July 2010

THE SERG GROUP

Author: Frank Dunne, Jr. | Photographer: Photography by Anne

When Editor calls Writer and says, “Hey, Writer. I need you to do a Business Partner Profile about the SERG Group,” Writer’s mouth immediately begins to water. You see, a restaurant story usually means Writer gets to eat out on editor’s tab. Southeast Entertainment Restaurant Group (SERG) owns and operates eight spectacular wining and dining establishments on Hilton Head Island and in Bluffton. See where this is going?

In this case, as visions of meatballs, serious cocktails, prime-grilled yellowfin tuna and other delectables danced through Writer’s head, Editor slapped down the big HOW-EV-AH! This is not to be a story about the food.

This is a success story and a people story. Better yet, this is a tribute to the people—all of the people—from the unsung heroes who rarely emerge from the kitchen to the servers and managers at the front of the house, who make the SERG Group restaurants’ enduring success possible.

This is also a story about a business philosophy that sees an individual’s goals, aspirations, and creativity as a strength, congruous with the business’s goals and objectives.

In short, this is why you keep going back to Frankie Bones, Giuseppi’s, and places like that.

Let’s start with a little history.

SERG traces its heritage back to the day Giuseppi’s Pizza and Pasta opened for business on Hilton Head Island in the early 1980s. Giuseppi’s is still there today in the Plaza at Shelter Cove…and at Kittie’s Crossing in Bluffton, in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, and in Macon, Georgia.

SERG added The Lodge, The Black Marlin, WiseGuys, One Hot Mama’s, Frankie Bones, and Skull Creek Boathouse—all on the island—at various points along the way. Unless you’ve been living under a dead horseshoe crab in the sand somewhere, you’ve most certainly dined or imbibed (or both) at one or more of these establishments. All of them enjoy a loyal local following and “tourist magnetism.” You’d have a tough time arguing that any one of them isn’t among the area’s most popular eateries and watering holes.

That’s a pretty impressive track record for the food and beverage business. It’s volatile. It’s competitive. It’s risky. Especially in a town like this one. If you’ve lived here for ten years—even five—how many restaurants and bars have you seen come and go like the wind? Yet, Frankie Bones, One Hot Mama’s, Giuseppi’s et al surge on; and don’t be surprised to see new concepts opening down the road.

Exploring the secret to the company’s success could take the form of a discussion about business plans, marketing strategies, management techniques, that sort of thing. But SERG Group president, Steve Carb, would have none of that. “We’ve been branding the SERG Group and talking about me the president and the executives,” said Carb, “but I could never do what I do without these people.”

“These people” to whom Carb refers are, of course, the people who create the dining experiences at every SERG Group establishment. Immediately you think: executive chef, server, bartender, and you would be correct, but only in part. The SERG philosophy is that every member of the staff has a voice and plays a role in shaping a restaurant’s character. “The sum of the parts make the whole greater,” he said.

In other words, the SERG Group strives to engender an environment in which it matters not if you are a busboy, bartender, general manager, or dishwasher. If you apply yourself, you have a home in the SERG “family” and an opportunity to advance. “If you have goals and objectives, you can make them happen here,” said Carb. “Passion, commitment and hard work will pay off.”

A skeptic might argue that all corporate presidents and CEO’s say stuff like that. It’s just fluffy brochure copy. Maybe so, but the SERG roster is full of examples to back up the words. Jeff Gardner, once a cook at Giuseppi’s (Bluffton) is now a manager. Former bartender, Chris Spargur, is now a managing partner at Skull Creek Boathouse. “Take Josh (Werner) over there,” said Orchid Paulmeier, a partner at One Hot Mama’s. “He started as a food runner, and now he’s a manager.”

In Paulmeier’s case, she didn’t just earn her partnership; she created it. In 2003, One Hot Mama’s existed only as a concept between her ears. “One thing Steve (Carb) didn’t have in his portfolio at the time was ribs,” she said. “So when I presented my idea for One Hot Mama’s, he was willing to take a chance; and here we are today.”

Kim Keppel, managing partner at The Black Marlin in Palmetto Bay Marina, certainly agrees that the career path benefits both the worker and the business. Having worked elsewhere in the restaurant business before joining SERG, Keppel says that the opportunity to advance within the organization, while clearly an advantage to the employee, is critical in helping the business maintain a level of quality and consistency over time.

“I started as a manager at (former SERG Group member) Marley’s, and now I’m a partner at both The Black Marlin and Skull Creek Boathouse,” said Keppel. “You can get a job as a manager somewhere and that’s fine, but the career path with SERG is much more. There is more of an ownership feeling, and it brings you to what I call the next level of caring. It’s a nice reward from the group, but more importantly the product is better when everybody involved has a vested interest in the restaurant’s success.”

To put that in perspective, think about your favorite restaurants over the years. Were they the ones that met your expectations year after year or the ones with the “UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT” banner over the door every six months?

Here’s a name from the SERG roster that you’ve probably heard: Russell Keane. Keane had been chef at WiseGuys and is now its general manager. His move from the kitchen to the front of the house is a good illustration of how SERG is able to balance maintaining consistency with allowing individual members of the team to expand their horizons. “I’m always looking for an exit strategy,” said Keane, “and moving to the front of the house lets me bring some culinary character to the bar with things like drink infusions.”

So there will be changes, new things to explore at WiseGuys, but will we miss anything that we’ve come to expect? Keane says no. “The WiseGuys menu will remain true to WiseGuys. The new chef (Keith Jodway) added a few things of his own, but everybody who has a favorite item will still find it on the menu.”

It take a wise man indeed to realize that his company’s greatest assets are the ones that walk in the door everyday. At the end of the day its those employees that keep the customers coming back to the SERG group family or restaurants.

The SERG Group: serggroup.com

The Black Marlin Bayside Grill:
86 Helmsman Way, Suite 103 Hilton Head Island, SC 29928, (843) 785-4950.

Frankie Bones Restaurant & Lounge:
1301 Main Street, Hilton Head, SC 29926, (843) 682-4455.

Giuseppi’s (Hilton Head):
The Plaza at Shelter Cove, Hilton Head Island, SC 29928, (843) 785-4144.

Giuseppi’s (Bluffton):
Kittie’s Crossing, Bluffton, SC 29910, (843) 815-9200.

One Hot Mama’s:
7 Greenwood Drive, Hilton Head Plaza, Hilton Head Island, SC 29928, (843) 682-6262.

Skull Creek Boathouse:
397 Squire Pope Road, Hilton Head Island, SC 29926, (843) 681-3663.

WiseGuys:
1513 Main Street, Hilton Head Island, SC 29926, (843) 842-8866.

The Lodge:
7B Greenwood Drive, #4, Hilton Head Island, SC 29928, (843) 842-8966.

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