likely.
“It would be difficult for Louisville to support two Doc Crow’s,” he says. “The Doc Crow model is so alcohol-driven, it might not appeal to the suburbs.”
Not that suburbanites don’t drink — hardly! — but they don’t drink late. “It would be dead by 9 o’clock every weeknight. That’s a formula that wouldn’t work.”
What would work? He said he’s looking for a market with a certain specific recipe: a downtown urban setting with convention traffic and a sports presence — in other words, what has been a runaway success on East Main Street.
But, he says, you have to bring your game — and he doesn’t mean Louisville vs. Duke. “If you’re going to succeed downtown, you can’t just rely on events, there are only so many of them,” Ton says. “The business model has to develop around non-event days.”
He says he’s been reading lately about how some of his neighbors in the shadow of the Yum! Center have struggled.
“We haven’t struggled. Doc Crow’s is a destination. You know how I know? Because when there’s a game at the Yum!, most places empty out at 7. We’re still crowded. We fill up with people who aren’t even going to the game.”
He says Sunday has become a very busy day, with nothing else going on downtown. “That’s when you know you’ve made it!”
Still, the business can be frustrating. The River Park Place location has been two years in the making and is still far from finished. Ton describes it as a “sports-friendly concept with about 120 beers on tap, wines on tap, maybe even cocktails on tap.”
He says it would have a lot of TVs but not be a full-blown sports bar. “It won’t feel like a sports bar, even though it will have TVs around the bar. But it will have a full menu and not a high volume of sound.”
The food? Roadhouse kind of food — buckets of seafood, burgers. He likens it to Yard House, which started in California and is now a national chain owned by Darden Restaurants Inc. in Orlando (Olive Garden, Capital Grille, LongHorn Steakhouse). “But better,” he insists.
Still, the two years is frustrating to him. Condominiums are tricky because of the multiple levels of funding, partly contingent on how quickly units are filled.
And even once you’ve made it, expansion into new markets is always risky. “You don’t know if a new location will work until you’ve done it,” he says. “And that can be a costly gamble.”
In the meantime, he says, he and his partners work hard to avoid costly gambles, but that comes at a cost, too. “Sometimes I go for days without seeing my son. That’s the trade-off and it’s tough.”
That’s the benefit he sees in a successful roll-out versus the hands-on operations of a one-off like Basa. “A concept like Doc Crow’s doesn’t require us to be there constantly.”
He says his long-term plan is to develop enough successful concepts that he can perhaps sell them and retire — maybe even sell them to someone corporate like Darden.
Really? Would he like to see Doc Crow’s sharing a stable with Olive Garden?
“You know,” he says, “the restaurant business is demanding — my brother has finally agreed to take a second day off during the week. And the business doesn’t give you the luxury of having a 401K. We need to find a way to build some security.
“So if Darden came along, waving a check at us — it’d be tempting.”