Supervox Blog

Supervox grills a steakhouse master: Restaurant branding insights from Parasole’s Phil Roberts

Pittsburgh Blue Restaurant

Supervox has partnered with restaurateur extraordinaire Phil Roberts for years now. The founder and chairman of Minneapolis-based Parasole Restaurant Holdings, Phil is an industry visionary who has created concepts ranging from seafood supper clubs to red sauce Italian joints. And as a member of Parasole’s “Kitchen Cabinet,” we’ve been instrumental in bringing his ideas to life.

Recently Phil sat down with Supervox Agency partner Tim Alevizos to discuss one of their most noteworthy collaborations: Pittsburgh Blue Steakhouse, with locations in the Twin Cities suburbs of Maple Grove and Edina. In a wide-ranging conversation, five overarching ideas emerged:

  • The importance of casting a wide net.
    How do you appeal to the widest possible range of customers without sacrificing the uniqueness and defined point of view that your brand needs to stand out in a crowded marketplace?
  • Tailoring your brand to multiple locations.
    It’s not by accident that Pittsburgh Blue performs equally well in the Twin Cities’ most affluent suburb, the inner-ring enclave of Edina, and in fast-growing Maple Grove, located nearly 20 miles from the city center.
  • How to differentiate yourself from the chains.
    Chain restaurants have access to the best sites and wield large marketing budgets. How can independent restaurants not only hold their own, but leverage their underdog status to achieve a competitive advantage?
  • How to innovate within a defined category.
    Restaurant guests – particularly steakhouse fans – want predictability, but they also expect their favorite places to keep things fresh. How do you take people on an adventure that won’t lead them out of their comfort zone?
  • The value of looking at your concept and its execution as a stage production.
    We all know that successful restaurants provide great food and great theater. By looking at every aspect of concepting and operations through this lens, Phil has created concepts whose appeal isn’t just broad, but unusually enduring.

The content of the interview was so rich we found ourselves working it over in our minds, going over the ways that Phil’s five principles influence our work, both with Parasole and restaurant clients far outside the Twin Cities. Whether you’re in the business or just a patron of it, you’re bound to profit from Phil’s insights into restaurant branding. So, put on your earbuds or close the office door, and learn from a master.


Video Transcription

Hi, I’m Tim Alevizos from Supervox Agency in Minneapolis. We’re a creative agency for ambitious brands. Restaurant branding – and rebranding for that matter – is one of the most fun things we do, and among the most challenging, because there are so many dots to connect. What’s special about restaurant brands is how detailed, how immersive, how intimate, and consequently how powerful they can be.

Great restaurant brands establish a connection that makes the customer say, “This is MY place.” And if you can forge THAT kind of bond with them, they’re yours for life. Ultimately, that’s what our work is all about. And no restaurateur is better at that than Phil Roberts, founder of Parasole Restaurant Holdings in Minneapolis. Phil is a real industry visionary, the creator of concepts ranging from power seafood to neighborhood red sauce Italian joints.

We sat down to talk with Phil about one of his concepts, Pittsburgh Blue Steakhouse. As you’ll see, Phil had plenty of insights to share, but five large observations really came to the foreground.

  • The importance of casting a wide net with your brand
  • How to succeed in multiple locations
  • How to leverage the public’s desire for authenticity
  • Ways to innovate within defined concept categories
  • And finally, the value of thinking of your concept, and executing on it, as a film or stage production.

I’m sure you’ll enjoy this conversation. Here’s Phil Roberts.

Tim: So Phil, tell me a little about Pittsburgh Blue. What is Pittsburgh Blue?

Phil: Pittsburgh Blue came about because we have a major steakhouse here called Manny’s. And Manny’s is a high-end steakhouse – a hundred dollars per person check average, dry-aged beef, power restaurant where deals get done. But it doesn’t fit a suburban market, and our vice president of development told me about a piece of dirt out in a suburb called Maple Grove and asked me to take a look at it. And I thought, “Maple Grove?” I didn’t know Maple Grove from Cottage Grove, but I took the 20-mile drive to the suburb and pulled off of the freeway, and lo and behold this piece of dirt was right at the corner of State & Main, and all the usual suspects were there. It was Famous Dave’s and it was TGI Friday’s. It was Joe’s Crab Shack. It was Olive Garden. It was, you know, all the usual suspects.

So then I drove around the neighborhood. And the density was good and there were a lot of these sort of McMansion houses, but then I got to wondering, how those residents would feel about being represented only by the national chains. Are you going to take your best customer or client to Joe’s Crab Shack for dinner? Probably not. You’re probably not going to take them to Olive Garden. And I wondered if they were sort of embarrassed by their choice of where they chose to live. So I thought that something that had some gravitas to it, that had some interior appointments, something that would not feel chain-like.

We thought, Well, maybe it’s a steakhouse, not for the bankers and the CEOs and stuff in the downtown area and the people coming in from Exxon Mobil or Best Buy or whatever, that maybe it should be a steakhouse that would A) have a gravitas to it and B) would be affordable and differentiate itself from the chains.

Tim: And so you set out to develop a brand for a concept that would appeal to the classes and the masses.

Phil: Yeah, and this is when we started working with you guys. And we spent, as I recall, a great deal of time sort of figuring out, “What are we messaging here?” What do we create that’s going to be evocative, that’s going to conjure up an image in people’s mind. So it was very emotional kind of handle that we were looking for and what we all arrived at was, I think you called it a “working man’s steakhouse.” And then as a counterpoint to the working man’s steakhouse, you have leather booths inside. It’s not Naugahyde.

And the other part of the genius of the concept was when we decided to split the restaurant into two parts – the one part being the saloon and the other part being the dining room. The saloon has red checkered tablecloths. It feels saloony. It was the little tiles on the floor. It feels like a tavern or saloon, where the dining room feels like an Uptown steakhouse.

We’ve been there now ten years and what we’ve discovered is that people that live in the neighborhood will come there on a Tuesday night and just stop by the bar and order a burger and a coke because they’re going shopping or something like that, or maybe they’re going to the movies, but they’ll be back on Saturday night with another couple and eating in the dining room and having a bottle of nice Cabernet. It’s the main event for that night. So the same people use the restaurant in different ways.

Tim [voiceover]: As with all branding, every element must reinforce the central message – in this case “a steakhouse for people who work for a living.”

Phil: In major steakhouses around the country and the world, the term “Pittsburgh Blue” is used by customers that know steakhouses, and its roots go back to Pittsburgh – and that’s part of our roots with our working class message that we send out – the steel workers in the ovens and the…

Tim: The blast furnaces…

Phil: Yeah, in the steel mills, their wives used to pack them slabs of steak, or meat, and the way they would cook them is that, when lunchtime would come, they’d take the slab of meat and they’d just slam it up against one of the blast furnaces and it would instantly sear the outside of the steak, and they’d immediately flip it and sear the other side, and consequently the steak that they ate at lunch was blackened on the outside and blood rare in the center. And that’s a style of steak that a substantial number of people who know steakhouses – “How would you like your steak done? Medium, Medium Rare?” “No, make it Pittsburgh Blue. And that’s where the term comes from.”

Tim: It’s interesting because on the one hand it’s a little bit of inside baseball for steakhouse connoisseurs. On the other hand, it’s a name that telegraphs a lot without necessarily understanding –”

Phil: Well, it’s in the subtext. The fact that we say it’s a working man’s steakhouse. What more of a working man’s city is there than Pittsburgh?

Tim: Right.

Phil: So it’s not in your face, but boy it’s in the subtext and you do get it, and that was part of – when – well, you actually named it.

Tim: By avoiding pigeonholing yourself as a high-dollar establishment or a special occasion venue, you fortify yourself against hard times.

Phil: Yeah, you don’t want to project that you’re a birthday or anniversary place – where people really like you, but they only come on birthdays and anniversaries, or they only come in Friday and Saturday night. We wanted this to be a sleeves-up restaurant where folks come on Monday or Tuesday night, as well as Saturday. And there’s no dress code – It’s a smart casual. But the Medtronic folks come in their suits and ties. And folks who come in for happy hour, who are living in the neighborhood, they come in in shorts in the summertime.

Tim: That must have been really helpful for the restaurant because it IS ten years old. You opened in 2008 before the market crashed –

Phil: Right at the time it crashed –

Tim: Right at the time it crashed, and so you really had to deal with the fact that a good percentage of your customers were suddenly a little more strapped and were cutting back, right?

Phil: First of all, it’s not a $100 check average. It’s maybe a $50 check average, but it can also be an $80 check average depending on how you’re using it, or a $30 check average depending on how you’re using it. Either way, you get to go to Pittsburgh Blue. So maybe for those folks who are strapped and maybe they don’t buy that refrigerator or washing machine, and they put it off or whatever, it IS an oasis. It’s a night off. And there’s purposely no windows in the place because we want them to be in our environment. We want to control everything they see, touch, hear, taste. We don’t want them to look out in the parking lot and see women strolling babies around. That’s just not the message.

Tim: Talk about how you train your staff to sort of read their guests and give them an experience that will ensure that they’re comfortable, so that they don’t feel like, “Oh, I’ve walked into a restaurant that is beyond my means.”

Phil: No, and that is the kiss of death if people get that impression that this just ain’t my kind of place. So we train the staff to A) read the table. I mean, that’s really important. See what they’re in the mood for. Is this a leisurely lunch? Is this a group of ladies who are out to lunch to celebrate something? Or a book club or what is it? And we in no way allow anybody who orders the $5.95 to feel embarrassed. We don’t care if they order the $17.95 or the $5.95. We don’t care. We treat them the same. All guests are treated the same. And we monitor that. We monitor it closely. And thankfully the staff buys into it because they see these people repeating, coming back and back and back again. And that’s money in their pocket.

Tim: All restaurants have to provide value in order to succeed. Manny’s provides value of a different sort –

Phil: Correct

Tim: – It’s reputational. It’s the experience. It’s what it says about you. How do you telegraph to people that this is a place where even if you do spend a fair amount of money, you’re really getting value for the money?

Phil: It all starts with the assortment of the offerings on the menu. Pittsburgh Blue has several sandwiches on the menu. Manny’s has a hamburger – and it’s a $30 hamburger. Pittsburgh Blue’s hamburger is $14 or something like that. I don’t know what it is. So you start with the menu and you put safe harbors on the menu. Can you get a $20 shrimp cocktail? Yeah, you bet. But can you get two taco appetizers for eight bucks? Yeah, you can get that, too. So people can afford – they can have the Pittsburgh Blue experience but it does start with the menu. It also starts with – We don’t use starched white tablecloths at Pittsburgh Blue. We have wood tabletops with a Chilewich placemat on it so that also telegraphs a value statement. We will have a ketchup bottle on the table. That telegraphs, when somebody comes in and they look around deciding whether or not this is their kind of place, they can see the elegance and the snazziness of the place but they can also see the ketchup bottle.

Tim: So it doesn’t come in a fancy little ramekin?

Phil: No, no, no. It’s a Heinz ketchup bottle. It’s out of central casting.

Tim: This idea of safe harbors is pretty important, isn’t it?

Phil: If you’re going to have a broad appeal it is, yeah you bet it is. We have a wine list that is affordable on the bottom end. I was just recently in a restaurant in New York, and the price of entry to the wine list, the cheapest bottle they had was $96. Well, that’s bullshit. At Pittsburgh Blue, probably the most expensive wine we have is $96. But we have good, decent, table wines that are in the $30 range, wines that I would drink every night. We have cabernets and stuff that are in the $40, $50, $60 range. And if you want to splurge, if you’re impressing a client and you want to buy a $90 bottle of cab, you can sure do it. But it goes back to all of these safe harbors. There’s safe harbors on the wine list. There’s safe harbor in the beer program. There’s safe harbor in the menu. You can spend kind of whatever you want and still feel like you’ve walked out of Pittsburgh Blue and you’ve kind of done something that night.

Tim [voiceover]: Once again, Phil returned to the notion of casting a wide net.

Tim: There’s more than one location, right?

Phil: We opened another one five years ago.

Tim: how different is the second location?

Phil: The DNA is essentially the same. They’re not twins but they’re brothers and sisters. The second one is in a very… the Twin Cities’ most affluent suburb, Edina. What is counterintuitive about it is that the Maple Grove location, which is in a nice suburb but it’s certainly not the wealthiest, the check average in Maple Grove is higher than it is in Edina by about $2, which says that it may be more celebratory up in Maple Grove, and more eating as opposed to dining in Edina.

Tim: What’s interesting about that is that I remember you telling me as you scouted out the neighborhood in Maple Grove, you noticed that a lot of people – you know, this is a northern suburb – it’s closer to the lakes of Minnesota, you noticed that a lot of people had boats. You know, big boats. Not cheap. And maybe that’s where they’re spending their money, you know?

Phil: It’s almost out of a psychographic model. You know, you may have a household in Edina and a household in Maple Grove that each makes $100,000 a year, but they spend it differently. You don’t see boats in the driveways in Edina. You don’t see campers. You don’t see snowmobiles. But in Maple Grove, you do. Because Maple Grove is in some respects the country. It’s right on the edge of the city and the country, and they’re still growing corn out in your background.

Tim: Right, and at the same time, you have Pittsburgh Blue in Edina at a mall where it shares space with Louis Vuitton and –

Phil: Tiffany’s –

Tim: And so how is it that this restaurant succeeds equally well in both places?

Phil: That’s where the menu being as democratic as it is. I mean, we have barbeque ribs on the menu. And they’re delicious. They’re good. They’re really good!

Tim: You do a decent chicken?

Phil: We do, we do! And we do it a couple of different ways. One is just a very simple roast half chicken that’s buttery, buttery, buttery. And folks love it. But they still order steaks. We’ll sell 300 steaks a night and 11 chickens. A major part of the appeal is the way we have positioned the restaurant. And that doesn’t just fall to the menu and the décor and the way the exterior expresses itself. Remember when you were working on the logo and we wanted to have the working man’s vibe to it, and even the way we expressed the word Pittsburgh Blue in our logo reminds you of a steel I-beam. It’s got that kind of a quality to it. Now, does anybody say, “Oh, That’s a steel I-beam”? No, they don’t say that. Do they see the strength and the harder edges of it? Yeah, they do. It’s evocative. And you couple that with the guy with the haunch of beef on his shoulder in the packing house, that sends a pretty strong message anytime we express ourselves in social media or print or anything else. And it’s in the subtext. But you barnacle that up with the I-beam logo and the Pittsburgh Blue name and the décor and the tavern and the dining room with the leather booths and it all ends up in a package that’s evocative of “This is my kind of place.”

We look for a couple of things. One is we look for a neighborhood that’s relatively prosperous. That doesn’t mean that everybody makes a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year, but relatively prosperous that they do have disposable income and all that sort of thing. We also look for offices. Offices are good generative sources, not just for lunch – although they are very important for lunch – but also for client and customer entertaining at night. Hotels help, if there are hotels in the neighborhood and there are in both Edina and Maple Grove, so we look for that. And we look at the competition. And we look to places where we can differentiate ourselves from the chain store mentality because I think people – well, as you probably know, people are rejecting the chains all over the place. Everybody from Olive Garden to you know, their sales are down, year after year, so we look to be something relevant and owned in the community, or at least the perception is owned in the community.

Tim: Right, It sounds like, you’re telling me that, say, in Maple Grove for example, where chain restaurants dominate the landscape, the public is kind of hungry for something independent, something they can have a sense of ownership over.

Phil: Totally. Because Maple Grove, with its chain of ubiquitous and usual suspects, is no different from Schaumburg, Illinois, or Addison, Texas, or Atlanta, Georgia, or Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. I mean, you’ve got all the same people that are there. And I’m guilty of it, too, because you know we opened 96 Bucas as you recall, and Buca fell right into that trap. People yearn for something other than what they see when they drive across the country or go to another town. I mean, do you ever eat at Olive Garden when you’re out of town? You know, “When you’re here, you’re family?” Bullshit.

Tim [voiceover]: We spoke about ways to innovate and evolve within the constraints of a rigidly defined concept category.

What happens to a good concept that isn’t well-tended?

Phil: It goes broke. You have to keep renewing everything. And I don’t mean…If you’re evolving, if you’re growing, you don’t give the thing an enema and change the menu drastically. But you do let it evolve. You say, “Well, okay, this item…You know, we sold… of these appetizers we sold 42 of these on Saturday night, but we sold 3 of THESE on Saturday night. So what you do is you get right of the 3 and replace it with something else. So the menu is actually growing. The whole restaurant is evolving. I mean, we have evolved our look, our décor, our graphics, you know, and somewhere there’s a line there where you say, “Well, it’s tradition and don’t screw with it.” There’s other times you say, “Let’s tweak it.” One of the things we did was we felt, our steakhouse, Manny’s, was becoming your father’s steakhouse. We felt it wasn’t youthful enough. So not only did we change the décor, we changed the location and put it in the W Hotel and we put cowhides on the wall and now the crowd is probably ten years younger than it was before because, you know, grandpa and grandma and mom and dad were dying, so we needed to capture a younger audience. And Pittsburgh Blue, frankly, has a little bit of that younger audience vibe. The age, I would guess at Pittsburgh Blue, is probably the sweet spot would be 35 to 45.

Tim: Steakhouses seem to me to be a little bit of an unusual category. Because with them, history is really important. There’s a DNA to a steakhouse that you don’t want to tamper with.

Phil: Correct. Steakhouses are timeless. Maybe they’re not so much in California or Boston, but they certainly are the big red swath in the middle of the country. You know, it’s cattle country. I think all of us in the Midwest probably grew up eating red meat. And it wasn’t grass fed. It wasn’t, you know, all that snow flake stuff. It was real red meat. And we were conditioned to it. I mean, think about Chicago and the packing houses. Kansas City, Omaha and packing houses. Dallas and the feedlots and stuff. It’s just a midwestern, western kind of attraction.

Tim: So what are some of the things you’ve done at Pittsburgh Blue to cater to contemporary tastes without losing your soul?

Phil: One of the things that we’ve done that’s proven to be very successful is we’ve ramped up the aging of some of the steaks. You know, the steaks are all dry-aged, and they’re dry-aged for I think 28-30 days. Not all of them. You don’t dry age filets. But you dry age the chops and the other stuff. And we’ve added some steaks that are 60 days dry-aged. Now, they taste different. The folks who like them, really love them. They’re a little riper. They’re more expensive because they lose more moisture in the aging process. But that’s something that people have liked. And I think that…We test products – different kinds of things, and side dishes and salads that maybe people aren’t accustomed to eating and we test them and see if they work. If they don’t work, we pull them. If they do work, sometimes we ramp them up.

Tim: What’s interesting about the extra-aged steaks is that they’re both traditional and a novelty at the same time. So for people who do want something new, who do want a little bit of an adventure and want a truly differentiated product, they can come to Pittsburgh Blue and get a steak that they won’t be able to find elsewhere.

Phil: The steaks at Pittsburgh Blue, they don’t come from cows that were mooing yesterday. And it’s not grocery store beef. You can’t buy a Pittsburgh Blue steak in the grocery store. And the whole thing in the aging process…the thing of it is, Midwesterners know the difference. You know, you taste a piece of grocery store beef alongside something that’s even been aged in Cryovac, which is a less expensive way to do it but it also deepens the flavor and the richness of the steak, and far less expensive than the total dry aging process – and we will use Cryovac aged steaks on occasion, but you do a side-by-side and people know. I mean, they just know. There’s no depth of flavor. I mean, grass fed beef is just nonsense. It just has no flavor compared to a regular aged steak.

Tim [voiceover]: Sometimes, Phil almost seems to equate the restaurant business with show business.

Tim: You use theater as a metaphor pretty often, don’t you?

Phil: Yes. I really like theater. You know, it’s no different than, you know, going to someplace where they toss the Caesar salad tableside. It’s become kind of ubiquitous now, but you still…people enjoy it. At Pittsburgh Blue, we present the raw meat at the table on a giant cutting board. We come to the table, and “Here are our steaks tonight.” I mean, people like that. They talk about it. They ooh and they ah and they laugh at the size of one of the steaks. “God, I could never eat that!” you know. The server will say, “Well, why don’t you split it?” Or, the open kitchens. You’re not seeing the coffee grounds and the egg shells on the floor, but what you’re seeing is the guy at the range that just gives a shot of brandy to a sauté pan and flames go four feet high in the air. You’re seeing that, not directly, but you’re seeing that through a filter of other kitchen activity that goes on. So theater is…anything you can do to cause the customers to smirk and blink and hit one another in the elbow…

Tim: Is that part of the reason why you like to have your restaurants be more contained environments?

Phil: Well, I want to control everything that’s going on. Everything you touch. If you have a table linen, is it cotton or is it polyester. Is your napkin polyester? Well, probably not. That’s an Olive Garden thing. It’s what you hear. It’s the music that you hear. It’s the kind of chair you’re sitting in. Is it upholstered? Is it a fundamental workablock sort of chair? It’s everything you smell. It’s everything you see. It’s what your menu looks like, what it feels like. It’s the uniform that your servers wear. It’s the plating of the food. Is the food artful? Does the plate come with high and low and dark and light, and soft and crunch, and all the things – the yin and the yangs – that need to go together to make successful plating? Is it colorful? Does it pop? Is it bright? All of these things – I can’t really decide what’s more important than the other. They just all have to come together. That’s why the business is so hard, but it’s also why the business is so much fun.

Tim: How does that impact the guest? Does that draw them in?

Phil: I think they just feel…connected to the restaurant, that “This is my kind of place” – that this is fun, this is more fun than the place down the road where they scoop and plop food on the plate, it’s a place they just want to be. A place where they want to go to. I don’t think they segment out, “Oh, look at that logo. Oh, look at the way they did the white and dark on the plate.” I don’t think they consciously see that stuff, or, “Isn’t that a nice pairing because it’s soft and it’s crunchy at the same time.” I don’t they consciously register that. I think…you know, Bold flavors. The worst thing anybody can say to me is, “That was bland.” You know? It’s gotta have balls. It’s gotta have – you know, if you’re going to fire a gun, fire both barrels. So I don’t think people consciously segment that out. They evaluate the total experience. It’s the lighting, it’s the service, it’s the chair I’m sitting in. It’s the hardwood floor. It’s the style of service. The sequencing. It’s the dessert. It’s “how they make me feel here.” I don’t think they segment it out. It’s a total experience.

Tim: That was Phil Roberts of Parasole Restaurant Holdings. You know, we’ve worked with Phil for quite a while now, and it’s always interesting to sit down and talk with him because he’s so smart and intuitive about the industry. During the course of our conversation, Phil kept returning to five big ideas about restaurant branding – ideas that will not only help you weather any challenges you face, but thrive in the face of them. Thanks for watching the video. I’m Tim Alevizos from Supervox Agency.