7500 Rialto Boulevard
Johnny Carino's Italian is a casual, full service Italian concept with an innovative menu featuring "Grandioso" platters and "Wine Harvest" dinners catering to families and dining parties of all sizes.
Fired Up, Inc., is the Austin, Texas-based parent company of the Johnny Carino's Italian restaurant chain. Johnny Carino's offers full service and a menu inspired by Southern Italian country recipes, including Italian pot roast, spicy shrimp and chicken, Tuscan ribeye steak, grilled Sicilian meatloaf, and angel hair with artichokes. The chain also offers such favorites as lasagna and pizza, and appetizers include oven-baked pepperoni bread, hand-breaded calamari, and Italian nachos. Johnny Carino's offers alcoholic drinks like Italian margaritas and sangria, as well as Italian sodas and creams, and espresso, cappuccino, and latte. Desserts include tiramisu, Italian chocolate cake, and cannoli. The interior of a Johnny Carino's restaurant features wood and stone walls, mismatched chairs, Italian ceramics, and an open kitchen to emulate an Italian farmhouse. Fired Up owns about half of the more-than-150 Johnny Carino's restaurants located in some 30 states and the Middle East, and has plans with 21 franchise partners to open another 500 restaurants by 2020, at which point 70 percent of the units will be franchised.
Fired Up Founded: 1997
Fired Up was incorporated in 1997 by Creed L. Ford III and Normal Abdallah, both veterans of Dallas-based Brinker International, developer of casual-dining concepts, best known for the Chili's restaurant chain. In 1976, when he was 24, Ford went to work as an assistant manager at the first Chili's Grill and Bar, founded just a year earlier, and began working his way up through the ranks of the organization. Seven years later restaurant veteran Norman Brinkley gained an equity stake, took charge, and transformed Chili's from a small Dallas-area burger chain into a national full menu, casual restaurant chain. He also served as a mentor to Ford and others who became top food-service executives. Ford became chief operating officer at Brinker, overseeing all of the company's restaurant concepts, while Abdallah, who had joined Brinker in 1987, held a number of management positions before becoming Vice President of Franchise Operations and Development. Brinker launched a reorganization effort in 1996. In that same year, Abdallah left to become president and chief executive officer of Red Hot Concepts, a Chili's licensee of Chili's restaurants in Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. In early 1997, as it announced less than expected earnings that resulted in a major erosion of the company's stock price, Brinker eliminated 20 jobs in its corporate headquarters and Ford resigned. He planned to remain involved with Brinker as a consultant and to serve as a franchisee of Brinker's new airport concept, Chili's Too.
Instead of devoting his time to franchising the new Chili's format, Ford turned his attention to a pair of other Brinker concepts, the Kona Ranch Steakhouse, a Hawaiian cattle ranch concept Ford had developed several years earlier, and Johnny Carino's Italian Kitchen, which had superseded Spageddies, Brinker's child-oriented Italian restaurant concept. Ford recruited Abdallah, who quit his job in May, and in June they incorporated Fired Up, Inc., and acquired the Kona Restaurant Group Inc. from an investment group headed by Red Hot Concepts' chairman Colin Halpern. They received one Kona Ranch, located in Oklahoma City, and seven Carino's, located in El Paso, Houston, Lewisville, and Lubbock, Texas; Fort Collins, Colorado; Scottsdale, Arizona; and Little Rock, Arkansas.
Ford and Abdallah leveraged their real estate to raise $6 million in seed money by selling one Carino's property and engineering a sale/leaseback arrangement on three others. They also wasted little time in revamping Carino's, which had done little to distinguish itself from Spageddie's, other than remove the bocce ball courts. The lasagna was frozen, the meatballs prefabricated, and the tiramisu ready made. All this was scrapped in favor of having everything made fresh, from scratch, everyday. To convey the freshness of ingredients and the nature of the menu, Ford and Abdallah decided to insert the word "country," in the restaurant name, making it Johnny Carino's Country Italian. In keeping with this idea, the décor was changed to include the country farmhouse look and the open kitchen where customers could see how the food was prepared. It was an interior Ford and Abdallah were familiar with. While at Brinker in the early 1990s they had visited Tuscany, Italy, and became interested in transferring the look to the United States.
Within the first year, Fired Up added two Kona Ranch Steakhouses, in Texas and Arkansas, and grew Carino's to 11 units. Revenues for the fiscal year sales totaled $23 million. In early 1998 Chili's founder, Larry Lavine, agreed to a joint venture to franchise Carino's, and Fired Up reached an international development agreement with Abdulghani Khalid Al-Ghunaim of Kuwait, a Chili's franchisee, to develop Carino's locations in ten countries of the Middle East. The company also planned to open a 5,000-square-foot restaurant on the ground floor of Austin's historic Brown Building, which LBJ Holding Co. was converting into loft-style apartments. LBJ was an investment firm with interests in real estate, radio stations, and other companies but was new to the restaurant business. Management was impressed by Ford and Abdallah, and decided to invest more than $1 million in Fired Up.
Second Concept Added: 1999
From the start, Ford and Abdallah planned to build out the Carino's to a certain territory and rely on franchising to spread it further. By the spring of 1999, Fired Up signed up a franchisee group to develop New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, and another to serve the Western part of the country. The company soon added a third restaurant concept: Gumbo's, a Louisiana Style Café, acquired from St. Gumbeaux Inc., the owner of the single location in Round Rock, Texas. The acquisition resulted from a chance meeting of Ford with one of Gumbo's founders, Michael Amr. Ford was dining at Gumbo's with his wife, a restaurateur in her own right, when their waiter made the mistake of neglecting to serve the appetizer before the entrée. Michael Amr paid a visit to the table to apologize, and struck up a conversation with Ford, who had become a regular customer and had heard the owners were interested in developing the Gumbo's concept. Ford was impressed with Amr and decided Gumbo's would be a good complement to the Kona and Casino's concepts. A second Gumbo's was opened in the Brown Building space, and Fired Up also opened the Brown Bar to handle overflow crowds at the restaurant.
By the end of fiscal 2001 in June of that year, Fired Up had built the Carino's chain to 33 units--26 were company owned, and seven were franchised operations. New units were to be found in California, Georgia, Montana, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, as well as in Egypt and Bahrain. By the start of the next calendar year new units would also open in Idaho and Oklahoma. In April 2001 Fired Up reached an agreement with Food & Life Trading LLC, a division of the Al Abbas Group, to develop a Carino's presence in the United Arab Emirates with the help of Al-Ghunaim. In addition to the Carino's chain, Fired Up owned two Kona Ranch Steakhouse restaurants, the pair of Gumbo's cafes in metropolitan Austin, and the Brown Bar. The company also devoted some time in moving to new corporate offices in 2001, finally graduating from the converted house that had served as the initial headquarters and had been periodically expanded with trailers.
In 2002, in order to fuel further growth, Fired Up secured a private equity partner in Rosewood Capital, a San Francisco-based investment firm that specialized in consumer growth companies. Other restaurant investments included Jamba Juice, Noah's Bagels, and Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill. Fired Up received $15 million from Rosewood and another $1 million from U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray Venture Capital. At the time of the investment, the Carino's chain numbered 42 units, of which 28 were company owned. Franchised operations would take on increasing importance, as reflected by a bevy of franchise development deals Fired Up completed in 2002 and 2003.
In March 2002, Fired Up reached an agreement for franchise operation in Kentucky and southern Ohio with Thomas & King, Inc., owner and operator of 80 Applebee's restaurants. Two month later Zenzations, Inc., another major Applebee's operator, signed up to develop Carino's in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Also in May 2002, Fired Up signed an agreement with TLC South, LLC, which owned 42 Applebee's restaurants, to open Carino's in Northern Florida. Next, in July 2002, JC American, LLC became a franchise partner, contracting to open Carino's units in Indiana and Northern Ohio. Although a small operation that owned and operated three Panera Break Bakery Cafes and three specialty restaurants, JC American was headed by Donald Strang and a team of executives that had formerly run Apple American Group, which operated 64 Applebee's restaurants. Also in July Carino's opened its 50th unit, in Spring Hill, Florida, and Fired Up struck a deal with Tomatto Grotto, LLC to develop the Carino's concept in Michigan. Tomatto's managing partner, Rob Bruce, was a former Chili's executive, who had been working with Ford and Abdallah since the founding of Fired Up. He had been a vice-president at Captec Financial Group, which bought three of the old Spageddie's sites in the sale/leaseback arrangement that provide Fired Up with its seed money. Fired Up closed 2002 by reaching an agreement with Neighborhood Pasta Company to open Carino's restaurants in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Carino's Opens 100th Unit: 2004
In the early months of 2003, Fired Up added Prairie Pasta, Inc., as a Carino's franchise partner to develop restaurants in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Northern Nebraska. The principals of Prairie Pasta owned six Applebee's units, four Papa John Pizza operations, and one Rio Bravo Fresh Mex restaurant. Late in the year, Fired Up signed an agreement with Allegro Restaurants to develop 15 Carino's restaurants in Tennessee. One of Allegro partners, Tom Root, was already quite familiar with the Carino's operation, having served as chief operating officer at Thomas & King. By this point the Carino's chain totaled 98 units. The 100th restaurant would open in January 2004 in Howell, New Jersey. Revenues totaled $126 million and system-wide sales exceeded $235 million. It was clear that Carino's was the primary engine for growth at Fired Up, and so in 2003 Kona Ranch Steakhouse, the Gumbo's restaurants, and the Brown Bar were spun off to allow the management team to focus solely on Carino's. Growth was so strong that the company was soon moving to larger offices, trading in 11,000 square feet for 26,000 square feet in southwest Austin.
The executive ranks were bolstered in March 2004 by the hiring of Jerry Deitchle as president. He was the former president of The Cheesecake Factory Incorporated, a public company which during his tenure increased its market capitalization ten-fold, from $250 million to $2.5 billion. His arrival was part of a plan to take Fired Up public. Abdallah told Nation's Restaurant News, "The public market is looking pretty good right now; Jerry is the last piece to bring in." An IPO was an obvious exit strategy for Ford and Abdallah, aside from the option of selling the company. No timetable was set for an initial public offering of stock, and in fact it was not to be forthcoming. Several months later, in January 2005, Deitchle resigned as president, although he stayed on as a director of the company and retained his equity stake in Fired Up. He maintained that he was leaving because he wanted to relocate to California, where he had lived while employed at Calabasas Hills, California-based The Cheesecake Factory.
The Carino's chain continued to grow and new franchise partners were brought on board. In one such deal, a plan was made to develop 18 restaurants in Washington and Oregon with Northwest Johnny Carino's, LLC, headed by Gary Hubert, a 26-year veteran of the restaurant business who had once been the president of the Red Robin restaurant chain. Carino's reached the 150 unit level in 2006 with plans to possibly open another 500 units. As of mid-decade, the company had not yet made a move to go public.
Brinker International, Inc.; Darden Restaurants, Inc.; OSI Restaurant Partners, Inc.