With Scott Barnett, Founding President and CEO of Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Restaurants, Inc., Author of Gumption: Taking Bubba Gump from Movie to Restaurant
Translating a hit movie into a successful restaurant chain isn’t easy. But that’s exactly what Scott Barnett did. He is the founding CEO of the highly successful chain of Bubba Gump Shrimp Company restaurants. Scott conceptualized Bubba Gump and grew it into an international chain with over 40 restaurants and $250 million in sales.
The idea for the restaurant came from the Oscar-winning movie, Forrest Gump. Scott recounts the challenges of building a Forrest Gump themed restaurant in his highly entertaining book, Gumption: Taking Bubba Gump from Movie to Restaurant.
Gumption is so much more than a tale of a restaurant spawned from a movie. Scott Barnett’s book shows the reader how he used unconventional methods and creative ideas to negotiate his way through the established rules of Hollywood, corporate boardrooms, politicians, and international wheeler-dealers to bring his vision to fruition.
An Uphill Task
Before taking on Bubba Gump, Scott had rescued the sinking Rusty Pelican restaurant chain. So he wasn’t new to the restaurant business.
Creating a Bubba Gump themed restaurant seemed like an uphill task. Yet, Scott relished the challenge of incorporating elements of an iconic movie into a restaurant. His success would depend on approval from the millions of Americans who had seen and loved the movie. If they enjoyed the dining experience and thought it relatable to the movie, he would have a winner.
Despite Paramount’s backing, money was tight. So Scott and team had to bootstrap the business in order to put together something that was unique and special.
Dealing With Hollywood Egos
But it wasn’t all that simple. The idea for the movie came from the executives at Paramount, the production company that made Forrest Gump. Along the path from idea to grand opening, Scott and his partner, Gordon Miles, had to deal with Hollywood egos, boardroom high-jinks, international swindlers, and political corruption. At the same time, they had to stay focused on their vision and their budget. Nowhere close to life being like the proverbial box of chocolates.
Scott does give a lot of credit to the folks at Paramount, who made the unthinkable happen. They took risks and often put their own careers on the line. They weren’t scared to go against the industry’s big mantra, which is, “Don’t get fired and don’t do anything that will get you fired.” Although they were tough negotiators, the deal they crafted was a win-win for everybody.
Much of the planning and structuring of the Bubba Gump restaurant took an unorthodox route. They first came up with the names of dishes for the menu and then developed recipes to match. Everything was outcome-based and everyone had a say in what was going on.
For example, Mama Blue’s Shrimp Gumbo item got its name first. Then the line cooks at Bubba Gump’s New Orleans location put together a list of ingredients and developed a recipe that did justice to Mama Blue.
This was most unlike the traditional approach of first cooking up fantastic dishes and then finding appealing names for them.
The First Bubba Gump Opens In 1996
The first Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant opened in Monterey, California in 1996. But it was only after the second restaurant was a success that the team felt the concept had worked and was ready for expansion. Scott and his team then hit the road. Today, there are Bubba Gumps in over 40 locations across the world.
Keys To Owning A Successful Restaurant
The idea of owning a restaurant holds an element of glamor. The risks, however, are many, and the execution demands a lot of hard work.
Many aspiring cooks want to open their own restaurants. And, yes, a restaurant’s food and ambiance bring people back and keep it going. But a successful restaurant needs a lot more.
Running a restaurant is really a marketing business. That, Scott says, can be broken down into the four Ps: positioning, product, promoting, and pricing. In addition to the menu and name brand, Scott attributes a lot of Bubba Gump’s success to using a sound marketing framework.
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Steve Pomeranz: You know, I’ve read many books about business, and many a book on business, but rarely do I read a book about being in business. My next guest is Scott Barnett. Scott was the President and CEO of the Rusty Pelican restaurants, and the founding CEO of the highly successful Bubba Gump Shrimp Company restaurant chain based on the movie Forrest Gump. Scott grew Bubba Gump into an international chain with over 40 restaurants and $250 million in sales. Now, you might think it was easy to take a hit movie with instant name recognition and turn it into a hit restaurant, but you’d be very wrong. Let’s talk to Scott, and find out about his new book Gumption: Taking Bubba Gump from Movie to Restaurant.
Hey, Scott. Welcome to the show.
Scott Barnett: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.
Steve Pomeranz: It’s a great book, too. I just want to tell my listeners it’s a good read and it’s very personal, and I personally learned a lot about running a restaurant business which I didn’t know, and also kind of dealing with all the characters from Hollywood to Wall Street. It was quite interesting. In hindsight, it seems like such a natural idea to create that Bubba Gump Shrimp chain, but how did it actually start taking shape?
Scott Barnett: You know, we were approached by Paramount Pictures about the idea of doing a restaurant around the movie Forrest Gump. Like we told everybody in those days when they approached us with an idea, “Oh, we think that’s a great idea.” Of course, then, as we started to look into it, we started to see some of the value. Personally, I was a little ambivalent about it at first, but as I came to look at the movie and realize the import of it, I started to believe that there was something there that made sense.
I got together with my team, who were a very dedicated group of people, put together a presentation along with my partner Gordon Miles, and we ended up giving a vision to the Paramount people that was kind of congruent with theirs, and the rest is history.
Steve Pomeranz: Dealing with Paramount, according to the book, was kind of a strange experience. Some of the characters being from Hollywood, being some of the top people in production in Hollywood and licensing. Tell us a little bit about some of those interactions.
Scott Barnett: I would liken dealing with the Hollywood movie studio as sort of like dealing with armed preschoolers. A little bit difficult, and never predictable. I have to say, though, that Paramount, the people of Paramount, really did the unthinkable. They took risks and they were able to put their own careers on the line, really, because the licensing people, and also many others within that industry, the big mantra is, “Don’t get fired and don’t do anything that will get you fired.” In this case, they really took a risk with us, and although they certainly deal hard, they negotiate hard, they like to be on the winning side of those negotiations, I think, in this case, it was a win-win for everybody.
Steve Pomeranz: Had they ever done a restaurant before?
Scott Barnett: Yup. They had licensed Cheers bars, which you’ve seen around the country in airports and so on. That was something that was very successful for them, but this was the first real all-around restaurant that they had done that was based on a single movie.
Steve Pomeranz: Once you got the license, you did some unorthodox things to create the concept of the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. What were some of those practices that were new?
Scott Barnett: I guess you could say, for one, we did an outcome-based approach to our menu. Most people, when they’re creating a menu in the restaurant business, they try to put together something where they’re cooking the food, and they go, “Oh, I like that dish,” and then they attach a name to it, a description, and they put it on the menu. In our case, when we had presented our first look at everything to Paramount, we had actually created a menu, with menu items, and names, and descriptions, but we had no food behind it to back it up because we hadn’t created it yet.
We then went out and started to create the food around the descriptions that we had done. I think that that was sort of indicative of how we did everything there. Everything was sort of outcome-based. We were very collaborative. My management team, and really everybody right down to the food servers and the cooks, had a say in what was going on. Our gumbo recipe was created by a couple of line cooks at the New Orleans Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.
Steve Pomeranz: You know, it sounds like in those early days, it was probably a lot of fun.
Scott Barnett: It was great fun, and we had a lot of interesting and fun times sort of bootstrapping the business, because we really had no money at all, and everything was on a zero budget, and we were able to put together something kind of unique and special.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, sometimes that’s the best way to go, though. It’s a lot more challenging. I mean, you had just really come on to take over the Rusty Pelican restaurants, which was actually in bankruptcy, right?
Scott Barnett: That’s right.
Steve Pomeranz: I guess the money people behind it were a little gun shy, I would gather, huh?
Scott Barnett: Very much so. We weren’t sure that they were even going to participate in terms of helping us with the investment, what have you. Once we got the first one open, and it was successful, I never heard a word about overspending on my budget. I spent about double what I was supposed to spend on that remodel for the first Bubba Gump, and nobody complained.
Steve Pomeranz: I’m speaking with Scott Barnett. He’s the author of Gumption: Taking Bubba Gump from Movie to Restaurant. He’s the CEO of the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, based on that movie Forrest Gump. To find out more about Scott and to hear this interview again, make sure that you join our conversation at OntheMoneyRadio.org.
You aren’t the first in this space. I think it’s called “eatertainment” restaurants. There was the Planet Hollywood, there’s the Hard Rock Café. How was Bubba Gump different, then?
Scott Barnett: I think for a couple of reasons we were very different. First of all, there was an unforced translation from the movie to a restaurant. It made sense that a restaurant would exist. I can’t tell you how many times I’d have people come up to me and say, “You know, I knew you had the shrimp company, but I didn’t know you had the restaurants, too.” It’s sort of, clearly, life imitating art. That was a very powerful part of our success, I think. Another thing would be that we had come from more of an upscale, seafood dinner house background, so our quality filters on the food were pretty high. When we started doing casual dining food, we were bringing some different kind of approaches to it that you might not find in some of our other ones. Finally, I think you have to remember that the restaurant business is about hot food hot, cold food cold, service with a smile, and pleasant, clean, and fun, and interesting surroundings. We knew that we were a restaurant. A lot of some of the notorious competitors you’ve mentioned kind of thought they were in the trademark business. We were in the restaurant business.
Steve Pomeranz: Yes, and you came up from the restaurant business rather than getting an idea and then going out and hiring someone, or a company that is an operator of restaurants, right? That’s the difference?
Scott Barnett: I can honestly tell you, I have done every job that there is to do in restaurants three or four times over. I’ve been around the block, done that stuff.
Steve Pomeranz: Where did you start out? Where was your first restaurant?
Scott Barnett: The first restaurant was in Monterey, right next to Monterey Aquarium, in Monterey, California. We went on to do restaurants in San Francisco, Maui, Chicago, and then all across the world, actually. We were in Tokyo, Bali, Hong Kong, Mexico, and Malaysia, London. I mean, there are a lot of Bubba Gumps now.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, but if you think about it, you started with that first concept, and I think you were surprised at how successful it really was, but then the second restaurant was really the most important in the sense of proof of concept. Take us there, a little bit.
Scott Barnett: In the restaurant business, it’s like anything else. You have to show that not only did you do it once, but it’s replicable, or duplicatable, if you will. In our second restaurant, which was at San Francisco, on Fisherman’s Wharf, we really needed to show that it would work, and that the concept had legs and was not just what we used to call a one-trick pony. Once we had that second restaurant open, and it was even more successful than the first, then we could really hit the road running, and we did. I have to say, we took a lot of risks on that. We already had our third restaurant going before we even got the second one open.
Steve Pomeranz: The restaurant that you took over in San Francisco on The Pier, when you read that story, it wasn’t just a layup by any means. It was a restaurant by the name of Antonello’s that really wasn’t doing very well at all, and there were some very obvious reasons. What interested me in the story, too, was that you would take existing sites, and many times of failing restaurants, and then you saw something in those locations that you felt you could do with them that those existing restaurants couldn’t. What did you see that gave you the confidence to take those kinds of risks?
Scott Barnett: You know, it really was a couple of things. First of all, my partner, Gordon Miles, and I both had to approve a site or we didn’t do it, which made for some pretty cantankerous discussions but kept us disciplined in terms of what we would do. As far as what we would see in these sites, I mean, people used to say to me, “I know how you picked the sites for Bubba Gump. You just decide where you want to go on vacation, and then you decide to put a restaurant there.” I wish it was that simple. The reality is, is that you look for sites that fit our criteria, which was high foot traffic, event-oriented. We liked being on the water if we could, and then look for those sites and try to do your best to get them. We were very quick. We could move quickly and a lot of our competition couldn’t. When we decided we liked something on a Friday, we might sign that deal on Monday. That’s how quick we would be.
It was always about, if there were any issues with the site, then fix them, and try to turn lemons into lemonade.
Steve Pomeranz: I hear you. The book is Gumption: Taking Bubba Gump from Movie to Restaurant. The author and CEO and one of the founders of Bubba Gump is with me today. His name is Scott Barnett. It’s a great book.
As you expanded throughout the country, you found yourself up against a number of unsavory businessmen and politicians. You mentioned the Navy Pier in Chicago as a good example. Tell us about that.
Scott Barnett: Well, we had some problems in Chicago, in that we had gotten a liquor license, but in Chicago, there’s a rule, or there used to be a rule, that you had to wait several months before you could use it. We were trying to get a liquor license released so that we could serve beer, wine, and alcohol in the restaurant. We were using every possible avenue of appeal to the city to get there, including calling on the mayor’s office, and calling on the different commissions and all the rest of it. We ended up making a deal. We had a very good lawyer from Dallas by the name of Gordon Russell, who was able to get us a deal where we were able to essentially borrow a liquor license for a period of time in order to serve liquor, but a city councilman came up to me during the opening and sort of grabbed me and dragged me into the men’s room, and said, “This is the way it is in Chicago.” Sort of a difficult but good lesson to learn.
Steve Pomeranz: You also mentioned in the book a lot of resistance and difficulty dealing with the laws. A lot of these jurisdictions, I think, especially in California, where the original design of the law is beneficial, maybe it’s handicapped parking or something to help people who need expanded access, but these laws had morphed into something completely different. Can you give us a few examples of how crazy some of these turned out to be?
Scott Barnett: Oh, yeah. I mean, in San Francisco, we were sued because under the Americans with Disabilities Act by a group of people, and it turned out, when we investigated it, that that group had over 100 lawsuits with the same lawyer all around the city. We ended up having to settle it, and it was over things like, there was not enough room in between the aisles in the merchandise store to turn the wheelchairs around, which I totally understand, and I totally get the reasons for the Americans with Disabilities Act, because it’s a very important piece of legislation. It really was necessary. What happened is, it was quickly abused and being abused by a number of trial lawyers who would get together a group of clients, and then go out and just sue everybody they could find. Of course, every time you settled, the lawyer got 35%. That’s the kind of thing that we dealt with, and then, of course, I settled that lawsuit, and a year later, the same guy turned around and sued me again. The same lawyer.
Steve Pomeranz: You write that running a restaurant is essentially really a marketing business. You mention the four Ps of marketing: product, place, price, and promotion. What can you tell our listeners or those who are trying to start a business about those four Ps, and how they helped you retain your focus and become successful?
Scott Barnett: I would say this, that the restaurant business is essentially a marketing business for sure. No doubt about it. It’s about the positioning of it, and how you do it, and what the product is, and so on. You have to have an affinity for food or someone in the organization at a very high level has to have an affinity for food, in order for the restaurant to be successful. The product is critical. The product, though, is not just food. The product is the service, the ambiance, the style, the expectation, and so on. The promotional aspects of it, the pricing aspects of it, and, of course, the distribution side, the place side of it, location, are all critical aspects. I use them as kind of four cornerstones of how I approach the business, pretty much on a weekly or monthly strategic basis. It was really my kind of framework for decision making along the way.
I learned a lot about that, particularly on the positioning side and on the market research side, where we really came to understand the importance of listening to the customer and doing what they tell you to do. They’re the ultimate arbiter.
Steve Pomeranz: If you’re listening to this, and this interests you as far as the four Ps, just Google it. There’s a lot of information about that, and that I think will help you.
Your restaurants became very successful and very profitable, but, really, it seemed to me, from the book, that the end goal was to essentially sell them. Why did you sell, and what was it like dealing … It was not an easy achievement for you to finally sell this business. We really only have about two minutes left, but, as quickly as possible, take us through some of the challenges you met there.
Scott Barnett: You know, in the end, I think you have to have a large group of people interested in a purchase in order to get the most effective sale. If you’re going to decide to sell your business, that’s really number one. Dealing with only one group is a big mistake. You need to get a full spread. The second thing I would say is that there needs to be a congruence of goals between the management and the ownership, and there has to be a shared an aligned vision and goals that are aligned. The final thing, I guess, that I would say in that is that you should understand also, I was bitter with the company at the end, as well. I was actually aligned with a group that was trying to buy the company because I really felt like it could be gotten. Once Landry’s Restaurants stepped in, and their strategic buyer, then it was all over because a strategic can always pay more than financial buyers.
Steve Pomeranz: There were a number of deals on the table, and you felt that they were very much undervalued. Is your advice, “Do not take that first deal”? I think the way I would look at it is, know the value of your business. Know what your business is worth.
Scott Barnett: Absolutely. Listen to the best people. The smartest people. If you’re only going to have one buyer and one seller, you don’t know the market. You only know the market between the two. You’ve got to get a full idea of the market.
Steve Pomeranz: That’s good advice. The book is Gumption: Taking Bubba Gump from Movie to Restaurant. The author and CEO of this company is Scott Barnett. It’s a great book. I would definitely recommend to you all to buy it and read it.
Scott, thank you so much for your time.
Scott Barnett: Thank you so much for having me.