With many consumers today opting for fast-casual restaurants and takeout meals, full-service operators are challenged to provide a unique dining experience. It’s not just the food and beverage programs that need to be exceptional: Restaurants must also deliver an inviting, comfortable ambiance and top-notch service.
That’s something that Firebirds Wood Fired Grill has been honing since the first location opened 17 years ago in Charlotte, NC. The polished casual dining chain, which specializes in classic American cuisine cooked on an authentic wood-fired grill, promises to “serve, enrich and exceed.”
Adult beverages are a large part of the strategy. Firebirds offers a seasonal cocktail program and a robust wine list, which includes private-label wines. The chain also recently launched a craft/local beer menu at all 42 locations.
Into the Firebar
Firebirds was founded in 2000 by Dennis Thompson, a cofounder of Lone Star Steakhouse and an original owner of Fox & Hound Bar and Grill. He developed the Firebirds concept with Doug Glendenning, former president of Lone Star, to fill a niche between higher-end and casual-dining steak concepts. Firebirds was acquired by private equity firm Angelo Gordon in 2011.
The restaurants, inspired by Colorado lodge style, feature indoor stone fireplaces, outdoor patios and exposed kitchens. The cuisine is American with southwestern flair and focused on aged, hand-cut steaks, as well as seafood, chicken and ribs.
The bar is no afterthought at Firebirds. Each location has a “Firebar” space decorated with stacked-stone entryways, wine bottle wall displays and exclusive artwork. The backbar has a tiered waterfall display of bottles that’s backlit to create a backdrop for the bartenders in action. “We’re focused on providing a first-class experience with our Firebar,” says Stephen Loftis, vice president of marketing for Firebirds.
It wasn’t always this way, admits Gerald Pulsinelli, vice president of wine and spirits. “In our first locations, the bars were more like holding areas—almost like corrals—for guests waiting for their tables,” he notes.
But after five or six years, “we started to expand them, with a larger space, areas to sit and improved ambiance,” Pulsinelli says. “We made Firebar a concept within a concept.”
The Firebar has become such a key part of the business that “we’ve gone back to some of our earlier restaurants and revamped them,” adding the waterfall bottle display and retrofitting the space, Loftis says.
The Firebar’s Bar Bites menu includes items such as Shrimp Tacos, Beef Sliders, Crispy Hand Spun Chicken Tenders and Jalapeño Deviled Eggs. Behind the bar, Firebirds offers a wide selection of spirits and uses the freshest ingredients—homemade sweet-and-sour, fresh basil and mint, mangos, strawberries and other fruits to mix up its craft cocktails, Pulsinelli says.
“Our Double Black Diamond Martini has been our signature cocktail since our inception,” he notes. The cocktail involves steeping fresh pineapple with Svedka Citron vodka for 21 days. The finished product is kept in a five-gallon, hexagonal jar at the end of the bar.
The Manhattan My Way cocktail, made with Woodford Reserve bourbon garnished with the brandy cherries, was popular on the recent Winter Seasonal Cocktails list, Pulsinelli says. So was the Raspberry Peach Sidecar, with Remy Martin VSOP Cognac and Grand Marnier Signature Collection Raspberry Peach topped with fresh-squeezed lemon juice. Most cocktails are priced at $11.
Firebirds introduced its spring/summer cocktail list in mid March. The drinks include a Blackberry Twin Tequila Margarita, made with Hornitos Black Barrel tequila, Milagro silver tequila and house-made blackberry sour; Jack’s Honey Peach Tea, with Jack Daniels Honey Tennessee whiskey, peach syrup, house sour mix and Sprite; and the Basil Cucumber Gimlet, with a choice of Hendrick’s gin or Effen cucumber vodka shaken with basil, fresh cucumber and squeezed lime.
Firebirds typically offers 70 wines by the bottle and 25 by the glass, Pulsinelli says. Prices by the glass prices range from $7 to $15, he notes, adding that Firebirds offers both a 5 oz. and 8 oz. wine pour. Its “Wine Down Mondays” promotion lets guests enjoy half-priced glasses of wine and select bottles every Monday.
Firebirds offers two private-label wines: a chardonnay (priced at $8 a glass, $36 a bottle) and a red blend ($9 a glass; $39 a bottle) provided by Pat Roney of Girard Winery in Napa Valley. These are the most popular wines, Pulsinelli says, along with red blends in general. Guest favorites also include the Markham Napa chardonnay and Franciscan Estate cabernet sauvignon.
The restaurant regularly reviews and updates its wine list and has multiple offerings across the country. Three to four times a year Firebirds will feature specific wines, such as Chateau Ste. Michelle’s 50th Anniversary wine.
The chain plans to offer Poema wines from Spain this summer as a way “to showcase different wine styles and wineries from around the world,” Pulsinelli says.
Stepping Up Craft Beer
Firebirds, which generates about 25% of its revenue from alcoholic beverages, early on focused more on wine and cocktails, Pulsinelli says. But the chain has been honing its focus on beer in the past two years to keep up with guest demand.
The new “Discover the Art of Craft” menu is part of that effort. Local general managers can now choose what craft beers make sense for their region’s tastes, and change out selections based on the season.
“We don’t mandate craft beer styles, but focus on seasonality,” says Pulsinelli. So in the winter beer menus were offering a lot of celebration ales, porters and stouts.
In many Firebirds locations, beer sales are 50% domestic big brands/imports, 50% craft, but in some markets it’s closer to 60% craft. Charlotte, NC, for instance, has nine different local craft breweries. Firebirds typically carries beers from at least three, including Olde Mecklenburg, Birdsong and NoDa. “We also carry some of the bigger craft players—New Belgium, Boston Beer, Magic Hat,” Pulsinelli adds.
Servers had extensive training so that they can talk guests about the beer selection with confidence. Staff education is important to the success of a craft beer program, Pulsinelli adds. Firebirds works with partners such as local brewers and distributors, who will come in and do a tasting and go over the particulars of a brew’s color and flavor profile with the staff.
There are more beers to keep track of these days. “We started with six tap handles for beer,” Pulsinelli notes. “Now the average is eight at new locations, and new prototypes will have 10 taps.”
Attention To Detail
Firebirds not only cooks on wood fire vs. gas, the chain is also particular about the type of wood, using a combination of hardwoods, primarily oak. Some locations add a local flavor with regionally sourced woods such as pecan, hickory and apple wood, which produce different levels and types of smoke.
Menu specialties include Wood Grilled Salmon basted with Key lime butter, served with parmesan mashed potatoes, fresh vegetables; Pecan Encrusted Trout topped with pineapple salsa and tortilla slaw; Cilantro-Grilled Chicken Breast with crisp ranch rings and smoked tomato jack cheese sauce, parmesan mashed potatoes; and Chile Rubbed Delmonico Steak.
In addition to its food and drink offerings, Firebirds heightens the guest experience with attention to detail such as chilled salad plates, extra-long sharing forks with dessert and refreshed frozen Martini glasses; wines are served at proper cellar temperatures. To ensure that employees provide a quality and consistent customer experience across all locations, Firebirds uses several different methods of training.
“We utilize e-learning to help get the basic information out,” Pulsinelli explains. Firebirds also provides each team member with a job aid that fits in their server book and includes a picture of the drink along with a description.
Bartenders are equipped with cheat sheets—quick reference tools that include color pictures of what the drink looks like, along with the recipe, Pulsinelli says. Regular bar meetings and enable team members to see and taste the drinks.
“We provide continued education through pre-shift topics, which are available weekly and include role-play topics, quiz questions, tips and tricks to successful drink making and tips on how to create extraordinary experiences through hospitality,” Pulsinelli says.
Inside The Inner Circle
Firebirds developed its Inner Circle loyalty program about 12 years ago; it now boasts some 500,000 followers. Rather than offering them discounts, the programs focuses more on sharing news and information with members via email, Loftis says.
For instance, Inner Circle members are the first to know about new menu items, seasonal offerings, restaurant openings and remodels and so on. The members do get the occasional deal, such as a welcome offer when they join and a promotion on their birthdays, as well as seasonal specials, Loftis notes.
But for the most part, they participate for the feeling of inclusion and connection to the Firebirds brand.
That connection with customers has helped propel Firebirds’ growth. The company is looking at 10%-plus year-over-year growth, Pulsinelli says.
Firebirds, which is opening its 43rd location in May, will continue to spread its wings, he adds. The chain is focused on “back filling our current footprint and other select markets that can accommodate multiple locations.”
Melissa Dowling is editor of Cheers Magazine.